Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Kapowee! God I Wish it Were That Damn Easy

It’s been a little over a week since I went to work at a car dealership in Carlsbad, CA selling new vehicles. An interesting week.

First, the schedule can be a little bit brutal. Today from 2 to 8:30 I’ll be on my 6th consecutive scheduled day. A 6 ½ hour shift is easy. Tomorrow is what’s known as a “bell day”—from opening bell to closing bell, 12 hours. It’ll mostly be spent hanging out, on my feet. I’ll spend time working on certification for the new car line—product knowledge so I know what I’m talking about. I’ll spend more time working on product presentation skills. Still more time on follow-up of prospects and very little time actually talking to customers out on the lot or demo-ing or doing write-ups.
After a week and a half, I have yet to sell a car. That means that so far my income is a big fat goose-egg.

I haven’t worked in car sales in nearly 7 years. I spent 6 of those years training people how to sell cars and consulting with managers and dealers on how to optimize their operations. It ain’t easy putting the “skills” back into practice.

There’s product knowledge but more fundamental is the technique by which the product knowledge becomes useful to a customer—especially since many customers come to a dealership with a tremendous amount of information. The sales guy’s job is to make it relevant and valuable. Plus, customers know a lot about pricing—too much, in fact, to the extent that often they’re dangerous in their misinformation and perception. A new $25,000 car might have $1500-2000 in available profit which the customer wants to have discounted. And, the salesperson might make $200 on it if he or she is lucky. It ain’t no picnic.
And then there’s the Neanderthal way most sales floors are managed. We use a software system called “Advent”. Advent does not provide any sort of tutorial so you’re on your own. This is what is used to input a customer’s information on which follow-up is based or on which a credit report will be generated. So you fumble through it.

It’s kind of interesting when you have a customer in front of you and you’re trying to be professional all while you’re mucking through an unfamiliar piece of software. It doesn’t inspire any confidence that you know what you’re doing and are trying to work together with a customer.
So you do your best, port it to the “desk” (the manager) who tells you that you’ve done it wrong and that you’re a nincompoop. The “desk” generates a “proposal” (that’s my term because I hate using terms like “first pencil”) and then sends in someone else to work the customer and try to close her. Without knowing what her “agenda” is and without really caring. This proposal is “packed”. “Full pop” on price. “Back packed” with a warranty. Reserve on the interest rate and a term that’s longer than standard. But all structured so that the payment the customer wants is achieved.

And she walked. Why? Because she was smarter than that and we didn’t spend the time to work with her, justify the value of our product and create a situation where we were making money but she was also getting a reasonable deal.

So, I’ve got to adjust my style. I have to figure out how to “work the desk” and get proposals I can work with. It’s like gathering intelligence. I’ve done it hundreds of times and just need to get into the right patterns of questions to the customer and how I present the information to the desk (my manager only wants the briefest of bullet points—anything more and you get chewed).

This management style of providing only cursory guidance and then ripping into you when you don’t get it right is both “old school” and incredibly inefficient. I spent years trying to work with dealerships to embrace different approaches—and was paid quite well to do it. But that’s no longer my role.

It’s nearly 11. I have to be at work at 2. My legs feel OK today but my hips are still a bit achy. The good news is that I’ve got Friday, Saturday and Sunday off. That’s an every other week thing. But I’ll probably work Saturday to get more prospects and have something to work on the following week for follow-up. The way the retail side of this business is structured, you really don’t get every other weekend off. You need to work at least one day on either Saturday or Sunday. Especially since, as the new guy, I won’t really be seeing any “spoonies” (easy deals given by the manager) for a while.

I’m a grown-up. The older I get the more I resent when management treats anybody with condescension or disrespect. Especially when you have to approach customers with confidence and just the right amount of enthusiasm to be successful. But those are things you have to do by yourself with some occasional help from your co-workers who are also suffering from the same insecurities and frustrations.

