My dad was a database marketer: Decades-old lessons from a car salesman


My dad passed away in 2015 at the ripe old age of 93. He sold automobiles, as he put it, for over 40 years. During that time, he only changed dealerships once and that was because the first one closed and moved too far from home. He liked to stay close, so he could come home for dinner.

I was 11 when he made that move. He sent a letter to all 1,200 people he had dealt with at the first dealership, telling them where he was moving to and inviting them to stop by. Every one of those letters was hand signed, addressed with my moms beautiful handwriting, and folded, stamped and licked shut by yours truly. Everything tasted like glue for months.

When he landed at the new place, the local Cadillac dealership, he took his data management to a new level. Everyone was sorted into four file drawers. People who bought their car every X number of years were filed according to when they were likely to be getting in the market again. People who asked him to look out for a specific car were filed based on that.

People who bought, but he had no way of knowing when they would be back in another drawer for “casual” buyers. And the non-buying prospects went into the last one.

Every month, a letter went to the cyclical buyers likely to be coming into the market that month, inviting them to make a personal appointment to see the new models. The “casual” buyers and the non-buyers each got a different letter annually. Just a friendly, hope you’re doing well kind of thing. What we would call a drip campaign now.

The people who had him on the lookout for a specific car got a personal phone call the minute “their car” came in on trade. He sold many, many cars that way before the shop even had a chance to get them cleaned up. Drove the younger reps crazy.
He was the only salesman at the dealership doing any of this, all on his own time (and mine)—and on his own dime.

Car salesmen work by taking turns with walk-ins called an “up.” First guy in gets the first up, and so forth. He worked the last 10 years without taking an up. He worked completely on repeat and referral business. Some days, there would be two or three people “waiting to see Mr. Hart.”

For two years after his retirement, he would get a call that there was someone there asking for him, even though he sent out close to 2,000 letters thanking them and introducing them to a couple of other salesmen he liked.

So, what’s my point and how might this be useful to you?

The onslaught of tracking pixels, retargeting, programmatic, website analytics, Facebook targeting, etc., etc. has brought data-driven marketing to the forefront. If you’re not targeting, tracking and refining you’re probably wasting a high percentage of your marketing dollars.

Depending on how deeply you’ve embraced this, you might even be building funnels for clients to help them nurture and convert leads and some automation to stay in touch with leads and past customers. Good for you. All of this is good.

I’ve been encouraged the past couple of years as I hear conversations around CRM for the sales staff at news media companies and licensing more data to help with targeting various efforts for advertisers.

The main concern I have is that these are nearly always tied to significant expense outlays for hardware, software and data as well as long implementation cycles. A second concern is the lack the right personnel and mindset to really make it work.

Some of you may have read the story of my dad mailing letters or calling people and found it almost quaint. That that type of marketing isn’t practical or necessary now that we have such powerful technology and data at hand. If you’re considering an investment in this area, I ask if you’re already doing some or all the following:

• Calling recently lapsed local clients to ask what went wrong. And maybe asking them to lunch? Not just the big guys, but the people who trusted you with $500.

• Sending a “welcome package” to newly acquired local accounts. Something that will help them grow their business, some swag that makes them feel like they’re part of something, and contact info for anything they might need at your company. Show them you intend for them to hang around.

• Do you have a valuable, well-crafted newsletter, either email or print, that’s at least 90% based on helping clients become better marketers?

• Do you have a list of interested prospects that you regularly send valuable content to?

• Do you make it easy for them to schedule an appointment right from the content?

Each of these things could be managed with a spreadsheet or the free version of MailChimp or Constant Contact in a pinch.

My point is this. If you have a data-driven culture, dedicated to getting the right message to the right person at the right time, you will already be finding a way to do things like this every day. And doing them as a system, not a project.

Software and data allow you to be much more efficient, but they don’t make you smarter and they don’t change your culture. Putting a rep through SalesForce training if you aren’t already doing some of the things above is like sending someone who doesn’t know how to skate to hockey school.

I finally have the taste of glue out of my mouth, but I never lost the underlying lesson: If a car salesman--automobile salesman, sorry Dad—can work only by appointment and have people waiting in line, surely you can do more with what you already have. We’re marketers, right?

Bring in the technology to that culture—and you’ll be unstoppable.

Newspaper direct marketing strategist Jim Hart is a partner in Phoenix-based DM for Newspapers ( and a partner at Integrated Advertising Solutions. He can be reached at