“I realized years ago that my job is not selling cars. My job is to give customers every possible detail and every reason to make the decision to work with me, my dealership and our products. I can only do this if I am passionate and enthusiastic about the product I sell. My customers’ job is to give me the order. I just help them buy.”
To me, Dennis Tilko is legendary. What’s remarkable about him is that through the 30 years I’ve known him, the only thing that’s changed is his attitude. It just keeps getting increasingly positive. For Dennis, attitude is everything, which helps him see that no matter what happens, good or bad, it is an opportunity.
Dennis has worked in the automotive business for as long as he can remember. He started out cleaning and detailing cars during high school to help pay for college. After graduating he started full-time as a sales associate in a Cadillac dealership.
“I was really frustrated one day. I lost a sale to the Oldsmobile dealership next door even though I offered the customer more on her trade and a better price on the car. I didn’t get it,” he said.
Dennis could not figure out why she would leave and pay more for at another dealership. He was perplexed, so he decided to call her and find out, what could he have done better?
“She told me that the people at the other dealership were nicer. They offered her coffee, gave her a tour, introduced her to people in every department, and essentially, treated her like she was a VIP from the second she walked in the door,” he said.
When he told me this story, he described it as an “ah-ha” moment. It was in this experience that he realized that there was much more to closing a sale than offering the best price. He realized that salespeople are great at turning buyers into shoppers. Even so, he wasn’t really quite sure what the difference was. After all, he had followed his training. He greeted the customer, delivered a hood to trunk presentation, took the customer on a demo drive, negotiated and thought he was close to closing the sale. The difference was that no one had taught Dennis about how to deal with the person, about how his attitude could influence a customer relationship.
“As salespeople, we learn the mechanics of selling, but not how to work with people. No one shows us how to build and maintain relationships,” he observed.
Curious, he continued sleuthing and discovered that the dealership that had won his customer overused a sales process called APB, which focused on giving every customer the Red Carpet Treatment. After learning more, he persuaded his management to adopt the system. He learned its principles and still uses them today at the Mercedes dealership where he works now.
Dennis believes that a positive attitude is the biggest factor in turning shoppers (people who come in, look and leave) into buyers, and ultimately into loyal clientele.
As Dennis likes to share, “A dealer may spend $50,000 or more on advertising to bring people in, but they don’t forget to put a value on the customers’ experience once they walk in the dealership’s front door,” Dennis told me. “It is like giving salespeople a broom and asking them to sweep potential customers out the door! If salespeople lose a sale to a competitor then they failed in creating a better customer experience and embracing the opportunity with a positive attitude.”
Dennis is passionate about treating each customer individually based on their unique needs, wants and desires. He follows the APB process to build, cultivate and nurture long-term relationships. To Dennis, it’s not just closing a deal; it’s about building a relationship and friendship that goes beyond the sale.
“I realized years ago that my job is not selling cars. My job is to give customers every possible detail and every reason to make the decision to work with me, my dealership and our products. I can only do this if I am passionate and enthusiastic about the product I sell. My customers’ job is to give me the order. I just help them buy,” Dennis says.
Most salespeople are taught to “get to the numbers.” Dennis educates customers on why spending $50,000 to $60,000 on his brand is a good investment. He gets to know them and what they are seeking. He asks questions like, ‘What are you driving now? Do you like it? Do you like the service you get? Is it powerful enough?’ He customizes his presentations to get customers excited about the value of his brand. He’ll show a crash test video, talk about how the company invented the first race car, about the patented safety features the company invented and more. He proactively shares that while the company is not largest manufacturer, buying a car from them is like buying a fine suit. He goes the extra mile to show he cares.
“If a customer has dogs, I give them a bag of doggie treats. I send flowers as a thank-you for coming in. I buy customers lunch and share new information about our brand. Basically, I do whatever it takes to create an honest, positive impression,” he says. “Yet none of this makes a
difference without a positive attitude, without wanting to “Wow” customers. I want my customers to say that there is no one they’d rather work with but me.”
Dennis never rushes to judgment based on how a customer looks, what they say or what they need. One time he told me about a customer who came in simply wanting to learn how to drive a manual transmission so she could take a cross country trip in an old truck. So, he taught her how to drive a stick shift in the back of the dealership. He took the opportunity to talk with her and to get to know her needs. In the end, she bought a new truck. Now, how many salespeople would have stopped that sale before it ever got started? Not Dennis, he saw it as an opportunity.
“I want to be sure that when a customer buys one car from me, they will want to buy their next 10 cars from me as well,” he said.
I asked Dennis what he does to make this happen and he told me that he takes the Red Carpet Treatment to heart and gives service above and beyond — way beyond — what’s expected. The bottom line is that he sincerely cares about each of his customers. In fact, he makes sure that every customer has his business card and cell phone number.
Dennis tells his clients, “I am available to help with every service concern my clients have, whether making an appointment or helping in a crisis. One woman called me at home at 11:00 p.m. upset about a problem with her car. I took the call, solved the problem and sent her a gift card for lunch at her favorite restaurant. She sent me two referrals.” He also tells them, “If you drink, that’s your business. But, call me anytime you need a ride, 24/7. I will pick you up wherever you are and drive you home. I don’t ever want to lose a client.”
And, he’s done it, many, many times.
Over the years, I’ve asked Dennis what he would tell new salespeople. He’s always told me he follows 10 core rules.
1. Stop looking at this job as a stepping stone; view it as a career. Otherwise, you’ll never have the right attitude.
2. Be passionate about the products and brand you are selling.
3. Take every opportunity you can to learn about the product, the company, and the processes. Learn from others, in classes and on your own.
4. Learn how to work with people. Follow the APB process.
5. Understand that the majority of Americans today are pulled in a million directions, managing homes, kids, work and other challenges. Be willing to actively listen to customers regardless of what they want to talk about.
6. Read each customer and change your approach to suit their personality, temperament, learning style and interests and do business their way.
7. Never say NO to a customer. If someone simply wants their trade appraised, do it. In the process, try to learn more about them so you can find a friendly way to show them cars.
8. Accept that you will lose one out of three sales. Don’t accept that you couldn’t have done something differently to change the outcome. Learn from each so next time you will win…
9. Always tell the truth.
And, he says the most important rule is to always…
10. Bring a positive attitude. It’s your attitude that will make or break a sale.
At APB we hear people say all the time that always having a positive attitude is easier said than done. No one could ever know this better than Dennis. He lost his son at five years of age, and supported his wife through a four-year battle with cancer, which she eventually lost. Even during the darkest time in his life, while working part-time, he sold 15 vehicles a month. His attitude saw him through then, and it still does today.
“I always tell myself, there is someone out there that has it worse than me. I get out of bed every day and take a deep breath and think it is time for me to get in shape for the day. I can’t change what has happened in my life. I did the best I could and that’s all I can do. But, I can decide how I want to approach every day that’s left and choose to make it the best I can for me and everyone else I come in contact with,” he says.
Attitude is everything. You know, they say attitudes can be contagious. If that’s true, then I hope we all catch it from Dennis.
About the author
Richard F. Libin
Richard F. Libin has written two acclaimed books that help people of all walks…