But, I'm working. Doing something productive. It's something honorable if done with integrity. And that's what I bring to it. I can't do it any other way. It's not an easy job. Few jobs are.

(Now check out the Muppets doing a Jim Croce classic).

Monday, November 9, 2009

Cheap Bastids Thanksgiving Cornbread Stuffing

Hey everybody! Thanksgiving is just around the corner—although it’s kind of hard to tell with all the Christmas advertising that’s going on. That means we’re going to be getting ready to make our annual Thanksgiving feast for our family and friends. So, I thought that I’d share my Cornbread Stuffing recipe with you now just in case anyone wants to give it a try. But first, a little story about Thanksgiving.

The first Thanksgiving dinner I cooked was 26 years ago this year. Since then, I’ve tried to cook it each year or to cook at least a portion of this celebratory feast. The reason is simple, it’s my way to celebrate my daughter’s birth.

Susan was born on the Sunday before Thanksgiving in 1983. The funny part is that my wife went into labor on Saturday and we spent the entire evening timing contractions while I peeled 50 pounds of potatoes for a holiday lunch the next day at church (I was too stubborn to rely on “fake” instant potatoes and insisted on “real” mashed potatoes).

1st Day of School

Anyway, Susan was born on Sunday morning and came home from the hospital Wednesday afternoon in the middle of an Iowa snowstorm. Our house was heated by fuel oil and as fate would have it, we ran out and the house was without heat. I called the oil company and was promised a quick delivery. In the meantime, I started a fire in the fireplace and put Susan’s bassinette in front of it.

She snoozed the afternoon away, snug and warm oblivious to the weather or to the lack of heat. A couple hours later, I called the fuel oil company back and inquired when they might be arriving. I also told them that we were out of oil and had just brought Susan home from the hospital. The response was, “Well why didn’t you say so, I’ll make sure that you’re next.” We had a full tank within the hour. That’s the blessing of living in a town of 6,000.

We were planning on not doing a Thanksgiving dinner that year but I got to thinking. “If there were ever a time to truly give thanks wouldn’t it be in celebration of the birth of a child?”

So I called my Mom for advice. Mom’s not the world’s greatest cook but she gave me a couple of tips for putting together a makeshift Thanksgiving dinner. The turkey was a boned and pressed one which didn’t take much effort to slap into the oven. Stuffing was packaged as were the sweet potatoes and cranberry relish. The gravy was jarred but the potatoes were real, peeled and boiled. Lastly, the pie was frozen.

Over the years, my cooking of this feast has gotten a lot more involved and sophisticated. But, each year, I take time to not only be thankful for all that life has provided but also for that special little girl in my life who, even at age 26 and now engaged to a great guy named Nathan, is still “Dad’s girl”.

Susan & Nathan, Oct. 2009

Cheap Bastid’s Incredibly Fantastic and Simple Corn Bread & Sausage Stuffing

2 boxes Jiffy corn bread mix
1 lb breakfast sausage (regular or spicy—I like spicy)
1 cup diced celery
1 cup golden raisins (or chopped dried apricots)
1 large chopped granny smith apple
2/3 cup diced green onion
2 cans reduced sodium turkey/chicken broth

Make the corn bread according to directions in a 9 x 9 pan (you can do this the night before too). Brown the sausage in a medium skillet. Drain and set aside.

Chop all the vegetables. Now, dump everything but the corn bread in a big bowl and stir it up. Add some black pepper (plus I like some chipotle too). Crumble up the corn bread and add to the bowl and mix in. Then slowly add one can of the broth and stir everything together. (You’re looking for the right consistency here—not too dry and not too moist). If you pick up a handful, it should clump and feel damp but not feel wet. If it’s not moist enough, add about 1/3 of the 2nd can then test again. You shouldn’t have to add all of the 2nd can—maybe half at the most.

