TV review: 20,000 cars sold per year..but was House of Cars a deal or a gamble for Hursts?

After the very first episode of House of Cars – a BBC NI documentary looking at life for the sales force at Charles Hurst Group Boucher Road – over on Twitter Newton Emerson quickly drew a comparison between one sales manager and the Fast Show’s comedy salesman Swiss Toni.

And therein lies the problem: on the show the salespeople talk about sales and the managers demand even more sales (or else) while Twitter and Facebook users find reasons to mock and the customer….well, according to social media the customer could be forgiven for feeling lost in the noise.

While BBC NI (through Erica Starling Productions have produced a documentary which has attracted plenty of conversation and a lot of social media chatter, most has not been complimentary about the company featured. Many social media posters have been wondering what the aggressive, Darwinian management style shown at times – including swearing at staff and pitting sales staff against each other – says about their place as a customer.

At the time of writing from approximately 140 Tweets, easily two thirds were either poking fun at or criticising the behaviour of some of the people featured. Tweeters stated that they wouldn’t buy a car from the company or even wondered why the firm had agreed to take part in filming in the first place.

Over on Facebook, from around 45 posts on the Charles Hurst page some praise for the show could be found, especially for some of the young salespeople and newcomers, but still a large number of people voicing the same concerns as most Twitter posters about what they’d seen.

All in all, while Charles Hurst made an annual pre-tax profit of £8.7m at the last count, most social media users seemed to wonder if, image-wise, this was a lost deal.

In episode one we saw a very highly-motivated sales manager deliver a buzzword pep talk and explain how he cleared out his “rubbish” old sales-team, then tell a young salesman that he’d be sent home if he came to work unshaven. He followed this with various other ‘shape up or ship out’ high-pressure statements some Twitter users compared to the style of David Brent.

A famous Richard Branson quote tells us that staff should be trained well enough to leave but also treated so well they prefer to stay, thereby creating low staff turnover. It is probably safe to assume which of the two options the paying “punter” would prefer.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room: particularly in the earlier episodes, we saw very little talk of the most valuable commodity of all…the customer.

The closest at first came about when a salesman was given a sales ‘process’ to make his own and apply when dealing with a customer. Or else. Sales rules included an instruction to keep talking to the customer during a test drive and training given to attempt a close to get the business “today”.

I wonder if a number of potential customers, after seeing the headings including ‘GAP’, ‘Warranty’ etc above the sales board columns and the efforts made ensure they are kept filled, will have second thoughts about the advice of a salesperson advising on these add-ons after they have been shown what is at stake.

To digress for a second: I’ve been ‘processed’ twice by big name car sellers in Northern Ireland. It was not a good experience, from the embarrassingly transparent and manipulative generic sales lines to the downright disingenuous, such as “there have been people looking at that car all day” (points at freezing cold car with no rain underneath) and onwards to repeatedly pretending not to hear when I realised a car’s service book had been lost.

The ‘process’ was cold, impersonal, did absolutely nothing to reflect my needs as a customer and instead left a ‘never, ever again’ feeling, a promise that I didn’t want to see any of the disinterested staff ever again. I went back to small, country garages who live and die on their personal reputation and then aim – successfully – to gain customers for life. There are a few of these places with such a phenomenal reputation that they never have to close a deal as their customer loyalty does all the work. Have a look at a Ballymena church car park and you’ll see what I mean.

As for the reasons behind taking part in the House of Cars filming, the likes of Ryanair benefit from the ‘no such thing as bad publicity’ theory. After all, stories such as charging to use a bathroom associate their brand with cheapness, and not entirely in a bad way. But how could that possibly apply to the expensive product sold in this case?

Closer to home, to compare House of Cars to, say, the documentary about the Europa Hotel, the difference was that we were left with an affectionate feel for the Europa after that show. But how is the customer to feel about the subject of House of Cars, especially following the earlier, more sales-based episodes?

There were some startling statements made during the series: salespeople who are given crisps and energy drinks to “fill them up with shit”, a salesman who said the internet had made it harder to use smoke and mirrors to “make something look good”, a staff member told to keep an eye on what colleagues are doing to beat their sales, a hope that another staff member would become more “ruthless”….then a pep talk about the importance of working as a team.

The actual documentary itself was very watchable in its own way, with the stars of the show providing plenty of material, although as – again – pointed out by Newton Emerson on Twitter, the repeated breathless obsession with the size of the Charles Hurst operation (“biggest car lot in Europe”) was a little bizarre.

As it happens, as the show moved through episodes two and three it began, with some occasional f-word laden ‘staff coaching’, to draw out the personalities of the likable younger salespeople and even settled down to a fascinating scratch below the surface by way of wandering into the psychology and motivation of one sales manager.

Bosses spoke fondly of their young protégés, one particularly aggressive sales manager could be seen enjoying more rapport and chemistry with his staff and we were able to follow a fledgling young salesman growing in confidence after his first sale: much to the obvious and genuine pride of his boss.

We also heard a little more reference to the customers themselves, some young salespeople were told their salary and perks (£25,000 to £40,000, plus demo car) made them a fortunate group for their age and we had the interesting diversion of a promotional video shoot for a new Toyota Aygo car.

But back on social media and, I’d imagine, in canteens around Northern Ireland, the talk seemed to be stuck on episode one, with an ironic and negative House of Cars Fan Club tweet account also now in full flow.

One Tweeter made the fascinating point that they’d be watching the response of mainstream media to the show with interest.

As the final episode was showing the rapidly expanding Charles Hurst Group had been creating a buzz in the media about the further growth of their company. Requests from myself for their input into this piece weren’t answered.

Ultimately, the fascinating question is this: whether a business taking part in a fly-on-the-wall documentary is gambling with their image? For the likes of Ryanair and the Europa Hotel, it seems to have paid off. Opinions about how the brand shown in House of Cars has faired from the exposure seem to be very mixed, at best.

A book I read recently about copy writing claimed that a reader is only interested in one thing…themselves. While House of Cars successfully showed us the lengths the company featured will go to in driving staff, sales and profit, some customers seem to have been left wondering if the focus of the show should have been on how the firm works to make happy customers, not happy sales managers.

Conor Johnston – @CJohnstonNI – writes about subjects including culture (especially film/ cinemas), identity and media. He also blogs at www.freerangewords.net