The application they gave me at the car dealership included a "personality test," a list of about 80 questions to which I had to answer yes or no. There were no right answers, the instructions told me. The questions gave me insight to the kind of people who typically applied for jobs at car dealerships.
The first few questions were innocent enough, something like: "I enjoy relaxing and listening to music: yes or no?" But soon I noticed a trend developing. Question 7 was, "I enjoy going to bars: yes or no?" A few more innocent questions followed, then, "After going to a bar I feel good about myself: yes or no?" Questions about bars continued throughout.
Then, at about number 73, was this loaded question: "I like guns: yes or no?" I wondered how they would react if I crossed out the word "like" and put in "love." Better yet, I considered inserting the word "automatic" in front of "guns."
It was pretty obvious what they were looking for. So I recorded my answers and took the application back to the receptionist.
"Dave told me to page him when I was done with this," I said.
She stabbed a button on a phone panel and spoke into the receiver. "Dave, to the front desk. Dave, to the front desk." Her voice echoed down the hallways and boomed out onto the car lot. She turned back to me, "He'll be right with you."
I sat down and waited.
And waited. But he wasn't "right with me."
The thing about car dealers is they seem to like to keep you waiting. Later, I would find out how important it is for the salespeople to feel they are controlling the customer. If you are waiting for them they must be controlling you. This obsession with control extended to job applicants too.
As I waited I tried to look like a promising candidate for a job selling cars whatever that looked like. I tried to look eager and hungry. These are not traits that come easily to me so I studied the other sales people around me. They stood in poses of assertion and power: legs spread, hands on hips, arms folded across chests. All the men (which were 99 percent of the sales force) wore white shirts and ties. Their hair was slicked back and they favored jewelry.
Soon, I noticed that dealership people were walking past where I sat and they were taking an unusual interest in me. A sandy-haired man strolled by several times. On the next pass he nodded and said, "Good morning."
"Good morning, how are you?" I returned. The man nodded and kept walking. I began to think the reason Dave had me waiting so long was so they could eyeball me before I was interviewed.
I wondered if Dave was testing my assertiveness, so I returned to the receptionist and asked to have him paged again. She did, and Dave immediately reappeared and led me to a sales cubicle in the back.
Sitting across from Dave I saw that he had a wandering eye. I kept trying to figure out which eye to look at. Dave reviewed my application and frowned.
"You've never sold cars before. Is that right?"
"Why do you want to work here?"
My first inclination was to say, hey, I'm a car freak. Always have been. I could explain cars, how they work, get people excited about the performance and the different features. But then I remembered my editor's advice.
I smiled at Dave, trying to convey the feeling that the answer was obvious.
"I want to make a lot of money," I said.
The effect on Dave was amazing. He smiled and relaxed, as if I had said the password to enter an exclusive club. If this had been a cartoon, dollar signs would have appeared in his eyes accompanied by a loud "Cha-ching!"
Next, Dave asked me what the best part of my personality was, and what the weakest part of my personality was. After I was done answering, he said he didn't really care what I said, it was the fact that I replied immediately that he liked. He added, "Your answer could even be a lot of B.S. but in sales you have to always have an answer."
It was clear that Dave liked me. And I sure liked Dave. Still, I had never sold cars before. My application showed I had a background in video sales.
Suddenly, Dave extended a ballpoint pen to me, one of those 59-cent jobs made of clear plastic. "You want to be a car salesman. OK, sell me this pen."
Over the years, I've read a number of self-help books about positive thinking. It always seemed these books were written by salesmen. So I've absorbed a lot of information about selling without realizing it. Here was my chance to put all that into action.
I picked up the pen, paused dramatically and began speaking slowly and deliberately. "Dave, you've asked me to make a recommendation about a pen. You're in luck because I know a lot about pens and I'm in a good position to point out the features and benefits of this model of pen. The first thing you'll notice is the cap. This can easily be removed and stored on the other end of the pen so you don't lose it. The next thing you'll notice is how it feels in your hand. Also, you'll notice it's easy to see at a glance how much ink is left. This means you'll never run out of ink without..."