When you’ve got it the right consistency, test for flavor. You should get some spice, some meatiness, some sweet and just a little kick on your tongue. Adjust your seasoning if needed.

Put into a baking/casserole dish and either use a glass cover or a foil cover.

Put into the oven at 350 for an hour covered. Then uncover it and let it go another half hour. Check it then and remove if done or give it a bit more time. Enjoy it with your Thanksgiving bird!!

I’m not going to go through all the Cheap Bastid budget stuff with this recipe other than to say that it’s really quite reasonable in its ingredients and simplicity. Plus, this is really, really tasty. Enjoy it as you’re giving thanks.

And that’s the Cheap Bastid Way: Eat Good, Eat Cheap, Be Grateful!

I Gotta Go to Work Today or Selling Azteks for Fun and Profit

Today’s the day. After 9 months of being unemployed, I’m going back to a “sales line” at a local car dealership.

I haven’t sold cars since May, 2003. Until January of this year I was a consultant and trainer to car dealers. I represented the manufacturer and worked with the dealership on practices that would help them be more profitable (inventory management, etc.) and did sales training.

Lest you think I’m some sort of ogre teaching people how to be sleazy, how to bluster their way through a sale or how to manipulate a customer into a corner which guarantees that they get the shaft and the sales person gets the money, let me just say here and now that my number one message was always “never, ever lie to a customer”.

Let’s do just a bit of math, OK. A car salesperson averages about 10 sales a month. That’s 120 a year. If those sales average $20,000 then the sales volume for that person is $2.4 million for the year. How much commission do you think he/she makes from that? !0%? 5%? Either one of those would provide an incredible living. It’s more like 1.5 to 2%, a very modest amount. On average, an automotive sales person makes 25% of gross profit per unit—after “pack”, the amount added to dealer cost for things like administration, etc. That alone should tell you how little profit there is in the average new vehicle transaction (profit margins are substantially higher on used vehicles).

The rest of that story is that these people work a goofy schedule that typically includes at least one 12 hour “bell day” a week and half to two-thirds of weekends. Many dealers are also open 362 days a year closing only on Christmas Day, News Years Day and Thanksgiving.

Here’s a story I’ve told many times in sales training classes:
I was the top Pontiac Aztek salesman in the California Region for 2 years in 2001-2002. Remember the Aztek? It’s widely considered one of the ugliest vehicles ever made—right up there with the old AMC Pacer. And it was. (The interior fabric was even uglier than the outside too!) But it was also a really good vehicle.

When I first started selling Pontiacs, a customer would tell me they were interested either in SUVs or wanted to see this “all new” Aztek. I would take them to our selection—we’d have several on hand. Invariably the customer would say something about how ugly the Aztek was. Something like, “that’s sure butt-ugly”.

And I’d dispute that. I’d tell them things like, “It’s just the edgy styling of it that you’re not used to,” or “It really grows on you,” or “Naw, look at these lines. This thing is really cool.” The customer would look at me like I was just the “typical” car salesguy—you know a big BS’er. A lot of them would leave then because I had been arguing with them or blowing smoke at them about the car.

So, I needed to do something to slow them down. What I came up with was to agree with them and do it with humor.

“Well, sir,” I’d say, “I can’t say that I disagree with that but…you know, my sister was pretty homely too, but we loved her anyway. Let me show you some of the reasons why you’ll fall in love with the Aztek.” And they’d laugh. And they would get interested in the vehicle rather than shutting down their interest. I now had an opportunity to build value. And I sold a bunch of them. They were roomy, versatile, powerful, economical and u-g-l-y. But people would buy them.

As Zig Ziglar always said, “Buying occurs when value exceeds price.” That’s the only time when any of us buy anything—ever.

And here’s the rest it: We build value when we communicate with our customer about ourself, our product and our company in terms of what we do more, better and differently than anyone else. Those are the dimensions of value. And it doesn’t matter what anyone sells—clothes, insurance, vehicles or groceries—the only time a customer parts with their money is when value exceeds price.

