Not Just For Men: Women get revved by challenge of car sales

Although men currently make up over 90 percent of the car sales consultants nationwide, increasing numbers of women are entering this lucrative career field. It’s a natural fit: women buy about two-thirds of the vehicles in the United States and influence 80 percent of all sales.

This gives women in automotive sales a real advantage. It’s a fact that hasn’t been lost on the handful of women in San Antonio who have found satisfaction, control over compensation and a measure of flexibility that few other jobs offer. Kathleen Banse, sales consultant at Ken Batchelor Cadillac – Saab – Hummer, has worked in car sales for the past 20 years. Not counting Ken Batchelor, executive manager, and Randy Baker, managing partner, she is the most senior and experienced employee at the dealership.

“I’m a salesperson at heart, so it really wasn’t a hard transition,” says Banse, a married 45-year-old mother of two teenage girls. While shopping for a new car of her own, she was recruited by a friend (a woman) who sold cars there. At the time, Banse was selling manufactured homes. “They put me in a brand-new Cadillac and told me to drive it over the weekend while I thought it over. The next Monday I sold my Volvo and came to work in that Cadillac,” she laughs. “I’ve been here ever since.”

Banse notes that while women have many natural qualities that can help them succeed in car sales, the grueling hours, especially in the beginning, can make it tough to persevere. “For the first two years, I worked virtually 24/7 to get established,” she says. “Now I am able to work almost exclusively on referrals and repeat buys.” She believes sticking with one dealership has also helped her be successful. “So many salespeople bounce around every one or two years the first years are the hardest!”

Her perseverance has paid off in many ways. Although she still works 10-hour days, six days a week, she has the flexibility to attend her children’s school activities. Since her pay is based on how many vehicles she sells, it’s safe to say she makes a tidy wage because she’s been the top producer for 13 out of the last 15 years and is frequently named salesperson of the month.

Woman’s work?

Can it be that women may be better suited to handle sales positions than their male counterparts? According to recent studies, the answer is yes. Ramon Avila, director of the award-winning Ball State University Professional Selling Institute, has performed studies that indicate some females do have better selling skills. “Many women are more nurturing, have stronger listening skills and empathize better than males,” he says. “In sales, you have to be really people-oriented. You have to listen and understand the client’s wants and needs. Women are generally better at that than most men.”

Heather Moore, quality control manager at BMW Center of San Antonio, echoes Avila’s observations as she describes her own approach. “It’s a cliché, but I consciously put myself in the customer’s shoes and read where they’re coming from before I do or say anything,” says Moore. “I try to bring a certain sensitivity to each situation, and I think customers appreciate that.”

Ruby Ramos, consultant at Gunn Infiniti for the past four years, says she sells cars the same way she makes new friends. “I’m honest and sincere. I want customers to come back and ask for me by name in three years when they need another vehicle,” explains Ramos.

What Ramos strives for, Ramos attains. Just recently, a previous customer whom she’d sold a vehicle to years ago came to the dealership and exclaimed, “Ruby! You have no idea how glad I am you’re still here!” Consider your last car-buying experience. Would you go back and seek out the same salesperson?

“I’m a big believer in the tiny details doing things that demonstrate to my customers that I am listening and that I care,” says Ramos. The first car she ever sold was to a father shopping for a car his daughter could drive while away at college. “I saw a Chicken Soup for the Soul book that was for kids away at college,” she remembers. “I bought it and sent it to my client’s daughter.”

She regularly sends thank-you notes to potential clients, inviting them to call her with questions. And when clients do buy, she often sends them a little gift to let them know she appreciates their business. Her hands-on, personalized approach has made her the No. 1 salesperson at the dealership for the past three years, as well as one of the top salespeople for Infiniti in the South Central Region.

Aggression isn’t generally part of the customer service equation for women in car sales. “Females tend to want to make people comfortable,” says Elizabeth Cox, who started with Lexus in 2001 on the sales floor but has recently moved her sales focus to online sales and leasing. “I think many customers lower their guard when talking with a woman because they know they’re not here to arm wrestle.”

