Auto manufacturing may have improved over the years, but I doubt we’ll see any mass production of car salesmen like Bill Florence.
Florence, 77, just retired after selling cars in Atlanta for 55 years. He would have liked to continue his normal routine of working six days a week, but his physical stability and mobility are no longer what they need to be, following the side effects from a kidney transplant.
Florence, an Atlanta native who spent his entire career working for just two local dealership groups, was a little disappointed that he wasn’t able to work longer than his late aunt. She was employed by an Atlanta paper company for 65 years.
“The work ethic has changed over the generations,” Florence said.
It certainly has. And so has the way many companies treat their employees, especially senior ones.
But Florence managed to survive the ups and downs of the auto industry, partly because he didn’t try to make a quick buck at the consumer’s expense.
“You don’t have to lie, cheat or steal to sell an automobile,” he said. “Put the customer No. 1. … Treat each customer like a guest in your home.” If you do that, he said, things will work out over the long haul.
For 34 years, Florence worked at Mitchell Motors in Atlanta, selling Oldsmobiles and Rolls-Royces, while rising to general manager.
In 1989, he went over to Hennessy, selling Cadillacs, Jaguars and Range Rovers. A year later, as Lexus was entering the U.S. market, he became new-car sales manager of Hennessy Lexus, rising to general sales manager.
“That was a challenge, organizing a new-car line and dealership that no one knew,” he said. In terms of quality, “we went from being a question mark to a benchmark.”
At his Dunwoody home last week, I asked Florence if there were any tips he could share with salespeople just starting out.
He said there’s no magic to selling cars — in good times or bad. You have to enjoy meeting new people all the time, answering their questions and overcoming their objections in a low-key, professional manner. He said he never believed in high-pressure tactics. That’s not the way you’re going to get repeat business.
“You get to the point where you have to know when to shut up,” he said. “I’ve now sold [cars to] three generations of families.”
He also said that salespeople must study the product they’re selling, so they can talk with authority about it and gain the customer’s confidence. At the same time, he said, they should never answer a question that they don’t know the answer to, especially because a customer already may know it and is just testing the salesman.
The right response: “I don’t know the answer, but if you give me a moment I know where to get it.”
While Florence may be a first-class salesman, he could use some advice with his current endeavor. He appears a little lost in retirement, even though he and has wife, Barbara, have four sons, seven grandkids and a great-grandchild.
“I haven’t gotten used to this retirement thing yet,” Florence said. “It’s going to be a test of our 56-year marriage.”
- Henry Unger, The Biz Beat
For instant updates, follow me on Twitter.