An in-depth interview that could help determine whether you'd like to become a car salesman.
Rein Knol discovered car sales after he decided to leave his career as a travelling musician for something more stable. Now, thirty years later, he’s the Dealer Principal of one of the world’s top-rated Hyundai dealerships—an astounding feat for someone who knew next to nothing about cars when he started. But when I ask him to what he attributes his success, his answer is surprisingly simple, almost old fashioned:
“If you stay the course, consistently doing the right thing, the right way, then you can get there,” he tells me. “If you’re honest and professional with people, they’ll come back to you. If you are the real deal, you’ll grow very quickly.”
Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? How old are you?
I’m from Fonthill, Ontario, and I’m 57 years old.
What do you do and how long have you been doing it for?
I’m the Dealer Principal of two Hyundai dealerships in the Niagara region. I’ve been in the business for 30 years.
That’s a long time! Have you ever worked in a different field?
Yes, prior to the car business, I was a musician, touring the country. I used to play keyboards for the Robbie Rae Band.
How did you get from there to where you are now?
I met my wife Maria, got married, got off the road and stopped playing with bands. One night my wife and I went for a drive, looked at a new car, and ended up purchasing that vehicle. I became friends with the manager who sold me the car. One day he asked me if I wanted to fill in a few days because one of his salespeople was sick. That’s how I started. I just stumbled into it.
Was it just pure “stumbling” that lead you to this work? What drew you to car sales?
There was always a part of me that was interested in business, as I was also working in a music store at the time, in the keyboard section, in sales. I enjoyed the sales part of it. I didn’t know, at the time, that I would be getting into car sales, but I did know that I wanted to be in business.
Do you feel as though you could have sold almost anything? Or was there something about cars in particular that attracted you?
I probably could sell anything, yes, but I really do enjoy cars and the interaction with the car buyer, no doubt about it. Business was the first attraction, but then I realized that it’s a very exciting, very vibrant industry. Once you get into it, there are always new challenges and opportunities. I started to really love the automotive business.
It’s a very exciting, very vibrant industry. Once you get into it, there are always new challenges and opportunities.
What kind of training or education do you need to become a cars salesperson?
There are a lot of regulations. Different provinces across the country have different levels of these regulations, but I think in most areas now, you need to do some sort of test. The government is involved, and there are transparencies, legalities you need to understand in order to get a salesperson license. You also have to get a job at a dealership, where they’ll say, “Yes, this person is going to be working for me, learning how to sell cars.” When you start, there will be on-the-job training, orientation. Some places—some manufacturers or franchises—have more than others. But it’s a combination of factory, internet, and live training, plus the on-the-job, everyday motions of doing the work: learning as you go, every day.
It’s a combination of factory, internet, and live training, plus the on-the-job, everyday motions of doing the work: learning as you go, every day.
And how do you find work as a car salesman? What’s the job market like?
I think that that’s one of the interesting things about the opportunities as a car salesman. I would imagine that you could open the paper any day and see a job posting for “Car Salesperson Wanted.” So the opportunity is there, but if you’ve got a store that has always got somebody they’re looking to replace, you’ve probably got a store that doesn’t have the best culture or environment. Other places might have other reasons for it: they’re growing, or they’re a very popular brand at the time. But, yes, car sales is probably one of the industries where, especially if you’re experienced and you need to relocate somewhere across the country for whatever reason, you should always be able to get work.
Could you tell me a little more about what it’s actually like to be a car salesperson? Walk me through a typical work day.
In our store—and every store has their own thing—we’re always on shift first thing in the morning at 8:30am. We gather in the boardroom, we review what happened yesterday, what opportunities are going on today, and whether there are any new programs happening. Then about 15 minutes later, we go down and start working on our daily activities, our work plan. That’s anything from getting ready for a customer who’s coming to pick up their new or used car, to getting ready for an appointment that’s already been scheduled, to setting up new sales appointments.
What kind of hours do you typically work?
For scheduled work, our hours should typically be about 40 to 44 hours across the board. But the high achievers—people at the top of their game—all work more hours, because that’s what they want to do. That’s the opportunity of the business: if you put more in, you’ll get more out.
That’s the opportunity of the business: if you put more in, you’ll get more out.
How do you mean? Are those high achievers paid overtime for the extra hours?
It’s one hundred percent commission. That’s why the more you put in, the more you get out.
What’s the work environment like? The culture of your store?
