Few teenagers forget buying their first car. My father refused to give me a car like all of the other 16-year-old kids at my fancy prep school in Philadelphia. He played me cassette tapes of 1970s sales training guru and author of the book How to Master the Art of Selling (buy at Amazon) a true classic, when we drove back and forth from his house in South Jersey to my mother’s home in the Chestnut Hill. When I actually turned 16, I wasn’t very flush with cash, but I did have a slick audio system with a Rotel CD player, an Audio Alchemy DAC, an NAD receiver, a B&K amp, and some Dahlquist DQ10 speakers (that looked cool but pretty much sucked despite their legacy), in case you were wondering where my extra money went back then. My dad offered to rent me his 1981 300-SD diesel-powered, ultra-slow, beige Mercedes S-class sedan. This car might have been one of the heaviest and slowest in automotive history. This specific model developed a bacterial infection in the fuel tank, which made it even slower, but for $150 per month, I could rent it and that was quite tempting. The issue was: I needed a job to pay my new bills but I was hooked on audio. I convinced the manager at Bryn Mawr Stereo in the Abbington suburb of Philadelphia to let me work for five hours per week on Friday nights. All commission. No minimum wage. And I had to do whatever they asked. If one of the older salesmen sold some gear, I took my suit-wearing-ass down the stairs to lug the gear up to help complete their sales – for free. Some of the old timers called me “Boy,” and I couldn’t much care. Working in a stereo store in 1990 was as fun as Dire Straits implied. More fun, actually. Money For Nothing (and your KEFs for free – if you won the sales contest… and I did). (buy at Amazon on CD, DVD or vinyl)
Six months into my five-hour-per-week gig and I had aggressively saved up a few thousand dollars to spend on a car. My father was seemingly impressed and he decided to take my $150 per month rent payments and apply them to the purchase of a new car. We always loved going to different car dealership in South Jersey over the years. In that era, I wanted to buy a 1992 GMC Typhoon, which was 4×4 SUV with pure racecar horsepower. One older kid at prep school had one, and it was bitchin’. But I wasn’t getting one and I knew it.
My father and I settled on a Volkswagen GTI as the car of choice. It was about $12,000 at the time. With the money I put down plus some money from my father, I had a five-year note on a new car with a $125 per month payment. To quote Leo DiCaprio in Titanic… I was THE KING OF THE WORLD!!!
As part of the car-hunting process, I will never forget the old-school, truly professional salesman at Cherry Hill VW-Porsche-Audi. This guy was not your typical slimeball car salesman. Not at all. He was a true master of his trade. He was smart enough to see us drive up in a brand-new Mercedes 300 SL, so we were automatically qualified buyers. He knew that he could sell me a car but he was looking to sell my father his next fancy car too. I told you this guy was a pro. He made our deal easy, as my father explained to him what he was trying to do. They got the actual car for me from another dealer, as I had to have a red one so that I could get more tickets speeding around town.
On the day that I picked the car up on Route 70 in Cherry Hill, my shiny-red and highly detailed car was parked by the front door of the showroom, but what was in front of it was next level. It was a brand new 911 Turbo, Guard’s Red with cashmere interior. The car was perfectly detailed, but the salesman asked me to sit in it. My dad did too. The car was awesome. I wasn’t going to take it home, but by the time I was in my early 30s, I ultimately bought a 1997 911 Twin Turbo – in Guard’s Red, of course. The salesman was planting seeds. Seeds that would successfully grow into the biggest of sales someday.
I drove the red 1992 VW GTI across the country to go to music and business school at USC in the late summer of 1993. That car also took me to work at the legendary audiophile dealer Christopher Hansen Ltd. in Beverly Hills, where I sold some of the world’s fanciest audio products from Mark Levinson, Transparent Audio, and audiophile speakers like Wilson and THIEL. The lessons learned from buying my fist car weren’t lost on me, nor were the words of Tom Hopkins from all of those rides home with the sales training tapes rolling in the Blaupunkt head unit in the old diesel Benz.
One thing that I tried to do very well was qualify clients correctly. With world-class audiophile amps, preamps, speakers, and digital audio everywhere, it was hard not to get distracted. Also, if you didn’t know the rough budget of the client, you could be showing them a $12,000 pair of speakers on reference audiophile electronics when they were looking for a $2,000 pair that they would have bought that day. Blowing budgets can quickly spoil a sale, I learned. From the VW dealership in Cherry Hill, I remembered, however, to “plant the seed” like that old-timer-pro did. After we completed the demo (or actual sale), I would ask if the person wanted to take a quick listen to our reference system. I wasn’t putting miles on it like a test drive of a Rolls Royce (their dealership was across the street), so there was no physical downside. But if I’d played it for the guy first, I would have likely blown the deal altogether.
