The Dealership Dream
I grew up in the RV world. I thought campers were houses just my size. We ran around my dad’s shop, made more messes than anything and got paid in ice cream sandwiches. When I was 15, I started my first job there typing titles and ringing up customers on the cash register. I worked camping shows with my cousins and uncles and aunts and strangers that had become family. RV reps were my adopted uncles and our customers become lifelong friends, some of whom we still send Christmas cards to each year. So when my dad and siblings decided to retire and sell, my world was shaken. That was my granddad’s legacy. That was his dream. That was my dad’s whole life for more than five decades, as well. And mine, up until that point. And somehow then the RV world went from being a beautiful place I loved to an ugly one that I didn’t understand. I thought I knew the RV Industry, but suddenly it became something I didn’t know at all and I’m on a journey to rediscover my place in it once again.
Everyone in the industry knew my granddad and my dad. Everyone spoke highly of them and their name meant honor. But when they sold to a corporate dealer, names had little value and customers spoke words of dishonor about a place I once called home. Before the family-owned business sold, the new, fancy, corporate company made all kinds of promises. They would leave it the same. They wouldn’t change the family values. They would retain employees. They would keep the original name, as it had weight in the RV community. The list goes on and on with grandiose ideas that ultimately didn’t happen. The new owner obviously didn’t want original owners around, except maybe in transition for a bit, but they did hire on some of the family, with the promise that having the same staff would keep it the same, both in spirit and in a physical sense for our customers. So begins my husband’s entry into corporate America. My husband began working for my dad when he was 22 years old. My dad wanted him to learn the business from the ground up. So he served as a shop tech, learning the mechanics of trailers, in warranty, as administrator and finally as Service Manager. As the manager, he was encouraged to stay on with the new dealer. It wasn’t long before he became very aware of a level of management that didn’t exist before. “Powers That Be” made decisions from faraway states over emails and phone calls, without ever bothering to know customers’ names and histories. The original company name disappeared, the staff began changing rather quickly, and instead of family, low-pressure sales, high-pressure commissioned salespeople were put in place. The new staff had never been camping. They didn’t love camping. They only knew about campers because it lined their pockets. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make money for your family, but it became about profit first and customers second. My husband was required to meet certain quotas. For example, if a customer came in with two or three service issues, he was “encouraged” (both financially and verbally) to find five, six, seven more things wrong. We had never operated in any kind of shady, dishonest practices. Perhaps it wasn’t “wrong,” but it didn’t feel “right.” He wasn’t used to having to meet certain numbers to keep his job. He was used to just helping customers as they needed it. Other departments saw a change, as well. When our former sales members (you know, my cousins) were paid by the hour, there was no need to be pushy. Now every sales team member HAD to make a sale to survive. Customers were pushed to make quick decisions, to finance beyond their means and purchase trailers that might be slightly unsafe based on their tow vehicle. My husband didn’t do well playing by those rules, so he was eventually replaced with a new district manager and then a new, local service manager. She formerly worked on cars as her history and knew nothing about trailers, but daily made executive decisions on how to fix them. My husband lost his voice and his spirit. He moved on to another dealership in a management position. It claimed to be family-owned, but as it grew, management positions began being filled by those who had come from corporate management previously. Their experience in the corporate world tainted the family feel and this one too turned corporate. The lure of multiple stores replaced the original dream. My husband again saw frustrated employees who had no choice but to be about money and quick sales. Camping shows rushed customers to purchase now or, “the price wouldn’t be the same later!!” In my opinion, impulse buys lead to frustrated and unhappy customers, offering them a tainted view of camping. Buying the right product can enhance the experience and make a customer for life. Also, it never seems fair to me that someone might pay a totally different price than their neighbor, just because they are better, or worse, at haggling. We always just set our units at the best price to begin with, often at the frustration of our competitors, but which one really builds lifelong customers? Once, my husband saw a sales manager rush in to change the website price of a unit he just sold, just in case the customer happened to look online only to realize how many thousands of dollars he paid over promoted asking price. That’s the game. “What kind of ‘sucker’ does this customer look like and how much can I squeeze out of him?” Doesn’t sound like a fun game if you’re the customer. The finance manager pocketed every single dollar above cost that he made on selling extended warranty, so he made sure to start really high. Some people would go for it, others were wiser. Nobody but one benefited. The shark tank that was the sales team were vicious about making sure “their” customers called them, followed up with them and came in to see them so that no one else could steal their commission. This just doesn’t feel like the environment my granddad started out building. This just doesn’t feel like a completion of his dreams, which began all because he was a dad that wanted to buy a camper to take his kids camping. There’s a little good news in this story. We have left the corporate dealership world and are beginning again on our own. We’ve started realizing our own dreams and have opened an RV dealership doing things the way that would make my granddad, and my dad, proud, I hope. It’s just us family, with our kids running around, hoping to help people find a trailer that they love to camp in. WE love camping. It’s where we find quiet, restful rejuvenation for our souls and our family. We love helping other people camp. So the best thing for us is to step away from the blood-thirsty corporate world and just do what we love, the way we love. It doesn’t matter if every other dealership is not doing it this way. This is the best way for us. The other silver lining I have to offer is that we are not alone in our strivings. A “competitor” down the street from us when we first opened was so generous that he took units off of his own lot and put them on ours just to help us get started and have inventory. Who does that in this “dog eat dog” world we live in? No one. It would be mind-boggling if you didn’t believe that there were still genuinely kind, honest and moral people in the world. I would recommend that other dealer any day. Finding the right dealer, with the right values, is as important as the unit you purchase, in my opinion. The good news is that they exist.
Customers today are using online and big box stores for their parts. They are turning to social media to get their questions answered and find out how to service their units themselves. This hurts our industry so badly, but dishonest dealers have driven them to it. I understand that. But what the customer misses out on is a wealth of knowledge, a helpful guiding to the right part, or trailer, or service that will last them the longest and meet their needs the best, the personalized service and care, the, “oh I have that extra part laying around so I’ll just give it to you,” mentality. I hate to even think about the dark side of camping – the purchasing, the sales, the horrible service experiences many of my customers describe. It ultimately just hurts ALL of us. It makes me feel terribly sad. And often I feel uncertain if a small, family-owned dealership can even make it in the big, dark, scary world. I’m not sure. Can we compete? Maybe. Maybe not. But if we’ve helped some families make some memories, then we have at least succeeded. And we are sure gonna give it our best try. #campoaks #campoaksrv #camping #campers #happycampers #rvdealership #campingfun #goals #pursuingdreams #rvlife