Jimmy Dobbs and friend Horace Hull developed a method of selling cars in the 1940s that enriched dealers and plagued many of their customers for much of the history of the U.S. auto retail industry.
It became known as the Hull-Dobbs System. Often, it simply was referred to as "The System" or "The Drill," the template for high-pressure sales tactics in automotive retail and other businesses.
The System was born at the old Hull-Dobbs Ford Agency on Union Avenue in Memphis, as the nation entered World War II. Auto production gave way to the manufacture of tanks and warplanes back then. New passenger cars were few, and so were buyers.
The Ford dealership operated by Hull was facing hard times. But he and his ever-optimistic friend Dobbs came up with an idea to motivate their dispirited sales force.
Salesmen -- and they were practically all men in the 1940s -- would become owners. That is, they would get a percentage of the profits they helped to generate. Then it was seen as profit sharing. Today, we see it as sales commissions. But regardless of what it was called then, or now, it worked.
Guaranteed a chance to share in the wealth, the Hull-Dobbs sales force implemented a plan to rake it in. Essentially, it was a four-part deal that could be described with these terms: unhorse, detain, pressure, release. Here is a closer look.
Unhorse -- When a customer drives in to your dealership, get possession of his or her car keys or driver's license. Ask for the keys "to take a look at" or "evaluate" the vehicle the customer is thinking about trading in. Just don't return the keys to the customer anytime soon. Why? The customer can't drive away from your dealership without any one of those items. As for the license, get it for "customer identification." Treat the license in the same manner you treat the keys.
Detain -- If the customer starts getting antsy and demands the return of his or her property, find some excuse, any excuse, to delay its return. Say that the trade-in still is being evaluated. "Hey, that's a pretty good car you have there. We may be able to give you an even better deal." Or, resort to the blame game. "I'm really sorry, I don't know where he went with those keys," or "We've misplaced your license." Whatever you do, continue to "sell" the customer being held in detention.
Pressure -- Usually at this phase the seller has the customer talking numbers, or at least thinking that he or she is talking numbers. It's a ruse, often interspersed with the seller's trips to the manager's office "to see what I can do." If the customer somehow remains recalcitrant, the "manager" steps into the deal. Actually, the "manager" often is the agency's top closer. He's the guy from the amen corner who finally gets the stubborn customer to see the light that isn't there, and to accept the agency's terms of sale.
Release -- This is all very emotional stuff. The seller has been pummeling the customer for hours. The customer has been writhing for hours. The seller, if successful, feels victorious. The customer somehow knows in the back of his or her mind that the purchase was not the smartest. There is a feeling of defeat, perhaps even shame on the customer's part. There is a danger that buyer's remorse will set in before the customer leaves the dealership. A key component of "release," then, is finding some way to get the customer to celebrate his or her defeat. Try: "You've got a really nice car. Your neighbors are going to be envious."
Of course, many of today's car dealers decry the Hull-Dobbs system. They criticize, with justification, those of us in the media who portray it as typical car-dealer behavior. Thankfully, because of reforms advocated by the National Automobile Dealers Association and others, that selling technique is no longer typical. But it does continue to be used, as evidenced by phone calls and e-mails from several distraught car buyers in the Washington metropolitan area who contacted me about being "held" in dealerships for hours waiting for the return of their keys and/or driver's licenses. This column is for them. So is the following advice:
* Research -- Never enter a car dealership without doing your homework. You can research used-car and new-car prices online. Try the Washington Post-related property www.cars.com, which also lists recall notices and other vital information. Other good sites include www.kbb.com, www.edmunds.com and www.thecarconnection.com.
* Don'ts -- Do not hand over your keys. If you already have a good idea of your car's resale value, there really is no need to turn over the keys to your old car until after you've completed the terms of sale, assuming that you want to sell your used car to the dealership in the first place. Do not surrender your driver's license. Think: If security officials at the nation's airports need only a few seconds to examine your government-issued identification, why does a dealership need to hold onto it for hours?
* Time -- Time is money. Why waste yours, or allow someone else to waste it? If you have done your research and secured access to financing, and if you know exactly which vehicle you want before you enter the dealership, there is absolutely no reason for you to spend hours on end completing a car purchase. Find an Internet-savvy dealership, or one that has trained its staff to respect the time and intelligence of its buyers. There are many around.