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.

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  • Catcher in the Rye

    I would never buy a car at Hurst’s anyway, and watching obviously did nothing to change my mind. The company were sued at least once in the past for charging for parts that were never installed.

  • cathiali

    Anyone surprised at the way the management and staff on this show get on have clearly never worked in any kind of unskilled sales-driven job. Perhaps in places such as smaller rural car dealerships it’s different, but in the corporate world this is what happens in all jobs like this – the management is abysmal and bordering on abusive at times, the managers all think they’re god’s gift, and when it’s not going well it’s – always – the staff’s fault. Obviously these management methods don’t actually work and just kill morale and put sales staff under unnecessary pressure (you’re already very aware when you’re not going to hit target because that means you’re going to miss out on your commission and it’s often commission that brings the basic pay up to anything even vaguely reasonable, you really don’t need a manager giving you a “motivational” lecture) – and variation in sales figures is often much more down to chance than anything management could ever say or do, but that’s how these businesses operate. Bring in young staff, pit them against each other ‘all for the good of the team’, give management the credit when things are going well, and sack staff when they haven’t sold anything because nobody’s buying (despite what management will tell you, it’s probably not your fault).

    Honestly, this is the most accurate portrayal of working in sales that I’ve seen. Well done BBC.

  • Zeno

    Yeah, but was that before the GFA or after?

  • Thanks for this – I have family members who worked in sales and some of that sounds very familiar.

  • I remember that one – the parts had been marked beforehand by a customer.

    http://www.northernireland.gov.uk/news/news-deti/news-deti-july-2007/news-deti-170707-charles-hurst-in.htm

  • aquifer

    What is the point of buying a newer car if the MPG figures have been fiddled? With a bit of care and servicing cars are good for over 130,000 miles nowadays. Put the money in a pension. With a bit of regular walking people are good for 85 years nowadays.

  • I honestly don’t know….a nearly-new car with a long warranty is half the price. And a much older car with low miles and a decent history could equal a massive saving too.

    I’m also conscious that every salesperson spent years telling us that diesel was the best thing ever, only for our indie mechanics to put us right on that one.

  • David Crookes

    Quare comeejin.

  • Mister_Joe

    And now VW have been found to have been rigging their diesel emission tests. What an enormous world wide scam. They are truly F>>ked. Serves them right.

  • Granni Trixie

    Was thinking same. The picture of Hurst which emerges is probably representative of the world of sales generally. I say this based on experience of selling advertising (telads in a local newspaper).
    I witnessed for instance a guy beng sacked on Christmas Eve for not reaching his targets and one reason I changed careers was that I identified that I Couldn’t go for the jugular something I think you need in sales to get ahead.

    What I know at first hand is however from the late 60s and was surprised watching the very watchable programme to see that practices had changed so little given current
    employment law.

  • Heard yesterday that their share price had dropped a third. Will be fascinating to see how they recover from it.

    Then again, look at Skoda ‘then and now’ and Toyota’s PR disaster seems to have been and gone (I’m no expert but I’d say their dreary model range/ image is more of an pressing issue).

  • Janos Bingham

    Some of the reaction to the programme comes across as rather naive. Salespeople, from whatever industry, are not your friends: despite their, at times, oleaginous parody of being your pal. If you’re taken in by their ‘I want to do you a great deal’ line more fool you.

    The salesperson is trying to extract as much of your cash as they can. It is the buyers’ role to pay as little as possible. Do people really not know the reason behind the saying ‘caveat emptor’?

    Selling things is not a social service.

    The car sales industry is no better nor no worse than any other. A reason for its particular reputation is perhaps because the car-buying process takes longer than other transactions, with the exception of buying property- and estate agents exist in the popular imagination on a par with car salespeople. Over the this time period the ‘lamb’ will imagine that they have a ‘relationship’ with the staff and may actually believe that the person they are dealing with is on their side. Can you really fault a business that is about making a profit from ‘shearing’ as much as they can?

    I buy my cars from another local car sales group. Despite the comfy leather chairs, the attractive staff bringing me my ‘free’ coffee and snacks, I remain aware that it’s me together with the other customers who pay for the smart suits and dazzling smiles.

    So when it comes to the price I’ll get the best deal I can. I understand that they need to make money on the deal, it is a business not a charity, but I’ve done my research and I know already what I want to pay. If they can’t meet me? Well there are plenty of other places selling cars.

  • Cosmo

    One one level, I agree with your view that we should know how the world works a la Harvard tricky business ‘ethics’ in our so-called free market. And ‘car salesmen’ are a parody of business sales, which it sounds like this documentary is just riding on. But Commercial business people who live in a small community or market, will understand they have to take a longer view, engender customer satisfaction, service and ‘good business’; and repeat business, unless they are in a monopoly. And the art of negotiations is win/win – for both sides. Ideally, Salespeople will have an in-depth knowledge of the product range, pro’s and cons’ etc which will actually help the customer to get what is best for their purposes.
    It’s genuinely sub-standard management and (desperate?) business practice with only short-term benefits, if the management are just going for a quick hit.

