More business? Not today, thanks!

Shimmering rows of new vehicles gleamed in the late afternoon sun as I pulled into the dealership. The latest models of every style and color awaited my inspection. Ah, the potential!

I was in the mood to hear some special offers. I was in the mood for that new car smell. So I strode into the dealership and six men in ties paused in their conversation around a reception desk.

“Hi,” I said.

“Sorry, we’re closed,” one of them replied.


“Yea, we’ll be open again on Monday,” another fellow added.

“Monday?” I looked at my watch, it was five minutes past the hour. They nodded then turned to resume their conversation as I sheepishly backed out through the doors.

Closed? I thought as I walked across the lot. And the more I thought about it the stranger it seemed.  This wasn’t a dollar-type store, this was an establishment that sold 4000 lb vehicles with $45,000 thousand dollar price stickers. How did they know I didn’t have a blank check in my pocket?  How did they not want to find out? 

I know what it’s like to work long hours so I tried to think of ways to give them a break;  maybe it was a really busy day, maybe they all had important post-work plans, like a wedding or funeral. Maybe management was strict about the hours—some kind of policy or something. Even then, wouldn’t one of them have wanted to get my contact info to follow up with me first thing Monday? You would think.

I thought about the lengthy, costly, time consuming process involved in getting me into the dealership: the vehicles had to be designed, then manufactured, then shipped, and marketed. All that work to get the vehicle on the lot and someone like me through the door.

As I drove away with a plan to go elsewhere all I could think of was that being a leader in whatever business you’re in means being open to opportunity beyond 9-5.

Today more than ever, right?

Business Lessons from “Pawn Stars”

Negotiation is a cornerstone of business, and like business, it’s an ancient art. There are many books on the subject, from Robert Cialdini’s Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion to Trump’s Art of the Deal. But while watching the History Channel I realized that some key business essentials can be gleaned from the show, “Pawn Stars.”

In the program, a Las Vegas pawn shop is run by a cast of colorful characters including a curmudgeonly “Old Man,” his affable son Rick, and his rebellious grandson “Big Hoss.” The show incorporates a blend of historical insight, humor, and good old fashioned business wheeling and dealing.

Here are some takeaways:

Start with a firm number, not a “hope.” If you are interested in selling something, and asked for your price, don’t say, “Well I was hoping to get $5,000.” No one cares what you are hoping for, and right then and there they know to stick a pin in your balloon of hope and hit you with a lower offer.

Know all you can about a situation. These days there’s no excuse not to run a search on the item you want to sell (or buy) and the people or organization you’ll be dealing with. I’m amazed to watch people walk into the pawn shop without knowing anything about what they want to sell or what it might be worth. P.T. Barnum had a word for people like that and how there’s one born every minute.

Don’t be wishy-washy. Often, sellers on the show say they are “looking to get $400 or $500” for their flea market find. If you say that then the $500 is immediately off the table because you’ve already negotiated with the other side by saying you’re open to $400. Don’t let the other guy help you decide where to start a deal.

Remove emotional attachment. Do you want to sell something or not? Once you have decided to sell then you have moved into the realm of a business transaction, and any sentimental value the item has to you will be irrelevant to the buyer. (“Well, you know, my grandmother used to keep this in her kitchen…”)

Always be ready to walk away from a deal. The Pawn Stars guys regularly turn down unique, cool items not because they don’t like them, but because acquiring them makes no business sense.

Know your business. Business owners can only stay in the black if they can readily sell an item for more than they bought it. If they can’t do this they can’t buy your item no matter what you think it’s worth. Whenever they deviate from their core business and think they can invest more money in an item to fix it up, they increase the risk of losing money.

Retain SMEs (Subject Matter Experts). For Rick and his crew, the job is to run a pawn shop, not to be be experts on esoteric obscure objects of historical interest. That’s why they are quick to call in experts on vintage guitars, toys, currency, or antique weapons. Build your own network of subject matter experts you can call on, legal, tax, sales, marketing, real estate.

Finally…Never underestimate the power of a good poker face.

Leading From the Front

Lately I’ve enjoyed watching “Undercover Boss” on CBS when I can. In the show a CEO goes incognito to work among employees in the trenches. The boss takes on jobs prepping food, washing windows, cleaning bathrooms, or driving a truck.

In the process he learns the tough work his employees do day in and day out, hears their personal stories, and learns firsthand about the challenges of the jobs that keep the company running.

At the end the now-humbled CEO reveals his true identity and rewards employees who went above and beyond the call of duty without knowing who he was. The boss then addresses the company where employees see humorous clips of him bumbling through the jobs they have to do every day.

One day at a company I worked for the CEO happened to be passing through the client service department as the phone rang at an empty desk. He stopped mid-stride and picked it up. As it turned out the caller was an angry investor and lambasted the “phone rep” with a littany of complaints. She demanded to speak to the president of the company.

The CEO then identified himself and we later replayed the call to hear her surprise; the wind completely yanked out of her sails at the notion of the president of an investment company answering the 1-800 line. After listening to her concerns, the CEO jotted down her information and assured her that there would be follow-up.

The boss could have used that situation to lambast the department, or the manager, about the importance of vigilant phone coverage. Instead, he turned it to opportunity to demonstrate that it was key for everyone in the company to pitch in and help out when it comes to getting a job done, particularly when it comes to clients.

He conveyed that message through his actions and without saying a word to everyone. It had a powerful effect on those of us who were there.

Critics might say that the big shots in “Undercover Boss” are just promoting themselves and their organizations. Perhaps. And after all the show is entertainment.  But employees have always respected those who truly try to understand and appreciate the work they do. Military officers leading from the front have always known this–nothing garners more respect than a willingness to do the dirty work.