It seems like I've spent a great deal of my life working my way "down" the ladder of success. Or, as I'm somewhat fond of saying, "I can take my Masters degree and $2.50 and buy a cup of coffee at any Denny's".

I didn’t want to have to go back to work selling cars. And yet, I should have done it several months ago to earn some money and to be doing something productive. I was never any “superstar” salesguy but I worked hard and was totally honest. In this industry, like any other, it comes down to integrity, honesty and ethics. Those may sound like an oxymoron when used in a context of automobile sales but they’re vital.

So, I gotta go to work today. Let’s hope it all works out.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Big Kid Toys & Little Kid Toys--Toy Hall of Fame Enshrines "the Ball"

A short article in today’s newspaper with the Strong National Museum of Play’s new “inductees” into the National Toy Hall of Fame is a welcome diversion from other more pressing and urgent news events.
I don’t know about you but I was not waiting with bated breath for the list of honorees. Maybe it’s because, unlike the Academy Awards or Emmy Awards, there was never mention of this year’s nominees to build interest and drama.

But, there are three newly enshrined toys to announce today. The Big Wheel. The Game Boy. And, hold your breath on this folks, the BALL! They join 41 other toys which have previously been enshrined.
What amazes me is that it took so long for the ball to find its rightful place. It probably should have been the second thing enshrined. That would be after “the stick” which is already in the Toy Hall of Fame. I mean are you trying to tell me that the Easy Bake Oven, View-Master, hula-hoop or even the cardboard box (all of which are enshrined) are more worthy that the Ball? Seems to me that there’s got to be some “payola” in there somewhere.

The stick! Sure, it’s been a toy since humanoids figured out that they could whomp critters and each other with sticks. That’s got to be the king of toys except for one small problem. Kids don’t play outside anymore. They have virtually no access to sticks. They have no conception of “sticks and stones may break my bones”.
And speaking of which, shouldn’t stones be in there ahead of balls? They were the early prototypes of balls until people evolved enough to figure out that soccer with an inflated animal innard was more fun than kicking the hell out of a rock.
But it still seems to me that there are some gaps to this Hall of Fame. What about “Pick-Up Sitcks”? And, as a child of the 50’s who grew up on such shows as “Davy Crocket” and “The Rifleman” and “Wagon Train” and “Rawhide”, what about the toy pistol? There are no toys like that in the Hall of Fame—except for the stick. Man, I was the happiest kid alive when I got my Mattel “Fanner 50” cap pistol with spring loaded plastic bullets for Christmas. Until then, I had always had to use a stick. (Kind of sounds like Ralphie with his Red Ryder BB Gun doesn’t it?) We'd use the Fanner 50 to shoot our Army Men from across the room (and Hey! How come Army Men aren't in the Hall of Fame?).

And you know, life might be more fun if Big Wheels had stuck around longer. I used to love the sound of them as the little hooligans we called our kids would roar up and down the alley behind the house on their Big Wheels for hours on end. It’s just too bad that there were never adult sized Big Wheels—just imagine a 40 year old riding a Big Wheel down the street, or a whole gang of them (take that Sons of Anarchy).
But let’s return to the ball. Think of all the balls in the world. My brother and I would use a baseball until the cover came off and then keep on using it until all the thread eventually unwound. Growing up there were footballs, basketballs, soccer balls, volleyballs, tennis balls, etc.
OK, so now I’m going to make known my official “nominee” for the 2010 class at the Strong National Toy Hall of Fame. It’s a toy the is used by fully 50% of the population of the world from birth to death. Each of that 50% of us checks it multiple times each day to make sure that it’s still there. It’s as comforting to us as a stuffed toy is to a toddler.