  • Cosmo

    well said.

  • Brian O’Neill

    Well yes and no. With a new car you can save on repairs, plus they maybe more efficient and have a low or zero car tax rate. Also you can get a lot of deals like free insurance, free servicing etc. £75 a month for a new car is extremely tempting for people http://www.skoda.co.uk/finance/finance-offers/0-pcp/citigo-offer/default/

    Our last car was a VW Polo. When it got older we had a £600 repair bill to fix it, we sold it 2 weeks later for £650. Our current car a Skoda Fabia (yes I am boring, I like Germanic minimalism) was £9995 new and has been extremely reliable and efficient. Depreciate is running at about a grand a year.

    The best way to save money is if you know the provenance of a car. There is a ton off cars out there only used to drive to church or get the papers, if you know it was well taken care of you can get a great bargain.

  • the rich get richer

    I suggest that the electric cars will be taking over the road especially in cities.

    These diesels are putting out a lot of bad stuff (Probably why Volkswagon were covering it up)

    Electric cars are very clean at street level and it seems to be a no brainer to me.

  • Janos Bingham

    The company in question has been running successfully for some considerable time. Its business model appears to be working.

    The “art of negotiation” will indeed work for both sides. Yet on one side, the customers’, it is not practised often enough. I was once amazed to overhear a conversation between a salesman and a couple who were buying a car at the desk next to the one I was sat at ( I was awaiting the return of the guy who I was dealing with – we were in the middle of the ‘best price’ dance as he went to and fro between me and the sales and finance directors to see what more they could shave off to get closer to my offer).

    The couple’s salesman added up the costs of the car, and the spec they wanted and then told them the figure. Did they question it, or start to barter? Not at all. They only thing they asked was how much the desposit would be and then the salesman launched into his financing spiel.

    As I left the showroom they were all smiles as they chatted with the salesman over coffee as their paperwork was being sorted out. I expect they came away thinking he was one helluva guy. No doubt when they got their ‘complimentary’ bouquet of flowers when they picked up their new car they were more than happy – as I suspect are the many who buy from Hursts in this “small community or market”.

  • Cosmo

    From Deference to Reference as the Marketers say. I wonder if this deference is a generational thing. And also comes from an era where people were more trusting of authority and white collars.A car purchase is often one of the most ‘glamorous’ things people buy. I hope ‘your’ couple were happy with their dream.
    Taking a completely different angle – I find it distressing that this generation will stump up full whack, for the car or sofa – but openly niggle over the hourly rate, and work output, for a £10 an hour cleaner or careworn carer.
    By the way, from a commercial standpoint not an ethical one, the management decision to do this programme indicates to me, that if I’d shares in Lookers, the parent plc, I would look to offload them asap!

  • Janos Bingham

    I don’t agree that it’s generational. The couple I observed were young.

    A car is for many people very much a status symbol. Perhaps the ‘glamour’ of the purchase would be reduced if people (subconsciously at least) felt they were soiling the experience by bargaining? I’ve been told that should a customer baulk at the price an effective sales trick is for the salesperson to suggest to the customer that they could show them something cheaper – apparently a real stab at the heart of someone’s feelings of self worth.

    Some people will apparently over extend themselves just to prove that they are ‘worthy’ of the purchase. Again I think a reflection of this faux friendly relationship that sales people strive to build: you wouldn’t want your ‘friend’ to think you are a cheapskate, now would you?

    You make a very valid point about the difference in approach to others providing what some might see as a more ‘menial’ business service. Whereas some may regard themselves as bring friends with their car ‘sales executive’ the same people may think of the guy cleaning out their gutters as little more than a paid servant, and therefore ripe for being financially screwed.

  • 23×7

    It was road crash TV. Typical N.I. television approach attempting to do something “edgy” but in reality simply copying the worst bits from elsewhere. Like our politics our TV studios are populated with people who have been there too long.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    well, diesel is the “best thing ever” if you define “best”. It burns less fuel, and modern diesels produce less CO2. Modern turbodiesels are nice and torque-y too. Being built to higher tolerances they tend to be more reliable, which is why almost all taxis are diesel.

    The problem is that nobody looked at NOx. Saying “it was all a con” is to move the goalposts. For the past 15 years we’ve all been talking about reducing carbon emissions, and diesel has delivered on that.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Doubt they’re f’d. They’re going to take a financial penalty, which at this stage looks to be about the equivalent of half a year’s profits. That is by no means insurmountable for a company of that size.

  • Absolutely, but I was thinking more of the initial price and then cost to repair for someone with a private car outside warranty.

    I used to hand hundreds and hundreds of pounds to my mechanic on a regular basis until he quietly told me that diesel engines are putting his kids through university.

    I bought a light car with a petrol engine and haven’t seen him since, been surprised by the MPG too. For an average commuter I suspect switching to a petrol would save money.