This store is one of the best stores in the country; out of 220 stores, we’re still the number one Customer Satisfaction Dealer in Canada. We’re a large store; we sell from 1800 to 1900 cars a year. But in order to achieve great customer satisfaction, it’s all about the process, having a great environment in the store, and getting the right people in the right positions. I think people respect the leaders of the store if they know exactly what they stand for: how we treat customers, how we treat each other, how we do things. Our employees know what’s expected, and they know they’ll be rewarded for what they do. If someone does something great, we make the accolades in public; if something’s not going that well, we deal with it one-on-one.
The other component is that we empower people to take care of customer concerns. A salesperson can spend up to $150, no questions asked, to satisfy a customer concern. Those are the things that drive what we are about. And when, as a company, you consistently work that way, the customer will know, the staff will know, and it will start to have a life of its own. Because that’s how we do it—that’s the culture, the environment. It creates a motivational environment where people understand what to do, and how, why, and when to do it. It sounds like a no-brainer, but there are a lot of pieces involved in making it happen.
And are you pretty involved in creating that motivational culture? As someone in a more senior level position?
The motivational environment, the culture, is a top down thing that’s sustained and expected by the ownership and the general managers. We set the tone for what is acceptable, as far as the culture with employees and the culture of taking care of customers. As the Dealer Principal, I create everything from the process to the word tracks to how we do things. The store is the store because of our amazing staff that buy into the philosophy. It’s the only way that I know how to run it, and, thankfully, it works wonderfully. That’s what’s great about this business—you can be transparent and you can do the right things and be successful. That’s the way you’re going to succeed.
That’s what’s great about this business—you can be transparent and you can do the right things and be successful. That’s the way you’re going to succeed.
Can you tell me a little more about the people that you work with? Your colleagues and coworkers?
I have 50 employees, and we have very good relations. There are a lot of people, a lot of very different personality types. We work with everyone’s strengths, we help them with their weaknesses. If you’ve got people with a good attitude, you can keep all that together.
And what are the customers like?
They’re wonderful. We get great reviews: a lot of comments like “The best car buying experience I've ever had.” Thirty-eight percent of all the business we do was referred to us by a friend or family member. That’s really a sign of doing the right thing the right way.
Would you describe your job as social?
Yes, very much. And not only do you have to interact with people face to face, you have to interact in a professional way on the phone, email, text message, and social media. There are so many different ways to communicate now that in order to come across as professional, the grammar, pace, and punctuation of what you say on the job have all become very important. It depends how successful you want to be and how much you want to grow, but you need to sharpen your skills in all of those areas.
What’s the best thing about your career?
You can really set your sights, your goals, on how high you want to go. It’s up to you to achieve a level that says success to you. Everybody’s definition of success is different. Maybe it’s making a certain amount of money in a day, and that’s great. Another person might have to be the best, have to have the highest volume. Another person might need to become a manager or a dealer before they feel successful. You can set that for yourself, and if you do want to be one of those top performers, you can do it.
You can really set your sights, your goals, on how high you want to go. It’s up to you to achieve a level that says success to you.
What’s the worst thing about your career?
I think it’s the same as any industry: the down economic cycles. With less people coming in, we may need to restructure in some areas. That’s probably the worst thing in any retail industry. With car sales jobs being a commission career, down cycles are a little tougher. Companies do put things in place to keep the best people going, but it’s still a challenge.
How’s the automotive market doing now? Are things looking good, from a sales perspective?
We’ve had several record years, and to tell the truth, I don’t think it’s going to stop just yet. There’s still a lot of older cars on the road that need to be replaced with new or newer vehicles.
What’s your work life balance like?
As I mentioned earlier on, like with any career, you could work your 40 to 44 hours a week and keep your balance perfectly. Our company advocates having a personal balance, but there are some people we have to tell to go home because they’re working all the hours. So today car sales is a business that understands that you need balance. The old way of doing it, when I started in the business, was to work six or seven days a week, twelve hours a day. That’s not a sustainable business practice. I think most companies understand that.
Now, having said that, it is a commission based job. You’re creating your own business, so sometimes you have to make sacrifices—especially in the early stages—to grow and learn and move through the ranks in the industry. You have to pick and choose how much of that is pulling away from your personal balance.
You’re creating your own business, so sometimes you have to make sacrifices—especially in the early stages—to grow and learn and move through the ranks in the industry.
Why is this kind of work a good fit for you?
For me, I’m process driven, I like people, and I think that I have a free flowing spirit as far as continuous improvement goes. I’ll always look at what I accomplish and think about how I could improve upon it moving forward.
