What drives Johnny Van?
Call it obsession, or a singleness of purpose. Call it discipline. Go ahead, call it crazy – you wouldn’t be the first. Call it what you will, but there’s a method to master car salesman Johnny Van’s madness.
The Art of the Follow Up
Over a 38-year career, Johnny has turned follow-up into an art form. Along the way, he’s become an institution in Western New York. “From 1973 to ‘76,” he says, “I became the #1 Pontiac salesman on the East Coast.” How did Johnny sell his way to the top among 92 dealerships? “For six months I sold cars like everyone else,” he recalls. “Then I started a newsletter that I mailed to my clients every month. And I called them every month to ask for referrals. I didn’t want to take people coming in the door.” Instead, Johnny cultivated a master list of referrals.
At first, no one believed Johnny’s follow-ups would pay off. “My boss told me I was crazy and that the system would never work,” he says. “But I stuck to my plan and kept making calls to friends and family, making sure each customer was followed up on properly. “ When Johnny had 150 customers, he made three calls a day. But he found it was worth the time and effort – even as his customer ranks swelled. Within three years, Johnny had 250 families buying a car a year from him. And he continues to follow up with each and every customer.
Sales Is His Hobby
“I don’t have hobbies,” notes Johnny. “My hobby has always been the sales game. A new guy sells one or three out of 10 customers. I sell eight out of 10. This is my golf game.” Like a baseball fan who can reel off batting averages from 1964, Johnny Van can tell you how many cars he sold in a given month decades ago. He’s like a living, breathing CRM!
Not that it’s been an easy road. Selling cars in blue-collar Buffalo, New York in a bad economy is enough to curb most salespeople’s enthusiasm. Back in 1973, the oil crisis and gas rationing threatened the industry. Even worse, at the time, Buffalo’s industrial base was collapsing, with factories closing and consumers tightening their belts. Thousands were leaving the region in search of better opportunities. It was Johnny’s fourth month on the job. No one was walking into the dealership, so he worked the phone and brought people in – people he knew, and people they knew.
Selling as a Family Affair
After all these years, Johnny works his system daily. “I only sell to people that know me,” he says. In many instances, he has sold to three generations of the same family. Even people new in town will hear of Johnny Van. “I always know somebody that they know,” he says. “It’s just a few degrees of separation.” His customers’ loyalty is so fierce that some have apologized to him for buying a car from someone else!
Johnny Is Always On
Johnny is virtually always available to his clients, working six-day weeks and outhustling everyone in the business. “I’m available 24×7, 365,” he says. “And my clients have all my numbers.” Call Johnny, reach his voicemail and this is what you’ll hear: “This is Johnny Van from Johnny Van Auto Connection. You have reached this recording for one of four reasons: I am in church, I am in a morning rotary meeting on Wednesday, I am on a conference call with customers and the phone won’t let you get through, or I am in the air on an airplane. I will always call you back.” And he always does! Even when we invited him to be interviewed for this profile, he replied, “I am available for you any weekday after 9:15 p.m., Saturdays after 6:00, and until midnight on Sunday.” Translation: Sure, but not when I am selling cars and serving my families.
Most people view car sales as transactional, but Johnny Van sees it as relational. Honesty, reliability and integrity are his hallmarks. If a customer can get a better deal elsewhere, Johnny will tell them to go for it. “Everyone has been hurt somehow buying a car,” he says. “Or they have heard a horror story. People bring that baggage to the sale and you have to recognize it while trying to make them comfortable.”
10,000 Birthday Calls a Year
Each year, Johnny makes about 10,000 “birthday calls” to clients. “It’s a good time to find out what’s good with the family and their cars,” he says. “I check contact info and I update files – who got married, who moved…”
Along the way, there have been obstacles. Car buyers traded in more often when warranties ran out after just one year. Today, cars are built to last longer. Still, Johnny Van works his system, following up diligently with every customer. And from those follow-ups come the qualified leads that can make or break a sales career.
An early riser, Johnny reads motivational literature every morning, a practice he recommends to young salespeople. Other useful habits include always carrying an order form and business card, and constantly seeking new leads. “A guy who bought a Mustang called me. He was mad,” Johnny recalls. “He said, ‘If you don’t fix this, I’m going to have you talk to my attorney!’” Johnny didn’t miss a beat. “What kind of car is your attorney looking for?” he asked. Not long after that, he actually sold the attorney a car!
It’s 90% How You React
Johnny lives by a credo best described by one of his chief inspirations – pastor, author and educator Charles “Chuck” Swindoll. “We cannot change our past,” wrote Swindoll. “We cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way… The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude… I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.”