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No handshakes. A bad economy. These car salesmen shifted tactics — and succeeded.

Mike McVeigh drives to pick up a car for a customer on July 31 in Glen Mills, Pa. (Rachel Wisniewski for The Washington Post)

GLEN MILLS, Pa. — Mike McVeigh had been selling cars for 16 years — honing skills that he feared were already a lost art — when the virus hit. He was 46 and out of a job. His boss at David Dodge furloughed the sales staff after all nonessential businesses in Pennsylvania closed in late March. McVeigh left the dealership that night, stopping at a Wawa to collect his thoughts and call another salesman, Brad Ross.

“We talked about what we could do just to keep our heads above water,” McVeigh said. “Between us we got eight kids, families to support.”

A month later, he was called back to work. But everything had changed. A once-booming economy was in tatters. Everyone wore masks. The showroom was closed to customers. Test drives were solo affairs. Deals needed to be done mostly online. No one wanted to get too close to anyone.

“If I can’t connect with you, if I can’t do my showmanship, if I can’t see you,” McVeigh said, “I thought I was done.”

The covid-19 pandemic forced tens of millions of people to lose jobs and thousands of businesses to close, including, initially, almost a quarter of all people working for auto dealers. But the workers and companies that survived often discovered it was not back to business as usual.

And that included selling cars — perhaps the ultimate handshake deal in a suddenly socially distanced world.

McVeigh returned to a dealership that had reinvented on the fly, abandoning a formula relied on for decades to lure potential buyers into the showroom and allow the sales staff to work their magic. The pandemic meant even motivated car buyers hesitated to visit the dealership. Zero-percent financing and thousands of dollars in rebates did little to change that. U.S. auto sales fell an estimated 35 percent in the second quarter that ended in June, with a steep decline in the number of people looking to buy, according to Cox Automotive.

Just to survive, car salesmen had to try something new. The dealership started to emphasize online sales and delivering automobiles to customers. That helped find new potential customers and ease some concerns about the pandemic. But the deals still needed to be closed, the paperwork and keys secured in a yellow folder that signified a pending sale. And that’s where McVeigh came in, an old-school salesman with reading glasses trying new ways of making it work wearing a face mask.

“I didn’t know this was even possible,” he said. “But I’m never going back to the old way.”

Now, McVeigh sat at his desk in the center of the showroom on the last day of July. It was crunchtime. The last day of the month was still vital for car sales. Factory rebates usually changed with the calendar. Automakers pegged lucrative sales goals to monthly totals, although some manufacturers, such as Fiat Chrysler — supplier of David Dodge’s vehicles — suspended their incentive programs once the pandemic began and sales started to plummet. Still, every salesman judged his or her success by the month.

“Everyone is on edge,” McVeigh said.

That morning, the dealership’s owner, David Kelleher — known for starring in his own local TV ads — told his managers on a Zoom call to stop worrying about the number of people walking into the showroom. Foot traffic was down since the lockdown — and Pennsylvania’s shutdown of auto dealers had been among the strictest and longest in the nation. Yet sales at David Dodge were up. The days of salesmen living off the front door, as it’s known, were gone.

“It’s not that world anymore,” Kelleher said. “And we’re not going back.”

In the new world, McVeigh sold zero cars in April. But he sold 58 in May — his best month ever — working deals over Zoom and text messages. He used FaceTime to join customers on test drives, since no one wanted to ride in a car with him, even with a mask.

The dealership thrived, too, selling 216 new and used vehicles in May. Sales were even better in June: 253 vehicles.

It was a stunning turnaround from March and April, when state coronavirus restrictions resulted in a $750,000 loss for the dealership. Kelleher furloughed most of his staff, but he kept paying their medical insurance and using a $1.4 million federal Paycheck Protection Program loan to pay them something.

Now, with a salesman’s ingrained optimism, Kelleher hoped to sell 300 vehicles in July — an audacious goal anytime, but especially now. With one day to go, a total of 264 vehicles had been sold.

“Jimmy,” he had said to his longtime sales director, “you don’t have 36 cars in your back pocket today, do you?”

“I don’t know,” replied Jimmy Atkins, “but don’t count me out just yet.”

McVeigh was the dealership’s top salesman. He’d sold 47 vehicles so far in July — despite a 10-day vacation. His goal was to hit 50. Three more to go on the final day. He wrote the names of potential leads on a white legal pad and got to work.

McVeigh believed salesmanship required a certain finesse and ability to instantly connect with people. He liked to pepper potential buyers with questions to keep them engaged. He hunted for common ground. He had a strong “book of business” — contacts throughout the Philadelphia suburbs, mostly blue-collar workers, police and firemen. He’s active on Facebook. He constantly texted on his phone. He made sure that people knew what he did for a living and that he could help them.

“Everyone has that guy,” he said. A car guy. A tire guy. A go-to person for buying something. “I want to be their guy.”

He mentored other salesmen. Three years ago he persuaded Ross — then a police detective who got hurt on the job — to join him. He took Ross under his wing, telling him, “If you can get someone to confess to murder, you can get them to buy a car.”

Ross was sold. Now, McVeigh and Ross, 45, often worked as a team — together they sometimes accounted for a quarter of all vehicles sold at David Dodge.

That morning, Ross had delivered a new $44,000 Jeep Grand Cherokee to a customer, with McVeigh following behind to give him a ride back to the dealership, nearly missing out on a deal of his own.

“I was doing Brad’s dirty work,” McVeigh joked. “He’d do it for me.”

But not every salesman was finding success. McVeigh, from his desk in the center, could sense it — part of the “kill or be killed” nature of commission sales. He saw salesmen who failed to adjust to a new way of selling cars that discouraged face-to-face contact, relied on relationships established before the pandemic and where most of the work was done online.

