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Forget First Impressions

Underneath the dirt and grime a seemingly less-than-wealthy store browser can potentially be a repeat customer with a shared passion – anything with a motor.

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There are some things that you carry into your adult professional life that have been with you forever. For me, it’s the tendency to talk with people no matter how they look or how they act. In the sales world, this is considered an asset — one that many sales managers have to preach daily to their sales people. Never prejudge a customer. For me, however, this is just part of who I’ve always been. In high school, (the premier place for pecking-order establishment), I could be found hanging out with the rednecks one day, turning up my collar with the preppies the next, partying with the headbangers on Friday night or studying with the geeks on Monday morning. (Okay, perhaps I didn’t spend as much time studying with the geeks as I should have. Hindsight, you know).

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When I first began selling in the motorcycle industry, I worked for a strong and well-run dealership under an aggressive sales manager. He brought me on board and made it clear that his top sales guys had to be good. He would give me a shot, but I would have to find a way to make my living off of their scraps. With that, he threw me to the wolves. The first couple of weeks it seemed that most everyone with any potential was asking for one of the other guys. I spent a great deal of time walking around the showroom looking to talk to anyone with a heartbeat. Looking for the restroom? How about a new quad? Need directions? How about a cruiser to get there on? Hell, I think I even tried to sell the cleaning lady a Wave Runner at one point.

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I still remember the first sale I made. The guy was wearing dirty, torn-up clothes, his hair was unwashed, and he carried with him a rather unforgettable scent that screamed, “I hate bath time!” like a three-month-old kitten. As I approached, he smiled, giving me a nice view of the few rotting teeth left in his head. I assumed the others had made a run for it long ago.

His name was Dave and he was extremely interested in a Polaris Trail Boss 250 sitting outside on the used lot. This was one of a dozen that had been traded in from a nearby hog farm at the right price and carried with it a huge margin and an equally huge commission. Oddly, that thought never crossed my mind. I just stuck out my hand and talked with Dave, ignoring his less-than-wealthy appearance, and jabbered about our shared passion — anything with a motor. From the corner of my eye, I saw one of the other salesmen snicker and elbow his buddy. “Look at that,” I’m sure he had said, “Newbie’s got himself a chain-yanker.”

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Dave and I had a great conversation about the farm he had recently moved to and how much work he was doing to get the place up to par. You see, Dave, as it turns out, had just recently lost his father to a massive coronary. The man had been a quite successful businessman and had purchased a 250-acre Missouri farm where he planned to retire and raise cattle. Dave, who had gotten heavily involved with drugs earlier in life, had dropped out of school and run away, living a very hard life for 10 years. He then began the slow crawl back from the abyss and, dry and sober for two years, was getting ready to reconcile with his father at the time of his passing. After his father’s passing, Dave was tracked down by an attorney and awarded the farm and enough money to last him 100 lifetimes.

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Dave went on to tell me that he felt the only way that he could make up for that lost time with his father was to turn the farm into a success. For the past several weeks, he’d been living in a small travel trailer with no water or electricity, working like a mule building fences, fixing an old tractor and waiting for crews to build a 5,500 square-foot house, two new barns and drill a well. He was also sure to mention the design of an indoor swimming pool, which he was quite proud of. Through all of his stench and unsavory appearance, Dave was loaded. Who knew?

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Dave paid cash for the Polaris that day and a couple of months later came back to buy another ATV while I was at that dealership in the early years. Nearly fifteen years later, he appeared out of the blue in my dealership looking for a Honda Rancher. We had a nice reunion. His teeth had been replaced by a shiny set of dentures and he was clean with fairly expensive clothes and no odd scent following him through the showroom. He filled me in on his life, telling me that the farm was doing well, his investments had gone through the roof, and he was currently retired at age 45 with a full staff of employees handling the hard stuff. It was a rags to riches tale that made me feel good for the guy, knowing that he had realized his father’s dream and found peace with despite his previous indiscretions.

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Since that visit, Dave has bought dirt bikes for his kids, two more ATVs and a side-by-side from me. It’s pretty much the same deal every time: He comes in and chats about the wonders of life, asks about my family and I ask about his. He looks over a few machines, perhaps throwing a leg over one and kicking a tire here and there. He selects what he wants, continues to talk about life and asks me to write up the deal. Notice that he never asks about the price. The thing is, for Dave it doesn’t matter. It’s nothing to do with the fact that his bank account would make Oprah Winfrey blush, nor is it that he’s a stupid guy who spends like he’s mad at money. The truth is that Dave sees me for who I am, an equal man who, even upon first seeing him at his worst, accepted him as an equal as well. I greeted and treated, as I like to put it: greeted him with a friendly shake and treated him with respect. That is what Dave remembers to this day, nearly twenty years later.

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For me, it wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t have to make an effort to approach him that first time. I didn’t cringe at the way he looked and think I was wasting my time. (I might have held my breath a bit). I simply saw Dave for what he truly was. Not some shabby stroker with no money as my associates at the time would have referred to him, but as a human being who shared an interest in the greatest sport in the world.

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