9 sales secrets I learned from car dealers

By Tomm Moll

Posted on Friday, September 22nd, 2023

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Tomm Moll, Signs by Tomm, Utica, New York, started out in graphics then wound up selling ads for a newspaper. Many of his clients were car dealers. In the process of selling ads to them, his car dealer clients convinced him to open a sign shop and do their signs. That was over 30 years ago, and he’s still at it.

“You can bet I learned a lot about selling signs from being around car dealers,” says Tomm. “All car salespeople do is sell, so they can get pretty good at it. My background includes a lot of sales so I take a sales-oriented approach to making signs.

“I’m not selling a car, though. I’m mostly selling me. I sometimes tell a client that the digital printer is going to print it, but they’re paying me to design it, to know how to build it so that it does what it needs to do, and to get it up there. I’m going to do the thinking for them and take care of the headaches. Sure, they can go to the copy shop and get something printed, but it won’t be at all the same.”

SignCraft asked Tomm to spell out some of what he learned about sales from car dealers and car salespeople. It’s practical, straightforward tools that every sign person can put to use. We’ll let Tomm tell you some of the key points, in his own words:

Build the relationship. You don’t make much off a client you see just one time. I want repeat sales, and I want them to refer other businesses to me. So I spend a little time educating them on the first sign or two, then after that it’s about the relationship. They know I can do what needs done, and usually they just let me do it. Every good car dealer knows that you have to treat customers fairly, so I do the same. You can’t poke them in the eye and expect them to come back.

Show them what they’re buying. Even a great used car salesman has a hard time selling someone a car that isn’t there on the lot. You have to show them what you can do with examples and photos. It’s also a lot easier to upsell when they can look at the upgrade and compare it to the basic version.

I am constantly reminding my customers that everything I create is custom made for them. It has become second nature for me to mention those terms in every conversation, and it’s true. They’re getting me—my time, my knowledge and my skills. I plan to make it as easy as possible for them to get a professional, effective solution to their sign problem.

Let them know you’re going to be there for them. The Internet has changed our business along with everyone else’s. Sure there are online sources for signs who just take the design someone sends them and sends it to the printer that has a huge roll of banner material already loaded on it. They’ll put it in a carton and ship it back tomorrow for a relatively low price.

But that’s not me. I’m going to help them figure out what they want to accomplish. I’ll come up with a design that’s effective. And I can do all their signs, not just the quick-and-easy ones. I’ll be there when they need their window or truck lettered. I tell them that I want to make sure they get a sign that’s a great value—not just some letters stuck on a panel.

Drop a few names. If you’ve got other work out there that looks good, and have satisfied customers, mention them. It puts the prospect’s mind at ease. They may have seen those signs and like them. They know they lasted.

Maximize the profit on each sale. I had a used car dealer tell me one time that he only had 15 cars to sell at any given time, so he had to maximize his profit on each sale. I realized I had to do the same. I can only make so many signs in a week, and I have to maximize my profit on each one. I can’t give away my time. I have to upsell when I can. I have to keep my production time down.

If I’m billing my time at $85 per hour, am I really going to be able to bill for 40 hours a week? Of course not—I only get that for production time. Most of us wind up working more like 50 or 60 hours and can bill for about half of that time.

Have (or grow) thick skin. On a $45 sign, a customer may ask, “Is that the best you can do?” I’m thinking, “Is he crazy?” But I calmly say that it really is the best I can do for what they’re getting. If they want to cut corners, we probably can. But that’s the best price on a sign of that quality. It’s the same on larger projects.

You have to be prepared to explain that, “No, I can’t be the bank and the sign shop….” I need a deposit to start, and I have to be paid when the sign is completed. It’s just me here, and I have to be productive. I’m just like them, running a business.

Get paid for all your time. We have to stay on top of new technology, learn new ideas and handle changes in our business. That all takes time, and it needs to be built into all of our pricing.

Plan your work and work your plan. Years ago I saw that on a little sign over a used car dealer’s desk, and it’s been over mine ever since. We can’t let the customer work their plan. If you accommodate someone on a rush job, you have to get paid for that. The plumber does, right? If I can add 40% to the bill on a rush job and get paid for changing my plan, I’ll do it. If not, I can’t. You can’t accommodate everyone. Sometimes you have to say “No deal,” plain and simple.

Switch hats and be the manager—even just for five minutes. Most of us are creative people—that’s what drew us to the sign business. But the business person part of us is who pays the bills. You have to develop those skills, unless you’re happy working for nothing the rest of your life. You have to switch hats and take a hard look at how you run your business. It will wake you up, and believe me, it pays off.

Tomm Moll’s shop, Signs by Tomm, is in Utica, New York. Tomm is also the creator of TommTOONs, a collection of over 250 royalty-free graphics for sign work. It’s available on CD from www.signcraft.com.