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Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Joe Helmkamp, left, sales manager, talks to longtime customer Roger Blakley at Crumback-Symons Chevrolet.

Honesty, friendliness vital, salesman says

Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Joe Helmkamp has sold cars for 30 years at Crumback Chevrolet in New Haven.

To sell cars, your name doesn’t have to be Discount Dan.

“If you treat (customers) right, they’ll be back,” said Joe Helmkamp, new-car sales manager at Crumback-Symons Chevrolet in New Haven. “Nowadays, people are so much more knowledgeable and know what’s going on. It’s best just to be straight up honest with people and friendly. That’s how you sell.”

The approach has served Helmkamp well as he has spent nearly 30 years at Crumback-Symons Chevrolet. He began his career as a commission-only salesman and recalls some lean times in the industry.

And even though 2012 marked a good year for the auto business, critics wonder whether the market will stagnate since drivers have been hanging on to their vehicles 11 years on average.

So, what do you do when nobody’s buying cars?

“There will always be hard times,” Helmkamp said. “You just have to hang in there and stay in the same place.”

One lesson he’s learned is putting away a nest egg in the boom times to weather the slowdowns.

“You don’t go out and spend crazy when times are good,” Helmkamp said.

That way, folks in vehicle sales are less apt to panic during slow years when consumer confidence dips, unemployment rises or the economy takes another turn for the worse.

And then there are self-inflicted wounds.

For instance, General Motors Co. expected sales of its electric Chevy Volt to zip, but instead the passenger car was dogged by setbacks.

Most notably, a federal investigation was initiated after three Volt batteries caught fire in government crash tests.

The situation created a public relations challenge, even though the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration closed its inquiry and said electric vehicles are no more apt to catch fire than other cars.

“That was disappointing. I was really excited about the Volt,” Helmkamp said. “We really wanted it to be a big seller for us here, but I think it does better in the bigger cities.”

Helmkamp said GM knows its marketing and has begun touting traditional vehicles that have proved popular.

The compact Chevy Cruze and Equinox small SUV are examples.

Helmkamp said there have been times when he has pondered a career move. He once interviewed with a local convention center for an events sales position but decided to stay put in auto retail.

The national average salary for sales consultants at dealerships is $59,340, according to the information from the National Automobile Dealers Association.

The regional average compensation for sales consultants at dealerships in the region that includes Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin is $55,701.

The national average turnover for sales consultants at dealerships is 67 percent to 68 percent.

“It can get frustrating and there are times when you think about getting out of the business completely,” Helmkamp said, “but there’s nothing like a sale to get you going. Then, you’re right back at it.”