What kind of person tends to succeed in your line of work?
Most of the top performers have a good, strong “will-do” attitude. They’ve got high energy, and a lot of them have some sort of sports background. In fact, women with sports backgrounds are some of the top performers in the industry. You also have to be able to work with different personality types and not just the ones you understand. That’s really the key combination: a good attitude, high energy, tenaciousness, and a personality that can work well with different types of customer personalities.
Who would you recommend your career to?
An energetic, long term thinker. Somebody who likes to be in control of their own income and career.
And what kind of advice would you give to somebody considering entering the career?
Look long term. Build your business within a business, one completely satisfied customer at a time. Don’t move around, if you can help it; stay put and grow your business.
Look long term. Build your business within a business, one completely satisfied customer at a time. Don’t move around, if you can help it; stay put and grow your business.
Build your business within a business? What do you mean by that?
Like I said, if you’re a sales consultant selling cars, you’re on 100% commission. The company supplies the phones, the internet, the cars, the building, a cubicle—everything else. We even supply the advertisement to bring the customer into the showroom, to bring them to you. Those clients bring in the referrals that help you build your personal business. All of a sudden, you won’t be needing any “new” customers as you’ll have so many of your own people coming back to see you, and referring their friends and family to you every year. That’s when you’ve built your business within a business.
What kind of career trajectory is typical?
Well, I can tell you about mine. I sold cars and then I became a Financial Services Manager—a business manager who takes care of finances. Then I became the Leasing Renewal Manager, then a Used Car Manager, and then a New Car Manager. After that I became the General Sales Manager, then a General Manager, and finally I became a Dealer Principal Owner. All in the same company.
Do people tend to move up the ranks a lot in this industry? Is that kind of trajectory pretty common?
You have to earn the right to qualify for the position. In order to do that, you have to continuously do the right thing, the right way. So if you stay the course, consistently doing the right thing, the right way, then you can get there—with some time and patience. But in order to grow, you have to be curious, you have to read, and you have to understand the industry. It all depends on how curious you are, how much you want to grow, and how much risk you can take as a person. Because the higher you go, the more risk is involved.
In order to grow, you have to be curious, you have to read, and you have to understand the industry.
Why do people tend to leave the business?
If they’re new to the business, the number one reason is probably that they came to a store that doesn’t have good process, or doesn’t teach you the process, and allows bad culture to have a cancerous effect. In those stores, new people are often blown out by the people who have been there for awhile.
Number two is that the person came to the career with all the best intentions, but is not comfortable with what you need to do in order to sell. Even in the best of stores, that’s possible. There are sometimes misconceptions about what selling cars is like. It’s not like selling shoes, where you present something and the person tries it on. That’s sales, it’s not selling. If you can be a top car salesperson, you’ll never be without work or income. It’s just one of those things. If you’re good at car sales you can basically sell anything.
If you can be a top car salesperson, you’ll never be without work or income. It’s just one of those things. If you’re good at car sales you can basically sell anything.
If people leave, do you know where they go next?
They go everywhere. I don’t think there’s a clear answer to that question.
What do you wish you would have known before you started this career?
When you’re young and you first start selling cars and you think that it would be really great to be a Dealer Principal of your own store, you sometimes question whether that’s actually available to you. But the amazing thing about this business is that it’s available to anyone who is willing to put in what it takes. So if I had known that earlier on, I probably would have fast-tracked what I did a bit quicker.
What’s the biggest misconception about the job?
That car salespeople are dishonest, that we’re not transparent. I think that’s the biggest hurdle. But our company works it 100% the opposite way. We’re totally transparent: if somebody wants an appraisal, we just do it. If somebody wants to buy a car, there are no deposits needed to get the figures. That’s how people want to purchase vehicles: quickly and transparently. So even though that misconception causes a lot of resistance, it’s also an opportunity. If you’re honest and professional with people, they’ll come back to you. If you are the real deal, you’ll grow very quickly.
But that’s not necessarily the same across the entire industry. Everybody has their own take on how to conduct their business—they’re going to do their own thing in a totally different way. This is just the way we’ve chosen to do it, because we believe it is the right way. So far it’s working well.
Is there anything else you’d like to add? Anything we didn’t cover?
I think the biggest thing is that the car business really, truly is an incredible career. There really is nothing else like it. Where else can you sell a product, create a great living, and if you desire, stay the course and become an owner someday?