A girl in the boy’s car club


Setting foot in a car yard is a dreaded but every now and then necessary experience Ð rather like that occasional visit to the dentist. Wouldn’t it be nice to see a genuinely friendly face on the car lot, someone who is there to help but who has no intention of twisting an arm to get a name on the dotted line?

The next time you are at the car yard, take a look around. Not counting your fellow buyers, how many women do you see? The phrase ‘conspicuous by their absence’ leaps out. Given that 51 per cent of the population are female, and that studies here and overseas have shown that a large percentage of car buyers are women, the absence of women salespeople must be seen at best as an oversight by the car industry, at worst as an anomaly perpetuated by the ‘boys toys’ view of anything powered by petrol.

And yet the women that are working selling cars, few as they are, have consistently found that their presence has been met with a welcome response from quite a large slice of the buying public.

Robyn Salmon, at Ferntree Gully Nissan, has been selling cars for 13 years. She tends to think that the general perception is that a woman does not automatically put up the ‘hard sell’ front. ‘A lot of the training, lately introduced, has tended to emphasise not being so pushy and heavy handed, whereas a woman doesn’t do that anyway,’ she says. ‘A lot of elderly people I get on great with. And this is where the older people probably feel a little bit more relaxed, and feel like they’ve got the time to go and have a look.’

Easing off on selling pressure can also work to her advantage. Clients feel ‘a sigh of relief just seeing a woman’, Salmon says. ‘They may think we’re easier to talk to, so I suppose in that case really you’re halfway there. Of course it’s a matter of you doing your job too.’

Salmon’s last point is a crucial one. There is still a job to be done, and a lot of pressure to make a sale. ‘The pressure is there every day. You go home carrying that, if you haven’t sold a car,’ she says. ‘And you should really look at that from a woman’s point of view. For a male, it’s almost an expected thing for them to have ‘time out’ to cope with pressure, but for a woman to have to go home and have a family and do the normal chores…. That’s why very few women last. There have been quite a few in the industry, but very few that last in it.’

And just being a woman, in an apparently man’s world of cars, has an undeniable bearing on coping day-to-day. ‘It’s whether women can really get away from this bimbo image that most males tend to think they are. Many times a male buyer just won’t want to talk to me,’ Salmon says. ‘I mean a male will come in to a male and not ask about the engine, but will come up to a female and ask about the engine. I suppose trying to bamboozle you, or trying to see if you have what it takes.

‘There’s lot of stories you could put down to chauvinistic attitude and rudeness, but once I’ve got across that I know what I’m talking about, I have no real problems,’ she says. ‘But I really have to prove that to start with, whereas a male may get away with a lot more just because they are a male.’

Margaret Alderson, who works at Jefferson Ford and has been in the industry for 11 years, echoes this sentiment. ‘You’ve got to prove yourself twice as much sometimes,’ she says. ‘Men tend to think they are actually going to get a better deal just because you’re a woman. Really you do have to prove that you are capable, but you find that once you do that they will trust you and send people to you, and even keep coming back to you. So being a woman does give you a winning edge sometimes.’

Salmon says that as soon as people walk on the lot, they put up an armour of non-trust. ‘But as soon as you win them over, that trust can come through,’ she says. ‘Especially if you show that you’re helping them. Whereas a lot of the men are just purely after business, and I think people see that.’

Alderson has found that a lot of women liked dealing with women because they felt they were treated equally. ‘And they felt that they weren’t being made to feel silly if they asked different questions,’ she says.

And yet it is the dealings from within the car camp, the lack of rapport salesmen have with female buyers, that is of more general concern. ‘A lot of the guys don’t spend time with women when they come in to the dealership, basically because they’re not men,’ Alderson says. ‘Let’s put it this way. Say someone’s wife came in to shop for a car because the husband did not have time to shop around during the day. A lot of guys selling are not going to worry about her so much, seeing her as only being sent in for the man. The idea seems to be that it’s only the man that they are going to deal with.

‘And that’s wrong. Nine out of 10 times it is the woman that will make the decision on the car,’ she says. ‘You would be surprised about how many woman actually make the final decision. The husband might carry the money and do a lot of other things, but the woman ends up making a lot of the decisions.’

Grant Burt, economic and market analysis manager at Martec, a firm of consultants to the automotive industry, says that although he has not seen any specific Australian research, the industry assumption is that about 50 per cent of cars are purchased for women. ‘Women are certainly influential in the buying process by about 80 per cent. Now these figures are based on US statistics, but in a broad sense we would accept that they are probably about right for Australia,’ he says.

Martec has offices in Melbourne, Sydney and London and has undertaken a nationwide study of cars and women by means of what Burt calls a ‘mystery shopper campaign’, in which the company had several women go into a total of 128 dealerships to buy a new car. ‘We then effectively scored these dealerships on how the women got treated, whether they followed up, used jargon, went through the sales process correctly – even if they were sexually harassed, and I’m pleased to say that none of them were,’ he says.

Burt says that a similar survey undertaken by Thomas Cowie, a large dealer group in the UK, showed up some things that he describes as ‘pretty scary’.

‘They surveyed about 1500 women who had bought used cars, and only 9 per cent were prepared to enter a new car showroom unaccompanied,’ he says. ‘But the interesting thing that came out of (our own study) is that the industry in Australia treats women better than in Britain, but not as well as they do in the US.’

Dealerships in the US have known for much longer that women represent a good deal of the market. Martec reports, for example, that women buy 25 per cent of light trucks in the US. ‘We don’t know what the exact figure might be here, but it would be higher than most people suspect,’ Burt says.

