By Jonathan Moules
Selling cars over the internet is easy, according to Ling Valentine. All you need is a good website, a comprehensive database of dealers who will deliver the vehicles you sell, a willingness to put in long hours and a Chinese army nuclear missile carrier pointed at the prime minister’s house.
Ms Valentine, who was born in the Sichuan province of China, has succeeded in the competitive UK market for car leasing by projecting her larger-than-life character on the internet business she founded five years ago with her husband Jon in their Gateshead living room.
Ling’s Cars remains a husband-and-wife operation but is selling more than £1m of new cars every month, making a profit of about £108,000 last year.
By operating with very low overheads, Ling’s Cars is able to undercut traditional car leasing companies by as much as 35 per cent. But being just one website, the Valentines have had to adopt a number of stunts and added services to attract and retain their customers.
The missile launcher was imported from Shanghai and parked in a farmer’s field by the A1, pointing at Tony Blair’s Sedgefield constituency. The Valentine’s then built a fake weapon to sit on the vehicle, handily combining an anti-war protest with an 8ft advertisement for the Ling’s Cars website. The cost of parking the truck is more than paid for by the publicity generated with thousands of motorists who pass it, according to Ms Valentine.
“I get texts, e-mails and phone calls from people every day who see it. I think it will become a landmark as iconic as the Angel of the North,” she says.
The truck is only one of the Valentines’ attention-seeking activities. They offer “free money” on their website in the form of Chinese bank notes, worth about 8p each, and every customer gets a copy of Chairman Mao’s little red book.
“It is good to have a bit of fun while doing business to give yourself a bit of inspiration,” Ms Valentine says. “I think I would end up killing myself if all I did was sit in front of a computer all day long.”
This month the Valentines cancelled their £1,500-a-month advertising spend on Google because of the search engine company’s decision to censor its Chinese language service. The move is partly political for Ms Valentine, who tasted tear gas during demonstrations in her home town of Chengdu in 1989.
However, the Valentines admit that such moves are part of a wider strategy to make themselves the fun choice in a staid industry. “It is about personality as much as the price,” says Ms Valentine. “If you look at other competitors, they have really boring websites. We are trying to grab the customer’s attention and get them really excited.”
Mr Valentine describes himself as holding up the back end of the business, “like a pantomime horse”, managing the accounts and financial matters.
He says car dealerships are happy to co-operate with Ling’s Cars because the sales help them reach targets. “They are making nothing on these cars. They are just doing it for the targets. I think a lot of the dealers in the industry are on the verge of going broke.”
Ling’s Cars can compete as it is much more efficient than traditional car dealerships that spend thousands on showrooms to house cars, Mr Valentine says. “Why do leasing companies build these glass palaces when people could just as easily go to see the model they are after in Tesco’s car park before they make a purchase?”
One of the big attractions for customers of Ling’s Cars is that they can talk to Ms Valentine directly on the website’s chat room. Ms Valentine, who met her husband on just such a medium when studying in Finland, says that talking online with several customers simultaneously means that she can be both personal and more productive than a car salesman operating in a bricks-and-mortar dealership.
“My customers come back because they can talk to me,” she says. “I answer all their questions and I give them service.”
As Mr Valentine admits, the reason that many people come to Ling’s Cars is because of the “mad Chinese bird”, who can be relied upon to tell it straight.
Ms Valentine, who was born in the year of the ox, is not shy of hard work, often putting in 15-hour days in front of the bank of computer screens that is her office.
But with the business growing four-fold last year, Ling’s Cars could soon need extra hands to help cope with the company’s rapid expansion.
The good news is that on the internet, nobody need know whether they are talking directly with Ms Valentine or to a new member of staff.
“We might have to spoof that in the future,” says Mr Valentine.
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