Meet Terry Lancaster
Marketing Strategist, Trainer, Content Creator at How to Sell More Cars
Picture this: It’s the 1970s, and I’m a young kid sitting in my grandfather’s basement, playing my aunt’s records, pretending to be Wolfman Jack, introducing Sonny and Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.” My aunt was just six years older than me, but she had all the cool music: Paul McCartney and Wings, Sonny, and Cher, you name it.
Fast-forward a few years, and there I was, fresh out of college, getting married, and moving to Tupelo, Mississippi, 200 miles away from anyone I knew. I was 22 years old, and it was just me and my wife in the middle of nowhere, working for a 100,000-watt radio station. And that was my start in the advertising business.
I had always loved radio, so when I saw a flyer on the college notice board asking if I wanted to be a disc jockey, my answer was an enthusiastic “Yes!”. I took the class, ran the college radio station for a couple of years, and then joined a commercial radio station. But it didn’t take long to realize that the radio business wasn’t about the disc jockeys or the music. It was all about the advertisers, and in the mid-80s, car dealers dominated the local airwaves.
After college, I dove headfirst into the radio business’s sales department. The salespeople at the radio station all drove nice cars, so I figured that was the place to be. But nothing could have prepared me for my first encounter with one of those car dealers, a place called “Friendly Ford” in Tupelo, Mississippi.
Freshly graduated, full of optimism, and armed with my new suit, new shoes, and a well-prepared presentation, I walked into the dealership. The general manager, a guy with his cowboy boots up on the desk, took one look at me and knew I was there to sell him something. He quickly shut me down, saying he didn’t need any advertising. Despite my best attempts to keep the conversation going, I was shown the door in no uncertain terms. Turns out “Friendly Ford” was not that friendly.
However, this setback turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I crossed the street to a smaller dealership, where I met a young general manager who was hungry for success. We hit it off, and together, we launched an aggressive radio advertising campaign that quickly turned his dealership into one of the top advertisers on my station. As fate would have it, Friendly Ford across the street ended up underperforming, and Ford took back the store. A new general manager was appointed, who I promptly turned into another top advertiser on the radio station.
So, in a roundabout way, it was Wolfman Jack who led me into the car business. And even though my first encounter with a car dealer was less than friendly, I found my footing and made a name for myself in the advertising industry.
My journey into the car business really took off when I started selling radio advertising. As a former disc jockey, transitioning to sales was not easy. I’m not a natural-born salesman; I enjoy talking and crave positive affirmation. The cold calling and walking into dealerships to sell them something was a tough gig for me. But when I found my rhythm and began to see success, it was deeply rewarding.
I was an atypical radio salesperson, a stranger in a small market without a ready-made network. To succeed, I had to work harder and bring fresh ideas to the table. I quickly realized that car dealers, with their deep pockets, were the biggest advertisers. If I could present them with an idea that could help them sell cars, they were likely to listen, and that usually led to a successful sale.
Within a year, I knew this was the right path for me. I moved to Memphis, Tennessee, to work for FM 100, the most powerful radio station in the nation, as their automotive specialist. I was dealing with large dealerships with enormous budgets, and I loved it.
I got an opportunity to join the general manager of the Mazda dealership in Tupelo, Mississippi, who had started an advertising agency since we had first met. He was using a lot of the ideas we had worked on together. I went to work for him and started doing what I had been doing in Tupelo and Memphis but on a regional scale. It became harder as we tried to cover more territory, but we found a way to make it work.
“At the time we were laying out these giant full-page newspaper ads, we printed them and just started mailing them to dealers.”
The real breakthrough came when we started using direct mail to reach dealers. This was during the early days of the computer era, so we had access to desktop publishing. We could design these large newspaper ads and print them in a smaller format, and thanks to living near the FedEx hub in Memphis, we could get them to newspapers anywhere in the country within two days.
Our audacious approach met with a technology curve that we were slightly ahead of, and our business exploded. We rode this wave for a long time, as dealers spent heavily on newspaper advertising. However, like all things, this, too, eventually changed.
“I’m not an empire business; I did all this to make a living to support me and my family and my kids and do the things I love to do with people.”
As dealerships started to shift their budget away from the newspapers, we had to adapt. We added radio, TV, and a lot of direct mail to our advertising mix, serving dealerships all across North America. But by the mid-2000s, the internet had come along and changed the game. I managed to figure out how to use the internet to reach dealers before they figured out how to use it to reach their customers, and this gave us an edge.
The business was booming, and our biggest problem at the time was trying not to grow too big. I didn’t want to run an empire. I wanted a business that would support my family and allow me to do the things I loved with the people I loved. But everything changed when the financial crisis of 2008 hit. Both the automotive and advertising industries took a hit, and we had to learn to say yes to things we didn’t really know how to do and figure out our new path in this new era of the car business.
What we really landed on is this idea that the only constant is change. Being comfortable with being uncomfortable became our greatest strength. Going through that crisis taught us that we always have to be open to trying new things. Technology has come along, and now every human being, from the salesperson at a dealership to the general manager, can connect with every other human being and tell their story.
In the past decade, I’ve been warning automotive salespeople that robots are coming for their jobs, and they’re here now. They can walk customers through the entire buying process, from trade-in evaluation to signing on the dotted line. Carvana was delivering cars to people’s driveways, selling hundreds of thousands of cars a year with zero salespeople.
The only way for salespeople to compete is to build relationships with their customers. Something technology can’t do on its own. Dealers can still get leads, but they have to pay a “Google tax” to whoever is acting as a middleman.
Dealerships are pillars of their local communities. They sponsor local sports teams, donate to rotary clubs, and give cars for hole-in-one prizes at golf tournaments. Building these relationships one step at a time is crucial. The same goes for their relationships with their employees. The only way to retain staff is to create a work environment that they love so that they can pass that love on to the customers.
As much as some dealers resist the digital revolution, there are also customers who resist it. The key is to be open to change and willing to meet every customer where they are, whether they want to buy a car with the click of a button or come into the dealership and spend time talking about the specs of different models. Every customer is different and needs to be treated as such. You have to be ready to sell to them in the way they want to buy and build relationships one step at a time.
“My goal is just to sit here, do this and talk to car dealers as often as possible.”
Post-COVID, I had a chance to reflect on what I wanted for the next chapter of my life. My passion for the automotive industry has been a constant since my early twenties, so it was clear that I wanted to continue to serve car dealerships. During the pandemic, I wrote a book called “How to Sell More Cars” and subsequently decided to rebrand my company, podcast, and website under the same name.
I’m currently working on an additional chapter and recording an audiobook version of the book.
What I’m looking for now is to form more relationships with dealerships. I’m not interested in mass lead generation or making cold calls. I want meaningful conversations with dealers about what’s happening at their dealerships. I want to understand their goals and how I can help their team achieve them.
My own goal is to have these kinds of conversations with car dealers as often as possible, helping them to navigate the changing landscape of the automotive industry and ultimately sell more cars.