Car Buying Articles

Confessions of a Car Salesman

Part 1: Going Undercover


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I had driven by the dealership a hundred times and never stopped. As I passed I would look over at the row of salesmen standing in front of the showroom windows, white shirts gleaming in the sun. This phalanx of salesmen looked so predatory it always made me think, "Who would ever stop there?"

But today, I knew I would be the one stopping there.

I turned my ancient Dodge Raider into the dealership parking lot and immediately felt their eyes on me. As soon as I opened my car door a salesman was on me.

"Is that a Mitsubishi? Or a Dodge?" the salesman asked, seeking common ground, a way to relax me before getting down to business.

"It's a Mitsubishi imported by Dodge," I said, and quickly added, "Who do I see about applying for a job?"

His attitude changed in a heartbeat. Not only was I not going to buy a car, but I wanted to be his competition.

"See the receptionist," he muttered, and walked away.

Inside, the receptionist was fortified behind a semi-circular counter.

"I'd like to apply for a job," I told her.

"What department?" she asked, yawning.

"Sales."

"New or used?"

"New."

She whipped out an application form and slapped it on the desk. "Fill out both sides and complete this too." She slammed down another form. It looked like the SAT tests I took in high school.

I took a seat in a nearby sales cubicle. It was in a large room divided into glass-walled sales offices. In the corner was a large glassed-in office with a high counter in front of a raised platform. The salesmen in this room looked older, better dressed and had an air of power and authority. They sat behind computers and also seemed to be eyeing the salesmen out on the lot.

Looking down at the application, it blurred in front of my eyes. Could I really do this? Could I really become a — a car salesman? Me, a law abiding middle-aged American. A — gasp — college graduate (well, barely). A writer. A person sometimes described as soft spoken and reserved? Why was I applying for a job in one of the most loathed professions in our society?

Well, here's how a strange turn of events turned me into a car salesman.

About a month earlier I applied for a job at Edmunds.com, touting my experience as a How-To book writer. One book I ghost-wrote was about buying used cars, the other was about leasing cars. The books were published under the name of a guy who had once been a car salesman. I assumed the books qualified me to work for the fast-growing consumer-based Web site. As I saw it, I would sit in the comfort of an office and, from this lofty perch, dispense advice on how to buy and sell cars.

The Edmunds.com editors had other plans.

After we finished lunch one of the editors suddenly asked, "How would you feel about an undercover assignment?"

"What do you mean?" I asked, even though I suspected where this was going. His question had stirred something I had thought about for a long time.

"We would hire you here at Edmunds.com. Then you would go out and get a job as a car salesman and work for three months."

"Selling cars?" I asked unnecessarily.

"Right."

"Where would I work?"

"Wherever you can get hired. That would be up to you. We were thinking you should work at two dealerships. The first would be a high-volume, high-pressure store. Then you could quit and go to a no-haggle dealership. You could tell them you didn't like the pressure at the first place and you'd probably get a job on the spot."

The editor explained that they wanted me to write a series of articles describing the business from the inside. Of course I would learn the tricks of the trade, and that would better prepare me to write advice for Edmunds.com. But the benefits of the project would be greater than just information. I would live the life of a car salesman for three months. That would give me an insight and perspective that couldn't be gained by reading books or articles or interviewing former car salesmen.

"So what do you think?" the editor asked. "Interested?"

I have a history of acting before I think things through. I jump in with both feet and sometimes live to regret my decision. But here I was, in the middle of my life, long past the adventures of adolescence, past all the lousy summer jobs, past my early newspaper days on the police beat. It was a long time since I'd had a good adventure. But selling cars?

"Sure, I'll do it," I said. A week later, they offered me the job.

It was several weeks before I started at Edmunds.com, and then several more weeks before I was to begin the undercover project. Plenty of time to wonder what the hell I'd gotten myself into. I began clipping newspaper ads for car sales positions. Just the language in the ads made me nervous: "Aggressive sales professionals wanted!" or "Selling hot cars at MSRP. Join the #1 Team. Xlnt pay & benef. App in person." I could almost sense the pressure of the car business coming through the newspaper.

A friend of mine used to have an office surrounded by car lots. He would eat lunch with car salesmen and listen to them brag about the tricks they used to move cars. Occasionally, another man would join them, a guy they called "Speedometer Shorty." He would go from one car lot to another winding the odometers back to show fewer miles.

"What do you think they would do to me at the dealership if they found I worked for Edmunds?" I asked my friend.

"They'd kill you," he said without hesitation. Then he began laughing. "What they'd do is put your body in the trunk of a competitor's car."

He was yanking my chain, of course. But the fact that he answered so quickly gave me pause. Still, I told myself nothing like that would happen to me. I wasn't there to hurt the dealership. I wasn't there to steal anything or to hurt their business. We weren't going for dirt. But if dirt was there we would report it. Basically, we just wanted to see what was happening at ground zero in the auto business.