There are many techniques, habits, and practices that the best audiophile salesman share in common. While many shoppers look at salesman in a negative light, when you have the chance to work with someone who is truly excellent at his or her craft (and I did work with a woman at Chris Hansen’s, who was excellent) it is a true pleasure.
Here Are Some Things That Top Audiophile Sales People Do in Their Process
- Qualify, Carefully: Pro audio sales people ask the right questions to find out of you are looking to buy now, in the near future, or just doing some research for the hobby. There’s nothing wrong with any of the three, but you’d be foolish to spend two hours listening to music with someone who told you that they can’t (and won’t) buy any time soon. You want to show them an amazing experience, but you need to respect your time too.
- Never Shit Talk Other Brands: If we told the VW guy that we were at the BMW dealer before, he would say something like “Did you drive that M3? WOW – what a car that is…” He would never go negative. Ever. You only have to make this salesmanship mistake once, where you poo-poo the Krell amp that the client just heard an hour ago right before he listened to your Mark Levinson. Your odds of closing the Levinson sale just dropped to 10 percent or lower as you simply never, ever talk the competition down – even if you’re dying to.
- Provide Meaningful Consumer Value: Back in the day, there was no Audiogon.com. There was no eBay.com. Hell, there was no rec.usedaudio for most of the time I was an audio salesman. Selling used audiophile gear was not a simple transaction. People listed products in the newspaper classified section in text ads without enough words. Being able to take someone’s product in for trade a good price made the transaction a lot easier for the consumer.
- Overcome All Objections: Sales, in its most simple form, is about overcoming objections. If you earn your client’s trust, they will share what their objections are. If the speakers might be too big, you might ask “If I brought them over after work and we took them into your house and they fit, would you be a proud THIEL client?” If yes, you knew what you were doing after work. If the client said “I just spent $2,000 on this Bryston stereo preamp and I don’t think I can get about $800 for it used and this Mark Levinson No. 38 is $4,000,” you might ask, “If I could get you $2,000 for your Bryston preamp, would you upgrade to the Mark Levinson No. 38?” If yes – you likely just got a sale. This concept is called a trial close, and over time you can earn the right to a sale as part of a process that makes it better and more pleasurable for all parties involved.
- Always Stay in Touch with Your Core Clients: All marketing boils down to CPA (cost per acquisition of client), meaning once you earned the right to sell this client something, you can sell them more when they are ready. I used to like to sell Wilson speakers back in the day, but they were very expensive at $12,300 per pair. They were, however, easy to drive, so you could put a system together for about $15,000 with an affordable Sony ES audiophile Compact Disc player, some entry-level Transparent cables, and a modest Acurus integrated amp. That was my bread and butter system back in the day, but I would offer to come over to see a client with a Mark Levinson amp and audiophile preamp after hours and leave the audiophile electronics at the guy’s house for the weekend (with the swipe of his credit card as a backup, but not an official charge). You know how many times the gear came back? Not very often. I just had to find a home for the outgoing, less-expensive gear.
- Know When A Client Has Finished Their Journey: Later in my retail life at Cello Music and Film Los Angeles, we had clients who were spending well above $100,000 on audio systems. In the mid-1990s, mind you. Our Cello Reference System was priced closer to $300,000. We had 100-percent upgrade values within a year or two for those upgrading. Cello was never on the used market, so we sold it easily to our own to clients who couldn’t pay full pop for it. Eventually, the client reaches the point where their systems are as good as they want. Respecting that you couldn’t sell them another $25,000 amp or a $20,000 CD-R player (man, they were expensive back in the day – not to mention the $15 blank discs) was part of being a good salesperson. That client became more of a source of leads for new customers than a way for you to make your sales goals. They still are very important, as they drive your next sales if you treat them like gold and a pro does just that.
I wish for every reader to find an audiophile salesman who is a master of his or her trade. It is a true pleasure to work with someone like this. While it is frowned on in industry circles, I would travel to work with someone like this. At Cello, we offered to pay for airplane tickets for clients and their wives if they bought from us. While the client’s wife is at Chanel on Rodeo Drive buying a purse, the husband might be picking up a pair of Wilsons. And they got a free trip to Beverly Hills out of it. Everybody is winning here, right? New York dealers have been doing this for years and clients loved it, especially when electronics of different voltages worked overseas. Today, using 120v audiophile electronics in Europe is much more complicated.
If you are lucky enough to find a person or a store that truly wants to earn your business and respect you as an important and meaningful client, you are going to have so much better time in your audiophile journey. It is fun to own all sorts of audio gear over the years. It is also fun to grow your system as your budget and tastes allow. To have someone that is a partner with you in this process only makes being an audiophile today even more of a blast.