Here's a story for you- what it was like working in sales for a Chrysler dealer during the automotive industry crisis. But first, a little background.
I joined the car business in autumn of 2007. I'd recently gotten a business degree that I'd hoped would really help my job prospects, but I wasn't having any luck finding a decent job. Everything required multiple years of experience that I didn't have. Frustrated and sick of my dead-end job, I decided to look into selling cars. I thought- I know and love cars and it'll help me get business experience, so why not? After a few years I could always move on to something better. A few weeks later I found myself the proud occupant of an 8'x8' cubicle in a Chrysler-Jeep dealership outside of Pittsburgh.
I'd spent most of my life around older cars, which was probably a good thing considering Chrysler's product line at the time. The 2008 model year had just been released, featuring mind-blowingly bad offerings such as the fifth generation Town & Country, third generation Sebring convertible, and second generation Jeep Liberty. Other industry winners such as the pre-facelift Jeep Patriot and Compass, third generation Sebring, and the Chrysler Aspen (remember those?) were still nice and fresh, having been launched the year prior. Lucky for me I considered a "newer" car to be anything under ten years old and didn't realize how horribly awful the cars I was selling were. I started my sales job full of piss and vinegar and it showed- my second full month in the business I snatched the salesperson of the month title away from a group of pissed-off veteran salesmen, and by month three I was promoted into an Internet Sales Manager position that'd been vacated by one of the aforementioned pissed-off veterans.
Pictured: veteran salesman
Fast forward to the autumn of 2008. We'd had a good year, sales had been decent (fueled by generous manufacturer incentives of course) and that summer we'd added the Dodge brand to our lineup. Recent news about Chrysler hadn't been good, though. We hadn't seen too much of it on the retail side of things, though a few things weren't quite right- most notably that shipments of parts and vehicles had become sporadic. Around November the shit started hitting the fan. Bad news came on top of more bad news in a snowball effect, and before long the powers that be were talking bankruptcy. In December President Bush announced the auto industry bailouts.
Our flow of customers dropped off dramatically. Customers didn't want to buy cars from a failing company. Even federal backing of auto warranties didn't help. Our sales and our paychecks dropped precipitously, and the salespeople started leaving for other brands. In the course of a few months we'd dropped from eight salespeople to four, and whittled our management staff down to a skeleton crew. I decided to stick it out- with the team being so small I had a pretty large chunk of the pie, and my Internet sales position was still a good place to be even with the lack of customers. And oh boy, the customers.
Chrysler's bankruptcy in April of 2009 made things even worse. It also brought out the worst of the customers. It seemed like every other person that came through the door hit us with statements such as "You guys are bankrupt, you must be desperate to make a sale. I'll give you $20,000 (for a car that stickers at $40,000) but no more."
Often times there were ones who wouldn't buy because of the bailout. Sometimes I'd spend hours or even multiple hours over several days with a customer who had to "go think about it," only to follow up with them and be told "My (insert family member here) says I shouldn't support a company that took taxpayer money." Rubbing salt in the wound were the ones who were deliberately demeaning- they'd come in and spend hours test driving cars and discussing numbers just to berate us for "stealing their tax dollars" and then storm out with a sense of smug satisfaction.
A day I'll never forget was one cold Monday morning that May. Chrysler had announced they'd be closing 700-odd dealerships, and Monday was the day we'd find out who was eliminated. Each dealership had received an express-mailed letter, sealed in a FedEx pouch. We all were confident we'd still be around- we were doing good business in a rapidly-growing suburb... but what if Chrysler deemed us superfluous? Our general manager paged all the dealership staff to the sales desk and ripped open the pouch.
We'd made the cut; Chrysler was keeping us around. Nobody clapped or cheered. We just all breathed a sigh of relief and went back to work.
Several other dealerships in the area weren't so lucky. We purchased a dozen or so vehicles from one of them as they liquidated their inventory. I rode along with our drivers to go pick the cars up, bringing back a silver Dodge Grand Caravan. The dealership building was a relic of the past, your typical mid-century dealership design with huge plate glass windows angling outward as they stretched from floor to ceiling.
Something like this.
I met the owner as I picked up the keys to the van- a grizzled old man, veteran of two wars, the dealership had been in his family since 1915. His voice wavered as he said he was going to soldier on selling used cars. His dealership is now a Sheetz gas station.
We slogged onward, selling a few dozen cars per month. The customers ribbing us for taking government money (nevermind that we were a franchise, NOT owned or employed by Chrysler) dwindled away. The cheapest minivans on the market were our bread and butter along with the ever-popular Jeep Wrangler. The Jeep Grand Cherokee, despite being absolutely horrid, still sold well by virtue of being a Jeep. The $4000 incentive kicked in by Chrysler didn't hurt. People were still crazy about the older Jeeps as well, and we made a good living selling used models. Dodge launched a new Ram during that time period as well, which was a nice boost for us. Oh, the Journey also came out around then... but having been designed by Chrysler at its worst it was just a blip on the radar. We sold two during the first month they were on the market.
And then the summer of 2009 hit.
Chrysler's reorganization came to a head in July 2009. During the shuffle they stopped paying certain bills- namely those of the auto transport companies. Shipments ground to a halt a few days after Cash for Clunkers launched (Cash for Clunkers is a whole story in itself, I'll save that for another time). We sold out of all our eligible cars in under two weeks, and with Chrysler not paying their transporters no more came. Four weeks into it we finally got a load of Dodge Calibers- not from Chrysler, but from a dealership in Virginia that got the ax in May. There had been a glitch with the title work and the cars had been mired in a bureaucratic mess for three months. We sold every one of them before the truck delivered them. By the end of Cash for Clunkers we had fifteen vehicles left on our lot (as I write this we currently have 325 in inventory).
Two weeks later a convoy of four auto transporters lined up on the side of the road in front of our dealership. We were back in business. The manager made an announcement about it on the intercom and everyone cheered.
By this time the Fiat merger was well under way and we'd heard lots of great news from Sergio Marchionne. He was an inspiration to all us salesmen who felt like we'd just waded through a sea of shit, and we all waited eagerly for every announcement from our sweater-wearing god. New products were still almost a year away but for the time being Fiat had injected a little bit of life into the product line. $19,000 Chrysler Sebrings with standard leather interiors! $20,000 minivans with DVD players! Dodge Nitros with 20" chrome wheels! All they'd really done was put lipstick on a pig, but it worked. Sales were climbing again and we were feeling hopeful. Knowing the worst was over gave us new energy, and 2010 was shaping up to be my best year to date.
I'll skip the boring details for a quick summary- in 2010 we got the new Grand Cherokee, Durango, Charger, and 300, plus a major facelift for the Journey, Compass, Patriot, Avenger, Town & Country, and Grand Caravan. 2011 came to greet us with Eminem and the new 200. Even though the 200 was just a polished-up version of the turd we knew as the Sebring, seeing the ad made us all feel a sense of confidence in our brand that we'd never felt before. We finally could say we were going to be okay.
Since that time, the dealership I was working for has quadrupled its volume. The ragtag team of four salespeople we had in 2009 has grown to a total of 27 people including managers. I continued in my Internet Sales Manager job, growing my team from just me to a group of six accounting for 60% of the company's business. I now head up the online operations division for our entire dealer group and no longer sell cars. Flounder became a sensitivity trainer, Otter became a gynecologist, and Neidermeyer was killed in Vietnam by his own troops.