“Excuse me love. Can I speak to a salesman, please?”
If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard that over the last 8 years, I’d have, well, tens of pounds. Actually, I wouldn’t, because I’d have spent them all on notebooks and branded merchandise, but that’s another story.
I moved back to Sheffield in June 2011 after two years in France and struggled to find a job. I knew I didn’t want to teach, didn’t have the experience to work in a lot of the specialised jobs that could use my French, (my photography-focussed MA dissertation didn’t really cover paint sales or engineering) and I was fast running out of money. Come mid-August and my mechanic boyfriend at the time made a suggestion: “You like people and you like cars; why don’t you try selling them while you decide what you really want to do?” It didn’t seem like a terrible idea, so I fired off my CV and a few weeks later was starting a job as a handover specialist at a huge car supermarket, feeling totally out of my depth, but determined to do well. It was just a stopgap job, but I knew learning some sales techniques would probably come in useful at some point.
What I didn’t expect was to totally fall in love with the motor trade.
With hindsight I know now that I was pretty sheltered in that first job. Good training, great people and lovely customers. I realised I was on to a good thing. I was getting paid to talk to people! Bloody brilliant! All I needed was some better hours and more earning potential, so I took the plunge and moved away from the supermarket into dealership land.
The important thing to bear in mind is that I’d never actually bought a car from a dealership. I didn’t have any preconceptions or really any idea about the stereotypes that lived in the showroom. It genuinely came as a shock that people might find it a daunting experience, so I worked really hard to make sure that when people left after dealing with me that they were smiling.
I hadn’t anticipated that people would come in already prepared for a fight and suspicious of everything I said.
And having moved from a place that had a lot of women working there, I hadn’t considered for a second that a lot of that would come just from being a woman.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved selling cars. Especially when I moved to ŠKODA and found a brand I could really get my teeth into. They had a good history, great record for customer service, the cars were great and they had a huge selection of merchandise. (See paragraph 1 for where all my spare money goes, even now when I no longer work for them!) I bleed ŠKODA green. But mostly this came out of necessity. I was the only woman on the sales team. In one dealership I’d been the first woman on the sales team. I had to contend with never hearing my own name from colleagues and customers, (love, darling, sweetheart, etc,) automatically being given all the customers my more experience peers assumed weren’t buying today and, once I’d been moved to a desk at the front of the showroom, having everyone that walked through the door assume I was the receptionist. We didn’t have a receptionist.
There are two occasions that stand out with customers. The first was with someone who from word one made it very clear that he didn’t want to speak to a female sales person. I’d been trying to talk to him when one of the guys came over and asked if we all wanted a drink as he was heading that way. The customer said yes, but not before saying very loudly,
“She [pointing at me] should be making drinks, you should be sitting here with us.”
I got up, let my colleague take over, and went into the office. I didn’t make the drinks. I knew though, that there was no chance in hell of selling that guy a car and sometimes business decisions had to come first. The second was a man who got very angry. I’d asked him if he wanted help as he walked in and he’d declined so I left him to it. After about 20 minutes he came storming over to ask, “Are there any salesmen here or not?!” I reminded him that I’d asked if he needed anything when he came in and his response was “I want to talk to a salesman.” When I replied with “You are,” and just looked at him, he backed down really quickly.
Turning this disadvantage into an advantage.
I quickly realised that with some customers I was going to have to spend the first 15 minutes with them proving that I could do my job before I could actually get on with it and do it. So I made sure that I knew everything I needed to inside out. I was the queen of product knowledge in that place. I learned all the specifications, the finance campaigns and the computer systems. I made myself pretty much self-sufficient, so that I could just be left to my own devices. And I kept my promise to myself to make sure that my customers were happy.
When I ran out of sales executive training to do, I managed to convince my boss to let me start on the management training. It was brilliant. I was on courses where I was the only non-manager and still, usually, the only woman. Due to the drive (pun absolutely intended) I had in the showroom, I had the confidence to make myself heard in the classroom as well. I passed the assessment and waited for a chance to apply for promotion. I walked back into the dealership, stood up straight and confident and promptly banged my head on the glass ceiling.
Things that I have heard when trying to progress my career in the motor trade:
- “I can’t promote you. I don’t want you in a management position, because then you won’t be out there selling cars for me.”
- [When an actual vacancy came up] “I know you wanted to put your name in the hat chick, but there is no hat. The position [that was never advertised] has been filled [by his mate].”
- “Just because you’ve done a course doesn’t mean you can do the job.”
- [As I watched younger, less capable, more male people get promoted above me] “Just be patient love.”
- “We didn’t think you could cope with all the driving.”
So I voted with my feet. I left. If a company I loved and was so loyal to weren’t going to give me a chance, despite repeatedly proving I was more than capable, then they didn’t deserve me. I took a punt on an advert I’d seen and ended up with a job that paid a helluva lot more, that didn’t need a course to be able to do and where I have proved that I can indeed cope with all the driving. And I still love the industry. I work harder and have to shout louder than a lot of the people I work with sometimes, but it has given me a confidence that I wouldn’t have otherwise had. I know this current job won’t be forever, but all the kickbacks have made me see my worth clearer and it is pushing my forwards in my career.
And no, you can’t speak to a salesman. You can talk to me.
Fiona is currently training to be a mental health therapist after spending 9 years working in the motor trade. She is a stationery addict, who enjoys writing and buying books faster than she can read them.