The date finally arrived for me to leave the Edmunds.com offices and begin looking for a job selling cars. As I prepared to leave, my editor offered me this advice: "When you're interviewing, don't tell them you know a lot about cars. They don't care. If they ask why you want to work there, just tell them you want to make a lot of money."

He then flipped open his calendar and counted off the weeks. "You're due back in the office in 10 weeks. We won't expect to see you until then. Let us hear from you every 48 hours or so with a phone call or e-mail. And good luck."

That weekend I went to the store and bought three new white shirts and a pair of black shoes with soft soles. I figured I'd be on my feet a lot. Monday morning I put together a resume. How should I present myself? Why would someone hire me to sell cars? I thought back to what my editor said, "Just tell them you want to make a lot of money." Good advice. But I needed more than that. There would be questions about who I was. Where I had worked. Requests for references maybe.

I decided that I would look over my recent past and select those things that could be viewed as being sales related. In other words, I wanted to avoid lying. For the previous three years I'd written video proposals for training films. A proposal is a form of selling — right? Maybe that would work. I called my friend and asked him to back me up in case the dealership called him. No problem, he said. I had also sold sporting goods at one time. And I had written proposals for grants for another company. I was beginning to see a biography that might work.

Monday morning rolled around and I realized that the time had arrived. It was time to get a job as a car salesman. I drove to an auto mall near my house. Acres of shining cars stretched out in front of me. One dealership had a large banner reading, "We're growing! Now hiring! Apply within."

That was when I pulled in and got the application.

"I understand you want to sell cars." The voice brought me back to the present. I looked up from the application. A man stood there smiling at me. He had carefully cut black hair. He wore a white shirt and a silk tie. As he extended his hand to shake, light flashed off a gold Rolex.

"I'm Dave. When you're done filling that out have me paged and we'll talk."

He smiled again, evaluating me. Then he disappeared.

Nice guy, I thought. Maybe this won't be so bad. I was about to begin work on the application when I looked around. I glanced toward the glassed-in office in the corner of the building. The one with the raised platform and the senior sales guys watching over the car lot. Dave was in there speaking to several of the older men in white shirts and ties. They all turned and looked at me.

It was too late to turn back now. I bent over the application and began writing.

Read Confessions of a Car Salesman Part 2: Getting Hired

Car Buying Learning Center

Comments

  • jpricejr jpricejr Posts:

    Outstanding article with terrific insight and advice. Reads like a novel. This guy really went all out to do the digging. He is going places.

  • striker33 striker33 Posts:

    Excellent article...

  • siyu siyu Posts:

    Awesome article,give me ideas and confidence to deal with dealer tomorrow!

  • karl4111 karl4111 Posts:

    I have sold cars for 18 years for both kinds of dealerships, and this is the most accurate article that I have ever read, on the subject. The point that the author didnt make but is obviuos as you read it is remarkably the agressive dealers have far more floor traffic....Why?

  • karl4111 karl4111 Posts:

    Im going to answer my own question...because basiclly we are like sheep and want to be lead. Thats what the big stores do, just look how we are funneled to where they want us to go in Walmart.

  • dudemon dudemon Posts:

    "confesions of a car salesman" is a joke. it's an article wriiten by a guy who spent a few weeks selling cars at a sleazeball dealership and had an agenda from day one. I've been in the business for 20+ years and have never heard of a dealer basing commisions on gross. Dealers do base commissions on volume, for example 0-8 units pays 22% 9-12 Pays 25% Retroactive etc. Also the finance depts get margins from the lenders. if you walk in off the street to BofA and apply for an auto loan and get 3.79% the dealer may get that same loan carried with BofA but get a "buy rate" of 2.9% from the bank therefore making a .89% yield spread. Edmonds would have you believe that because we send so much business to the lender and therefore get a discount that we are somehow being deceptive.

  • "Spiff" - Poor example. "Weak" - just post a pic of yourself. Edmunds TMV is a joke and U know that! Talk about giving buyers unrealistic expectations. BTW Greenpea - 3 months does NOT a car salesman make!

  • csthreatt csthreatt Posts:

    This was great information.

  • Um... best article ever! Thank you. I consider myself a veteran haggler and have always fought for invoice deals. However, in reading this I can easily reflect back and see how the dealerships and salemen tried and used each and everyone of these techniques.

  • nita56 nita56 Posts:

    amazing and so real. The dealership where I work at was so bad. And when I mentioned that some of their salesmen should be drawn and quartered for their customer services.I was reprimanded and fired. Told I'm the new girl I don't get to have an opinion.Customers(buys a $60,000.00) car calling in six times in one day and they are to busy trying to scam the next customer. Adding 2-4% to the rate just to make a profit. Customers staying there for eight hours because their credit is so bad. Then they get charged 25.99%. Then I'm told at my age appearently I know nothing about customer service. I'm a consumer every day. I was appaulled at the behavior and your article is the absolute truth.

