This fall, Mike Stone will mark his 50th year in the car business. At the age of 18, Stone took a job in the parts department at Bradley Motors in Erskin, Minn., which sold cars as well as farm equipment. His sales career started when he began wandering out onto the lot to assist customers. Before long, he was put in charge of Bradley’s car department and would spend 20 years as a dealer before joining Ted Thielen, owner of Thielen Motors in Park Rapids, Minn.
More than 20 years later, Stone is still at it, averaging between 20 and 40 units per month.
“He definitely is a first-class professional,” Thielen says. “Our motto here is that you keep a customer for life.”
Stone has lived up to that mantra, making a personal investment in every customer and enjoying repeat and referral business as a result. “It’s like anything; you’ve got to work at it,” Stone says. “To me, it was kind of fun. I enjoy working with people. That’s why I haven’t retired yet. When it’s not fun anymore, I’ll retire.”
Stone estimates he gets around 75% of his business from repeats and referrals. In fact, he notes, he has customers who have followed him for his entire career, with people he sold cars to decades ago now referring their grandchildren.
“The secret is being honest and treating people right,” he says. “Make sure they’re taken care of after the sale. You can’t just sell someone a vehicle and, six months later, they’re in the store getting service and you don’t know who they are. I don’t sit on the computer and play games. I go over to the waiting area and visit with them.”
“He has a pretty good system for following his customers,” Thielen says. “I don’t know if you’re familiar with the ProMax [CMS], but he uses it to write a lot of letters. Even if the customer comes in and doesn’t buy, he sends them a letter and calls them.”
At the end of each workday, he and Donna, his wife of 16 years, get to work on his correspondence, which includes letters as well as birthday cards. The couple, who have five children, also travel the square-dance circuit, which provides another opportunity to find new customers. “I have no problem handing out my card,” Stone says.
He notes that, while the Internet has changed car sales, he doesn’t think it’s necessarily for the better. The fewer the opportunities for face-to-face interaction, he says, will make it harder for the next generation of sales pros to build the kind of long-term relationships he has relied upon.
“Everything is so competitive — a lot more competitive than when it started a few years ago. The Internet is great, but it takes the personal touch out of the car business. I use it, but I still want my personal time with the customer. I won’t finish a deal on email. I want to look them in the eye.” Ultimately, he adds, the industry will have to find ways to get personal again. “I just want to stay doing it how I’m doing it. It got me to my retirement age, and I really think it’s still going to be the future of the business. Years ago, the factories were talking about selling to customers without the dealers. It didn’t work. Takes the personal touch out of it.
“A lot of it is the pricing, but you can go to 20 lots and not find a $100 difference. The question is, where do you want to buy the car, and can that salesperson get you what you want? And sometimes their wants are not what their needs are. That’s always been true. The salesperson has to get to know the person well enough to know what they need in the long run. Six kids and one paycheck, you don’t sell him a Corvette. It isn’t going to work.”
At the end of the day, hard work and a focus on relationships has made Stone successful, and loving what he does has kept him in the game well into his 60s. He is the kind of salesperson who lives and breathes his business, and that’s a hard set of traits to find in today’s fast-paced world.
“We’re trying to clone him up here, but we haven’t got the right mix yet,” Thielen says. “He’s one of a kind.”