‘There is a trap that the industry falls into that says that women buy small cars. But it is a trap, and a sexual stereotype. And it’s not necessarily true. The women involved in our own study were told to go and shop for the car in any dealership that they as a customer would feel most comfortable in buying. Now this is not statistically valid, because there are some franchises like Diahatsu and Suzuki which don’t have large cars,’ Burt says, ‘but 17 per cent of the women selected a six cylinder car. Now if you back out the Suzukis and Diahatsus, it means that over a quarter of these women elected to buy what Australians would consider to be a large car.’

The Martec study did unearth what Burt says is a disappointing trend. ‘The luxury franchises, such as Volvo, Mercedes Benz and Honda, or people who would regard themselves as prestige cars, didn’t come out well,’ he says. ‘We can’t say why and we can’t say that’s true for all Volvo or Mercedes dealers of course, and the sample was relatively small. But it was consistent, and this survey was done Australia-wide.’

But Martec did report that about two thirds of the women in the study were happy with the way they were treated. Slightly under half said they would go back and deal with the same dealership again, and all said that having now gone through the experience, they would now feel comfortable about having to do it again.

Being made to feel comfortable, it seems, figures largely in the successful selling equation. Alderson recalls the time when one woman came into the dealership in which she was working and asked to see a female salesperson. ‘But the men’s comment then is ‘what are they, a lesbian?’ They can’t handle that. ‘Why can’t they deal with a man, there must be something wrong with them.’ They wouldn’t stop to think that there might be something wrong with themselves, or consider the case of a man not wanting to deal with a woman,’ she says.

Is it worth all the anxiety? It may well be that any job is better than not working at all, but at the end of the day the effort and angst should bear some benefits. Alderson sees great scope for women in the car selling business, but concedes that change within the industry will be hard and slow. At the moment, it is still ‘the boys club’, she says. ‘They don’t believe that a woman can manage cars. And they don’t want to work under a woman. What they forget is that there are actually quite a lot of women that are quite capable in cars, that you don’t need to be an absolute petrol-head to have the talent to run a dealership.’

Burt says: ‘Sterling Moss used to say two things. ‘Every man thinks he is a great lover and a great driver. But every woman doesn’t.’ But whether we like it or not that stereotype is still there today in people’s minds.’

Alderson sees a great challenge in her job, and says that people coming into it have to be prepared to make changes. ‘The way to achieve that is if a lot more women make the move into this industry,’ she says. But it seems the lack (negligible presence) of women working in car sales is not being ignored. Tim Watkins, manager, fixed operations, at Reg Hunt in Elsternwick, says that he sees ‘exceptional value’ in the idea of having women selling cars.

Watkins of course readily admits that he is also looking at the situation from the point of view of selling more cars, and says that Reg Hunt must be missing out on a fair portion of the car market specifically by not employing more female salespeople. ‘I would think there’s a segment of the market that we are missing out on that’s quite representative,’ he says. ‘I’m not able to give a percentage figure of that, but it is certain to be a significant portion.’

But even given this, the sales team at Reg Hunt is still under-represented by female staff. Watkins, however, says that this is not from lack of trying. ‘We’ve had a few (women) in, but the big deterrent, particularly if anyone is married, is the horrendous hours. We start at 8.30 and we finish at six, five nights a week, and we finish at six on Saturdays,’ he says. ‘So that’s six days a week, and they have half a day off, that we pick, not that they pick. And they’re still responsible for their deliveries, so if they have to deliver a motor car on the same day, they don’t get their afternoon off.

‘We advertise jobs anyway, and if a woman turns up, that’s good. But it’s very difficult to go out and find someone,’ he says. Robyn Salmon also points a finger at the long hours. ‘Everyone in the car industry is quite hungry to get more sales, so they are even introducing later times,’ she says. ‘Now quite a few are working ’til eight o’clock at night. And you’ll find in the next few years they’ll probably be working Sundays as well.

‘So I mean, you can’t even say it can only get better, it’s only getting harder. But I’m not being negative,’ she says. ‘That’s the way it is for everyone, not just because I’m a woman. That’s the trade.’

Alderson says she knows of one Mitsubishi fleet dealership in Brisbane that is all female. ‘And they do brilliantly,’ she says. ‘They sell trucks, everything. They do very very well. But they’ve earned the respect.

‘I’ve seen women in charge of dealerships in other states, but you don’t see that in Melbourne,’ Alderson says. ‘I think it would be brilliant to have an all female sales team, or an all female car yard; just to see how it went.’

Interestingly, the top nationwide salesperson for Ford last year, based in Sydney, was a woman, says Grant Burt at Martec. He emphasises that it is really not a matter of gender, but of following a professional approach, the ‘road to a sale’ as insiders put it. ‘This is the meet, greet, qualify, demonstrate, the test drive and the close,’ he says. ‘Those who stick to the professional approach do very well. I know of successful salespeople, male and female, who make over $100,000 a year, and they’re 23, 24 years of age. But they’re getting paid that money because they’re successful.’

Burt warns that it is dangerous to assume that the sex of a salesperson is the universal answer. ‘Putting female salespeople into your showroom is not necessarily going to solve the problem. The better way is to have well-trained and professional salespeople,’ he says. ‘The traditional hard sell salesman is known in the industry as a ‘gorilla’. They were the successful salesmen of the 70s, and the gorillas are still around. But then there are female gorillas too you know.’


This story first appeared in The Age newspaper