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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

3 Career Lessons I Learned From a Used Car Lot

A used car lot is not a glamorous place. It’s filled with dusty, dirty cars that have fast-food wrappers stuffed under the seats and old air fresheners crammed into the glove boxes. Each one of these cars needs to be cleaned, shampooed, and polished to a like-new shine before it can be sold.

Trust me—I know from experience. As a teenager, I spent many summer days with a wet-dry vacuum in one hand and a bottle of vinyl polish in the other, working at my parents’ used car lot.

Even though I now work in an air-conditioned office, far away from the world of engine valves and fan belts, I’ve found that many of the lessons I learned during those years are just as applicable to my cubicle life. Read on for three lessons from the used car lot that anyone can use to get ahead.

Details Matter

As a 15-year-old, my tendency was to try to clean every car as quickly as possible. Stain on the carpet? Just pull a floor mat over it. Fingerprints on the inside of a window? Let’s just pretend we didn’t notice those.

Fortunately (or unfortunately for me at the time), my dad had a sharp eye for details and wanted to make sure that things got done right. It might not matter to me if the car wasn’t perfect, he explained, but what about the buyers? When they see that we’ve cut corners on inconsequential things, they’ll start to wonder what else we’ve neglected.

The same attention to detail is just as important in the office world. Misspelled words or forgotten email attachments might not seem like a huge deal, but they can make your boss question your focus and commitment. On the other hand, taking the time to check and double check your work can make a big impression. I’ve seen employees quickly become office favorites, not because they’re smarter than their co-workers, but because they have an eye for detail that helps avoid little mistakes and embarrassing situations.

Reputation is Everything

Like many small business owners, my family doesn’t advertise or spend money on marketing efforts. Instead, they rely on word of mouth to help the business grow. Many of their customers are people who have been recommended by a friend or neighbor or who are coming back to buy their second, third, or even fourth car.

Because my family relies on happy customers and return business, they go to great lengths to maintain the company’s reputation. Everyone who walks onto the lot is treated with respect and patience, whether he or she has have $500 or $15,000 to spend. If someone isn’t happy with her purchase, my parents listen to her complaints and try to solve the problem, in hopes that helping someone have a good experience will encourage her to refer future customers.

A pristine reputation isn’t just important for small businesses. As my dad likes to say, you never know who your next customer (or, in the corporate world, your next boss or co-worker) will be. A negative word from a former business associate can keep you from getting the job of your dreams, while a positive recommendation can be your ticket to a promotion or a new opportunity.

Treat everyone you meet as a potential “customer”—with kindness and respect, no matter his or her job description or title. It’s a good philosophy for life in general, and you never know when it might pay off for your career.

Focus on What You Do Best

My family's business is tiny—just a repair shop and two small offices with wood paneling and a few second-hand chairs. Nevertheless, it’s survived for almost 30 years, while many bigger, flashier car lots with floor-to-ceiling windows and glamorous indoor showrooms have come and gone.

What’s the secret? Well, my family sticks with what it does best—selling inexpensive, older-model SUVs to families who need a second vehicle or something reliable to help them navigate the Utah winters. They don’t sell smart cars, they don’t dabble in luxury vehicles, and despite my teenage pleas to lose the wood paneling and the ’80s car posters, they’ve never been concerned with building a fancier office—they know they’d just have to pass along the costs to their budget-conscious customers.

Specialization is just as applicable in your career. Whether you’re applying for a new job or trying to impress your current boss, set yourself apart by deciding what your best assets are and making the most of them. If you’re an all-star when it comes to public speaking or creating advertising campaigns, do everything you can to advance those skills. If you’re a numbers whiz, find the projects at work that could use some extra analytical power and ask to take them on. Many employees and job candidates share the same basic skills and experience, but positioning yourself as an expert in one or two areas will help you really stand out from the pack.

It might not seem like a used car lot has much in common with the corporate world, but by paying attention to details, focusing on what you do best, and building a good reputation, you can use the lessons I learned as a teenager to improve your career—without ever stepping foot on the asphalt.

Photo of used car sign courtesy of chicagogeek.