  • p51d007 p51d007 Posts:

    As you can guess, there are a lot of bad car dealers, and there are good ones. If you find a good one, STICK TO IT. My father retired as a car salesman after 32 years in 1999, and was ONE OF THE BEST. Small town (less than 5,000 population), but, he had clients all over the USA, and even a few in South America! I asked him long ago how he was so successful. He told me straight out, NEVER lie to a potential customer. Tell them the truth, straight out. Something I've carried with me to this day.

  • Good article. I WAS the sales manager at a very high production import dealer and not all of us were jerks. I was one of the best and ranked in the top 50 in the country. I was also the training manager for new hires. " needs based selling" like you had at the 'no haggle' store was the most effective of them all. Out of the thousands of car deals I either closed, to'ed or turned,very few customers paid too much. It was my experience that half of our customers could NOT pass a drug screen, thorough background check and basic math test, much less have the acumen to be a car salesperson.Customers lied about thier credit, lied about the condition of their cars, lied about accidents and service records, etc ad nauseum.Some of the most entertaining and intelligent men I have ever met was in the car business and although I'm not in the business any longer, I miss the comeraderie but I don't miss the hours or the lying customers who insisted on us buying their 100,000 mile 'highway miles' turd that had been hit more times than Joe Frazier, while insisting that we didn't have the right to make a profit because the 'interwebz told them so" Just do your reasearch on 3 cars you like, find a salesman you can trust and drive your new ride.

  • What is a "reasonable" profit for a dealer to make on a car?

  • izzyrider izzyrider Posts:

    This article was hilarious, brought tears to my eyes with laughter. I always wanted to be a car salesman, well aware of the hard work, long hours and lack of respect for the job. I took the week long car sales course. The description of the participants and instructor was spot on. I too was out of a job after a long career. I learned to shake hands in the correct manner. Never actually took a sales job as they wanted me to pay to take the rest of the course, another sales job by the instructor. Loved the "tuna" story, best part of the entire article, guess that is why they went out of business. I bought that brand of vehicle for my daughter, never saw another "up" in the showroom other than my self, and the sales person was a female. She was very pleasant, enjoyed the experience, but alas she was gone in two months. No tuna, no money. Next time I buy another car, I'll remind the sales person he not scoring a "pounder" on this sale, better expect a "mini".

  • dealernerd dealernerd Posts:

    Sorry my friend, this is not the normal experience for car salespeople. A real car salesperson would recognize this dealership is disorganized and go to another dealership and make a decent living for their family. To qualify yourself as a cars salesperson you need to understand how many hours it takes to become certified and believe in the product your are selling. You are no Irving Silver or even know who his is, so do not call yourself Car Salesman. Its like being the stadium janitor and saying your in the NFL.

  • sanca sanca Posts:

    Thanks for the knowledge. My wife is ready for a new SUV. Hopefully I can use something I learned from this article. One thing for sure is now I can walk away from aggressive, bullying salesperson.

  • stevie9 stevie9 Posts:

    Interesting and pretty much what I remember. Except the pay. Most just pay 150 or 200 no matter how much the dealer made. They just play with those numbers too

  • equinox27 equinox27 Posts:

    Very informative article for the vast majority. I spent 20 years in the car business, starting with selling Pontiacs, and ended up selling Jaguars and Ferraris. The majority of the new car sales information is correct. The no-haggle information is probably correct. however I worked for the only true no haggle car dealership in Florida, and no I am talking about Carmax. This dealership was so effective that the other 3 Chrysler dealerships in town bought them out. The sad thing is that it was very successful, for customers and employees. It is the way the car business should be. Would love for Edmunds to contact me about how this actually worked as it was back in the 1990's. Oh and a footnote. Prior to around 1957 new cars did not have prices on them and that is how dealers made their money, giving different prices to different people on the same car. Which is how the MSRP Manufacturers Sugessted Retail Price came into play, to help level the playing field. Which of course it did not.

  • equinox27 equinox27 Posts:

    Sorry for the typo, I meant to say, no I am NOT talking about Carmax.

  • tifypop1 tifypop1 Posts:

    I was a career auto sales man for over 32 years, and was very successful. I think it is laughable that this clown did i tfor two whole months, and pretends to know something about it. that is like me spending an evening in an nba locker room, and saying i know all about the nba life. you would need o know the highs and the lows to know what that is like, to be the best at your job, like a hired gun, in the old west, where your repuation preceeds you, and people say reverently, "i have heard of you." do you know what it is like to walk by the gm's office. and him beg you to take a three or four thousand dollar advance, cause he knows the cars you will sell to make up for it. or to have you gm advance you ten to twelve thousand dollars after a storm, because he does'nt want you to go someplace else when they re- open, this poor fellow is " a lost ball in high weeds."