Here’s a picture of Al Bundy checking his on national TV (something for which he became famous). Its name, to quote JD on “Scrubs” is “Mr. Peeps”.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Cheap Bastid's Beans (aka Bean Soup or Ham & Bean Soup or Hock Soup)

It’s November. And in some parts of the country that means that it’s getting cooler, the leaves have turned, nights are longer and there’s even been some snow. That makes it time for “comfort food”. Well, here’s a one pot meal that will warm you up and fill you up. Plus, it’s really economical.

I grew up eating Beans. My Mom would make it several times a year and I developed my recipe based on watching her. A lot of people call it Bean Soup or Navy Bean Soup. But for those who grew up in the South or with families who started out on a farm, it’s just Beans. Or sometimes I’ll call it Hock Soup because the meat is smoked ham hock or shank.
This always tastes best when accompanied by corn bread. I’ve always used that blue box of Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix that you can get for about half a buck. It’s November. And in some parts of the country that means that it’s getting cooler, the leaves have turned, nights are longer and there’s even been some snow. That makes it time for “comfort food”. Well, here’s a one pot meal that will warm you up and fill you up. Plus, it’s really economical.

So, here’s the recipe. Make it in a big dutch oven or in a crock pot. Let it cook all day and fill your kitchen and home with its incredible aroma.

Smoked Pork Hock or Shank (you can usually get these at the grocery store)
2 bags (16 oz ea) northern or navy beans
1 medium onion diced
1 cup diced celery
3-4 gloves garlic, minced
Salt, pepper, cumin
Soak beans overnight according to directions (put ‘em in a big bowl and cover ‘em up with water). The next morning, drain the water from the bowl.

Saute onion, celery & garlic just until softened in the bottom of your soup pot or in a skillet if using a crock pot. (Or if you feel like me, lazy, just dice it up and toss it into the pot. You’re going to be cooking it for at least 4 or 5 hours anyway). Set heat to medium (stove) or high (crock pot) & drop in the hock/shank.

Cover the hock, onions & garlic with water (about 4 cups). Add salt, pepper & cumin.
Allow to cook/simmer for about 3 hours or until the meat is loosened from the bone.

Remove the hock/shank and all loosened meat from the water with a slotted spoon and put on a cutting board—it should be loose to the point of falling off. Chop up the meat. Then add it back to the pot. Add beans—start with about half then about half again (I don’t use all of both bags—about a bag and a half). Make sure beans are fully covered with water.

Add more salt, pepper and cumin, to taste. (Why cumin? Simple. I like cumin). If you want some bite add more pepper or some cayenne.

Simmer for 2-3 hours until beans are tender. Check liquid level every half hour or so and add water as needed so that it’s soup not paste!

Make up a 9x9 pan of “Jiffy” corn bread and enjoy! (I use the mix because it’s cheap—about 50 cents—and a lot of “big shot” chefs use a mix too rather than doing it from scratch.)

This smells incredibly good cooking. Your mouth will be watering all day in anticipation, but wait. Just wait until it’s ready. You’ll have some great eating for 2 or 3 days on this.

Now, some people will use a portable blender or will scoop this into a processer to “puree” the soup. You can do that if you want (in fact some recipes for Cuban bean soup do just that and it can be delicious—especially if you use garbanzos).

But, neither my Mom nor Mamaw would be caught dead pureeing this classic, traditional soup. It just isn’t done. This is comfort food; more fundamentally it’s country food—the kind of soup that country people spend all day cooking. I wouldn’t want to mess with it by “foo-fooing” it up that way because I don’t think that it would be respectful.

The Cheap Bastid Test: How’d we do for budget on this? Well, the smoked shank cost $3.00 ($1.69/lb). The beans cost $2 and the veggies were $1. The Jiffy Mix was $1 for 2 boxes and 2 eggs cost a quarter. Total for this farm-style feast was: $7.25. It’ll feed 4 people for at least 2 days with enough left for lunch. So this is reasonably priced eating.

That's the Cheap Bastid Way: Eat Good! Eat Cheap! Be Grateful