Susie Gass, a five-year veteran from Grande Ford who specializes in truck sales, agrees with Cox. “When I did commercial truck sales, I found I could get through some doors that my male counterparts couldn’t,” shares Gass. “Even now I have customers who request that they deal with a woman. I think they’re just more comfortable.”

Selling cars or investingin a franchise?

Cox has a unique view and approach to her work. “I don’t classify myself as a car salesperson. Instead, I see myself as buying into a franchise, and customers are my business,” she says. The analogy works on many levels. The manufacturer is responsible for the design, engineering, distribution and marketing of the product in this case, vehicles. The dealership handles the additional overhead. In Cox’s view, they do all the work, and she gets the customer.

Often by the time a potential customer contacts the dealership, either through e-mail, phone or in person, the pre-selling is already complete. “It’s up to me to close the deal. It’s easy for me to talk about Lexus because I believe in the product. That sincerity, coupled with knowledge, comes through to my customers,” says Cox. “I work hard to match my clients’ needs with a vehicle that suits them.” Combine a personal touch with a superior product, and the result is brand loyalty the foundation of any successful franchise.

Realities of working in amale-dominated industry

Maybe it’s tradition, maybe it’s a natural attraction, but the auto industry has been a bastion of male dominance since before Henry Ford built the Model T. Although dealers readily acknowledge women’s sales skills and pine for more female sales representatives, there’s still the reality of the day-to-day sales floor that one must deal with.”When I first started, I had a customer who was adamant that he speak with a male salesperson,” says Ramos. “Rather than fight with him, I hooked him up with one of my buddies. As the customer was leaving, I overheard my co-worker tell him that he’d made a mistake asking for him because he was only two months on the job. He said, ‘You should have had Ruby help you. She’s the best salesperson we have.'”

When Banse started her car sales career 20 years ago, she mostly worked with retired military men in their 50s and 60s. “Sometimes new clients will ‘kick the tires,’ so to speak. I’m always up-to-date on my product knowledge that tends to erase any doubts as to my capabilities,” says Banse.

“You definitely have to have a thick skin,” says Cox. “But that’s true of any competitive environment where you interact with people a lot.”

Valerie Maxwell, managing partner for Don Maxwell Chevrolet/New Braunfels, says she thinks the industry is starting to change. A recent graduate of National Automobile Dealer Association (NADA) Dealer Academy, Maxwell notes that about 30 percent of her class was female. “Although most of them were involved in the store because their parents or husbands were dealers, the women in my class were the most intelligent and well organized of the bunch,” she says.

“In general, I think most women shy away from the industry because of the stigma and long hours,” says Maxwell. “It would be a hard industry if you had small children since the typical salesperson works 40-plus hours a week with Saturdays and evening closings tacked on.”

In charge of your own success

According to Selling Power Magazine, every salesperson generates enough revenue to pay for nine other positions at most companies. The amount of sales produced per salesperson across all companies averages $2.5 million per year. That translates into tremendous power and opportunity for women considering a career in sales.

Ramos tripled her income and spends more time than ever with her teenage daughter because she moved from restaurant management to automotive sales. “It’s so simple if you want more money, sell another car!” she says.

“I’ve grown and learned so much working in this industry,” says Moore. “It can be really fulfilling if you embrace it.”

Maureen Hillman, sales consultant at Cavender Cadillac, agrees that women can have a great career in automotive sales. “It’s a field where women can be on totally equal footing with their male counterparts.”

Never in a million years did Cox think she would be in car sales. “It took me a long time to be able to say aloud what I did,” Cox laughs. “But now I feel strongly that there’s a great need for women in this field. If you’re driven and self-motivated, it could be to your extreme benefit to explore it as a career option.”

Who knew that natural talent plus hard work and an “X” chromosome could equal career success? Apparently, women in automotive sales have known all along.

Author: Kelly A. Goff

Photographer: Greg Harrison

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