  • carpoor3 carpoor3 Posts:

    My wife and I had a horrible experience with Camelback Toyota in Phoenix, AZ. The deal was done until we met with Finance. Oh, my.... This clown wanted to talk about hunting and fishing while piling on "EXTRAS" to the deal. After two hours of saying NO, NO, NO, NO and being frustrated, we finally signed the papers. You can't believe the hard pressure to purchase CAR JACK to protect your car..... After all, Mexico is 3 hours away??? Tire protection in case the helium in the tires leak??? An extended warranty for $3,000.00 in case the car fails??? Doesn't Toyota warranty their cars when they are new??? Scotch Guard the seats to protect against stains??? Uh, no kids! Be sure to take a condom with you if you deal with CAMELBACK TOYOTA in PHOENIX, AZ. You will need the protection!

  • I'm not a car salesman, but I am in the sales profession, and I sell products that are also high-dollar, on a commission basis. For someone who complains so much about stereotyping, there sure was a lot of it in this article. I'm glad you cooled off, somewhat, by the end... but you are still harsh on owners and managers. Is it ok with you that the dealership makes money? I mean, that's why they are in business. Would you not agree that they offer a service? How much profit do you think they are entitled to? If you think that the car sales world is sleazy because it is profit based, you better go off and try some "undercover jounalism" in some other places. I'd start in real estate, stock brokerage, advertising sales, a travel agency, or just about any other industry that involves producing a good or service in exchange for capital. While we're on the subject, I've met plenty of [non-permissible content removed] jounalists in my time...

  • rokster rokster Posts:

    Thanks for the great story, it reminded me a lot of Bill Bryson's writing, making one laugh and (nearly) cry a lot. At least we will soon walk into a dealership well prepared and ready to negotiate.

  • bones1939 bones1939 Posts:

    Why did you have to go undercover? ***On a mission to lie. Anyone that can fog a mirror can sense that you have no intentions on buying a car. Be a real hard working journalist and get a job a car salesperson and get the facts. YOU AS CONSUMER SHOULD KNOW WHAT YOU WANT. DEVELOPE A LIST ITEMS THAT IMPORTANT TO YOU. ie:style, fuel effieciecy, budget. BEFORE YOU STEP ON TO A LOT AN WASTE PEOPLES TIME. THAT EXPEDITES THE WHOLE PROCESS.

  • tbahama tbahama Posts:

    I have been in the car business for 18 years, and this article is the worst written article I have ever read. It's like Edmund's took ever horror story and night mare they have ever heard and put it in this article. The first thing is no one in the franchise car business roles back or employees anyone who roles back odometers. People do prison time for that sort of thing these days. Automotive specialist now days come from all walks of life, college grads, included. We are people too. Not to mention the government uses our industry to track the economy. I think the most disappointment comes from Edmund's themselves. If it wasn't for all the car people in the country, from the lowliest custodian, through the tech's that turn wrenches right up through the high powered exec's like Rick Hendrick. There wouldn't be a place for Edmund's to even exist. I think this is a prime example of "Biting the hand the feeds you!"

  • ghostsales2 ghostsales2 Posts:

    I am in car sales and have been for the past several years. This article is outdated. Much of these things aren't true anymore. Some yes, but most not anymore. First, Many dealerships don't use the sales square anymore. They have come up with different presentations for pricing. Many dealerships have become very competitive with pricing due to the increased presence of online shopping. Used car prices are so competitive that mark ups, or profit are very minimal. As far as the microphones in the booths and such, this isn't common anymore. Most dealerships have no microphones and don't use phones from the sales desk to the tower. THey just speak with the tower directly. Most dealerships are now much more Customer service oriented. Many laws have changed to make car sales easier.

  • ghostsales2 ghostsales2 Posts:

    This article was published back in 2001. 12 years ago and lots of things are different now. Take into consideration that when this was written 9/11 hadn't happened, The shootings of Colorado in the movie theater hadn't happened and the bombings that happened last week hadn't happen. So much time has past and thus so many things are different. If you are a customer and plan to buy a car, I urge you not to go into the dealership thinking you are going to experience these things, because so many laws have changes. We even have a new president since then..2 elections. Things are different then they were back then. 12 years ago.

  • jb3138 jb3138 Posts:

    If people only knew !no way ill buy a new car again ill get a year old or two.

  • pbeng12 pbeng12 Posts:

    yeah gotta love the scum bag tactic these wretched low life "sales" reps use....

  • bkenis bkenis Posts:

    I really enjoyed that. I don't remember a story of this length ever popping up on the yahoo main stories, but it definitely read as a novel, as others have said. Very informative and insightful. Bravo!

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