  • I’d say you are right: now that the monthly finance cost of an electric car is as low as finance on a ‘normal’ car (in some cases) it makes the fuel almost free and the tax a non-issue.

    Just a case for some people of waiting for more choice and possibly more capacity for distance on a charge.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Electric cars are, for me, the most exciting automotive development at present.

    There are so many benefits. The energy efficiency part is well covered, as is the aspect that they have no tailpipe emissions. But they’re also a great deal simpler. The emissions control systems on diesel cars – where VW did their cheating – are highly complex and calibrated mechanical and chemical machines which promise to remove only a portion of the pollutants emitted. And as we’ve been hearing this week, they don’t even accomplish that.

    Electric cars are extremely simple in comparison. It’s a motor, battery and control electronics. The electric motor is derived from a design that is over a century old, is well in excess of 80% efficient, requires no manual or automatic transmission to deliver power at all speeds, and can be switched to return unused power to the battery by slowing the car down – this in turn saves wear on brake pads.

    The key enabler of electric cars is the battery technology, and there’s a clear incremental path here. The new Nissan Leaf next year will have a range of 107 miles. Tesla’s forthcoming Model 3, due in 2017, will have a range of around 200 miles. Elon Musk believes that battery capacity (ie energy density) will increase each year into the future by 5%.

    It’s an idea whose time has come. I really hope the government use this diesel controversy as an opportunity to push adoption of electric cars as hard as they can.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    If diesels are less reliable and cost more to run due to repair costs, then why do all the taxi drivers use them ? Something isn’t adding up there. I had always understood the reverse was true; good diesels are more reliable, as they are manufactured to higher tolerances – accordingly diesels cost more than petrol engines of equivalent performance.

    I switched to diesel from petrol, more as an experiment than out of necessity, and I’m definitely saving money. My Civic’s 2.2 ctdi – quite a poky engine given the size of the car – gives me over 50mpg on the motorway when driven moderately. I previously had a 1.6L petrol Civic and could never get it above the high 30mpgs, driving similarly. The saving is very noticeable especially now that diesel is slightly cheaper per litre.

    I agree though, that diesels are not a good choice, especially new, unless someone is doing lots of miles to justify the higher initial price of the car.

  • When I said the average commuter I could have added ‘depending on mileage’: a better way of putting it is that there’s an assumption at times that diesel will save money but the figures don’t add up for everyone when repair costs and initial price is considered. Especially if a person has a commute on the shorter side and can perhaps even find a really sound older, low mileage petrol at a good price: it could *all* (some people seem to ‘write off’ the car cost) add up to very cheap ‘motoring’ (a cold term I dislike as I have always loved cars, they aren’t simply an A-B).

  • Completely agree – it is really exciting stuff and could be a big payday for the car trade perhaps: if people are spending say £200 on monthly finance now and £200 on fuel then tempting them into a good £200-£300 option with no tax should become an easier and easier sell as the choices improve.

  • johnerskine

    Back in the days when I lived in the Province/Occupied Six Counties/NORN Iron, Charles Hurst (along with Osborne, King and Megran, and the RUC) were a refuge for old boys of my school who hadn’t done particularly well in their ‘O’ Levels… Yes, that well-known comprehensive on the Belmont Road with the rather large grounds… Am I to assume this is no longer the case?

    I’ve had my reservations about the motor trade ever since, and the last car I bought was from a human being, on E-Bay… It’s done me for eight years so far, and I’m not planning to sell. I don’t know why anyone patronises these eejits…

  • Catcher in the Rye

    I just wonder how the government will plug the gap caused by the fall in fuel duty and the associated VAT. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it I guess ..

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Yeah the mileage is the key factor. Like for like a diesel on a basic car, is going to add about £2000 to the price with the performance level about the same. You’d have to rack up quite a few miles to save £2000. In my own case, I drive about 8000 miles per year, which is roughly £900 in diesel or £1100 in petrol. It would take nearly ten years for the diesel costs to break even.

    Of course if you’re a taxi doing 50,000 miles in a year the calculation becomes a lot more obvious; it would take less than a year for the fuel costs to pay for themselves.

    The only thing holding me from switching to electric at the moment is the range business. I really fancy the Golf GTE but can’t justify the outlay at this point. I’ll probably wait until the Civic dies.

  • I suspect they’ll find a way! Will be interesting to see.

    Just stumbled on @plugincarguy, the owners he talks to do seem to be passionate about their cars. Bearing in mind they get a brand new car and no fuel bills I can see why.

  • A bit of an aside but I’ve seen some very high-end taxis on the road in Belfast and wondered how those sums add up.

    I remember Jay Leno making the argument that petrol heads can use the fuel saving to have an interesting wee old Sunday car. I wonder if the change in the financial side of things will turn out to allow some people to have an old hobby car and how it will affect the apparently booming market for desirable old cars (original Golf GTi’s, for example, already selling for thousands).