‘The economy was crashing, consumer confidence was at an all-time low and targets were increasing’

Declan Gaule is a Graduate Member of the British Psychological Society and CEO of the MFG Group, an international automotive training and consultancy business.

My mother worked as a nurse in a leading British psychiatric unit in the 1960s. By the time I came along, the family had moved back to Ireland and I began my schooling in a rural mountain community just south of Dublin. Looking back, it’s clear that some of the local ‘characters’ were actually suffering from significant mental health issues. As a small boy, I was always fascinated by my mother’s gentle and understanding approach to their ‘strange’ behaviours.

The Irish secondary school system works to a relatively purist curriculum, and with university options around the corner my parents suggested looking a little outside of the ‘normal’ courses. They pointed out a course in Behavioural Sciences, consisting of psychology, sociology and anthropology. I had very little understanding of it but I thought it could be interesting: I was accepted by the University of Glamorgan.

Some months before my arrival, the course was separated into its constituent parts and I took the decision to pursue psychology as my major. Literally from day one I was captivated. I threw myself into the course, with particular interest in the clinical and occupational sides of the discipline. I got to work with children with autism and Asperger’s and also spent a summer in a residential childcare unit for children from the travelling community. This brought my studies to life and reinforced the importance of the subject in our day-to-day existence. I also got to spend time with a practising clinical psychologist, which was an eye-opener not just to the subject but also to the challenges faced by many in accessing mental health care in proportion to their needs.

After graduation, I was fortunate to be accepted to read for an MSc in Experimental Psychology at Sussex University. Not only did the department have a very strong academic reputation, its focus on biological psychology and neuropsychology particularly interested me. In between studying, socialising and rugby playing I managed to write two very different dissertations. One looked at whether ‘colour was perceived in area V4 of the brain’ – needless to say, a topic of widespread discussion in bars around the world! The other looked at ‘the cognitive deficit of long-haul flight crews and the impact of sleep deprivation on airline crashes’. This fascinated me on every level and turned me away from the clinical side of the profession and towards using my psychology degrees in industry.

Driving forward
Having been in education since I was four years old, the thought of another course to train as an occupational psychologist was not top of the list at the time. I wanted to get ‘out into the world’. Little did I know that my next decision would shape the future of my life from that day forward. I applied to and was accepted on the graduate scheme for BMW GB Ltd on a two-year sales and marketing management programme.

Showing up all ‘shiny and new’, my fellow graduate colleagues and I were given our departments that would be ‘home’ for the next year. Delighted to have been selected, I had not given a thought to my department, and when I found out the I was to go to Training and Development – the penny didn’t quite drop. Other colleagues were going to product marketing and other cool-sounding places, but little did I know that I had landed the plum placement and somebody somewhere had joined the dots for me.

The central role of the department and its staff was to train and develop the entire BMW GB (now UK) dealer network and all of the HQ staff. The training was heavily linked to psychometric testing and human performance matrices. Many of the principles I had studied were suddenly coming to life. I also ended up ‘working’ in Cannes on a car launch for a month, all expenses paid… a very different experience from my recent life as a student!

BMW were a fantastic employer and rapidly increased responsibility based on ability and not age. Soon I was Product Communications Manager for the dealer network of c.10,000 staff. My main role was to design wide array of product-based training media that addressed and optimised all types and styles of learning. Often this ‘necessitated’ driving very beautiful BMW and competitor vehicles to gain ‘product knowledge’, and also hiring racetracks and film crews in exotic locations…

After two years in the role I moved to become a Regional Sales Manager with responsibility for 17 dealers covering North London and the East of England. This was an eye-opener as I was suddenly immersed in the enjoyable but ‘tough’ life of modern automotive retailing and its many and varied pressures.

It was during this time, and on meeting a colleague and soon-to-be business partner, that we spotted a gap in the market. I took the biggest leap of my life!

The fear of the phone
In 2007 I left the wonderful world of BMW and all it had given me and set up The MFG Group with Jerry Sutton, also of BMW ‘stock’. In short, what we had seen as Regional Managers were good people trying to do their job at a time when the economy was crashing, consumer confidence was at an all-time low and targets were increasing. The net output of all of this was a massive decline in ‘dealer footfall’; that is, the number of potential customers walking into showrooms to explore buying a new car.

The usual response then and now is for the senior management to issue significantly increased levels of marketing and outbound calling activity. The problem was/is, that the vast majority of automotive sales executives, and indeed most people asked to pick up a phone and make a successful outbound sales call to a stranger, notoriously greet the prospect with mild terror! In fact, most people will do anything but pick up the phone. Given that the phone is still the most effective way of getting potential customers to enter a showroom and buy cars, we set about designing a training programme that addressed this ‘fear’ and provided the sales executives with the ‘tools’ required to survive in this new global marketplace.

Before we designed our programme, we had to interview and understand the psychology behind ‘sales call reluctance’. In short, the following points still hold across every car brand and geographic location that we work with/in and underpin why most people (before working with MFG) hate telephone prospecting:

  •     Fear of rejection (what if they say no or hang upor are rude)
  •     I don’t know what to say and get tongue tied
  •     I wouldn’t want to be interrupted so I can’t interrupt them
  •     We’ve tried this before and it never works
  •     I’ve never been properly trained how to do this

In response, we designed a programme called ‘The MFG Appointment Solution’. This taught the delegates to analyse, understand and alter their particular reservations and fears surrounding telephone prospecting. They come to understand that their call is ‘legitimate’ and not irritating – they were calling existing customers who had already purchased a car from their dealership.

Fundamental to this was starting the conversation off on the right foot – being professional, polite and conscious of the prospect’s time. We developed a method that uses mild syntax repositioning and sub-vocal articulation (usually linked to reading) that on behalf of the prospect got them to ‘reply’ to the question that had been asked. This resulted in the granting of permission to speak in over 95 per cent of telephone interactions.

We then coached the sales executives on some basic principles of human memory and response orientation behaviours to articulate clear and concise pieces of bitesize information that were felt to be of interest to the prospective buyer. The potential customer is then invited for a face-to-face meeting at the dealership.

Although altered and enhanced over our 10 years in business, this core process remains the backbone of what we do. The MFG Group now comprises over 30 dedicated automotive industry trainers and consultants and we run upwards of 100 two-day prospecting events per month across the UK, Western Europe, Malaysia, South Africa, the Middle East and North America. Such has been the desire for our products that we have just expanded our portfolio to include bespoke training on face-to-face sales and developed a human performance enhancement consultancy.

What has a psychology degree given me?
I have a healthy appreciation that human motivation and behaviour is not black and white; and it has given me the confidence to experience many different cultures and countries in helping people to improve on skills that they find immensely difficult. The moment we get to witness people’s success using our process is always amazing. We’re not curing diseases; but we do help make a significant number of people experience a little less stress in their daily world, through effective training based on core psychological principles.
One day I hope to write a PhD but at the moment, three young kids and a growing business is enough to be getting on with!

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