“This coronavirus is going to retire a lot of people in this industry — in a lot of industries,” he said.

McVeigh listened as a young salesman sat with a customer at a nearby desk. The woman had stopped in to test drive a new Jeep Wrangler. She drove a Lincoln. The woman said she didn’t like the Wrangler. But she wasn’t getting up to leave. She stayed in her seat, like she was waiting to be sold. The salesman struggled to push the deal forward. A sales manager came over and the salesman got up — a “turnover,” it’s called. But the deal couldn’t be salvaged. The woman left. No sale.

“I don’t believe she didn’t like the Wrangler,” McVeigh said.

He thought the salesman had missed something. A staid Lincoln is nothing like the sporty Wrangler. That’s clear long before the test drive. The customer seemed to McVeigh like she was ready to try a different vehicle, move in a new direction. That’s what had attracted her to the Wrangler. She just needed help getting there. He thought the deal could have been saved.

During an afternoon lull, showroom talk turned to the dealership’s sales boom — seeming to defy what was happening at other dealerships and the broader economy. David Dodge was selling so many vehicles that it appeared to be taking market share from other dealers.

Still, Ross said he couldn’t believe what folks were spending. Another salesman, Anthony Jordan, suggested people must have extra money because of all the canceled vacations and wedding parties.

“I couldn’t figure it out,” Jordan said. “Why aren’t we getting killed?”

“It’s unexplainable,” McVeigh said.

“With 2020,” said Ross, “nothing makes sense.”

The success felt fragile. A surge in coronavirus cases or a new problem with the economy could end the good run. Kelleher now tracked not only sales numbers but local covid-19 cases. He went online several times a day to check the status of the Philadelphia suburbs.

“There’s a bit of spike in our neck of the woods,” he warned his staff recently. “It’s not the time to get lax. We can’t have anyone get sick.”

Masks were mandatory at work. Hand sanitizer was stashed throughout the showroom. A cleaning crew wiped down chairs and steering wheels. Most of the showroom vehicles had been moved outside to provide extra room for the social distancing of desks and chairs inside. Sales staff were divided up so they alternated days in the showroom. A whiteboard by the front door tracked customer appointments for visiting the showroom.

The whiteboard also listed the dealership’s “BDC count” — business development center, the place where the online leads came in. Three salesmen worked the computers, emailing and calling people who showed interest in a vehicle on David Dodge’s website. Kelleher had overhauled the online sales process during the lockdown.

Alyssa Pyle, 28, ran the BDC. She’d written the numbers 1 through 8 on the whiteboard. That’s how many deals she wanted to finish today — leads that she and her staff had firmed up and passed on to salesmen to finish. Just one number was crossed out. She needed seven more.

“This is the new heart of the dealership,” Pyle said.

The importance of Pyle’s operation was clear from its placement by the showroom’s front door. Even McVeigh, who prided himself on traditional salesmanship, recognized that Pyle’s crew was vital. Consumers seemed comfortable staying home while doing most of the dirty work of buying a car — checking inventory, nailing down a price and lining up financing. They didn’t need to walk into the showroom at all.

Ross had closed the one deal already. He had another potential client coming at 6 p.m.

“What do you have for the month?” Jordan asked.

“Thirty-six, 37,” Ross replied.

“I’m at 22,” Jordan said. “I think I’ll get to 25.”

Jordan was responsible for finding potential sales from the service center — a job made easier by the booming prices for used vehicles. He could offer more for a trade-in on a new car or truck.

McVeigh scratched the first name off his list in the early afternoon. A doctor took delivery of a new Grand Cherokee. A driver for the dealership had dropped it off at his home in New Jersey. It was now an official sale.

McVeigh stood at 48 vehicles sold.

“Brad going to beat you this month?” Jordan asked him.

“No shot,” he said.

“Where you at?”

“Forty-something,” he replied, being coy about a number that every salesman knows.

In the back, sales director Atkins grumbled. He counted 10 completed deals. They’d sold 274 so far. Three hundred was still a long way off. He judged the day by looking at the bank of surveillance camera screens next to his desk, which showed every inch of the dealership.

“We’re not as busy as I want us to be,” he said. “But we’ve got the night coming.”

The hours slid by, with no great rush of customers coming through the door that would have been seen before the coronavirus.

McVeigh barely left his desk, just kept working his phone and computer, switching from drinking coffee to iced tea. And the yellow folders just piled up on his desk. A Dodge Ram 3500. A Durango.

Quietly, he hit 50.

Pyle marked off her BDC numbers on the whiteboard. By 6 p.m. she’d hit her target of eight deals.

Jordan spent an hour with a customer who had a blown transmission and was looking at buying a new truck, but they couldn’t work out the financing. No sale.

Ross met his 6 p.m. appointment — a woman he hoped would trade in her Jeep Wrangler for a Grand Cherokee.

“That’s done, bro,” Ross later announced in Atkins’s office. “I’m going to put it in detail.”

A little after 7 p.m., as McVeigh neared the end of another 12-hour day, he received a text from a woman he knew. She’d crashed her 2019 Wrangler earlier in the week and the insurance company had just declared it a total loss. McVeigh was her car guy. So she texted him. She wanted a 2020 Wrangler.

“People order cars like pizza,” McVeigh said.


Later that night, with the dealership closed, Atkins sat in his back sales office and counted 289 total sales for July.

No 300. But it was still the best month in the dealership’s 15 years.

McVeigh was about to leave for another vacation.

But Ross would be back the next morning.

“The minute the month is over, it’s the bottom of the hill,” he said, “right back at it.”