I continued in this ridiculous fashion for a few minutes. Then I set the pen back in front of Dave and stopped. I held his gaze firmly hoping I had focused on his good eye.
He picked up his pen as he said, "Yes, well, that's very nice." He thought it over for a second and said, "I'll be right back."
But he wasn't right back. I sat there for at least 15 minutes. I had a good opportunity to look around. On the wall of the cubicle was a sign stating that in California there was no "cooling off period." It said that once you sign a contract it was binding even if you changed your mind or decided that the car cost too much money.
Another man eventually appeared around the corner of the cubicle and introduced himself. His name was Michael and he was the sandy-haired man I had exchanged greetings with earlier. He had a very pleasant manner. He didn't ask me anything about myself; instead, he talked about how the dealership worked. I would be on a team of six salesmen of which he was the assistant sales manager, or ASM. He told me that I would train for about a week, but then I would be selling cars.
"Selling cars isn't hard," Michael told me. "It's dead easy. You just got to get right up here." He tapped his forehead.
I used the same tactic I had with Dave, repeating that I wanted to make a lot of money. It seemed to be the magic word.
"Oh you can make money here," Michael assured me, smiling. Then he lowered his voice as if telling me a secret. "You could make three or four grand here your first month. It's happened. Sometimes the green peas are the best salesmen."
Green peas. That's what they called the new guys. I had heard that nickname once before from a car salesman friend. I would be hearing it a lot in the coming weeks.
Michael stood up to leave, saying that other people would be in to meet me. But then he ducked back into the cubicle and said in a low voice, "Your driving record is it clean?" I assured him it was.
I sat there for another 15 minutes before a young woman named Rosa, from human resources, arrived. She led me to a small room where I watched a videotape about this company. It also had interviews with people that worked in car sales telling how much money they made and how they loved their jobs. They didn't read very convincingly from the teleprompter.
When the tape was over Rosa reappeared carrying the personality test that asked me how I felt about going to bars. She said the test showed I was, "dominant, competitive, and impatient."
"Impatient? Is that bad?" I asked her.
"Oh no! No!" she assured me. "It means you want results now now now," she said snapping her fingers.
She then explained how the shifts were handled. I would work from 50 to 60 hours a week, with a lot of night and weekend shifts. She also said they use an "Eight-step process" for selling cars. This probably worked well for applicants that spent a lot of time in bars.
Then she dropped a bomb on me.
"I was going to have the general manager interview you," she said. "But he listened in on your interview and he really liked you."
Listened in on me? I realized she had just confirmed a rumor about dealerships: the selling rooms are bugged. Later I learned that they aren't actually bugged, it's just that the phones have intercoms that can be used easily for listening.
I had been in the dealership for three hours and I was eager to leave. Rosa told me I would need to take a drug test and that they would then do a background check on me. She then paused and looked at me as if waiting for an answer.
"Is there anything you want me to know about?"
"About what?" I asked.
"Sometimes, when I say I'm going to do a background check, people stop me right there."
"Oh," I said, catching on. "My background's clean. No felonies."
"No. I've been a good boy."
"You never know," she said. "I'll call you in a few days and if everything looks good we'll send you to get your sales license."
It was a relief to leave the dealership. As I drove home I reflected on what I had learned so far: To be a car salesman you needed to be able to sell pens, have a clean driving record and be drug-free.
I expected to get a call the next day and begin work immediately. But Rosa didn't call and she didn't return my calls.
Over the next few days I continued applying for sales jobs. At one dealership, which sold high-end Japanese cars, a manager named Sid reviewed my application.
"But you don't have any experience selling cars," he said, as if I had misrepresented myself.
I went back to the formula that had worked so well.
"No, but I want to make a lot of money."
"Really?" he said. "How much do you want to make in, say, a month?"
I remembered Michael saying they made three or four grand in the first month. So I repeated this figure.
Sid burst out laughing: "I got guys out there makin' 20, 25 grand a month."
"No," Sid said, "I'm telling you, man, this is the big leagues."
Sid continued reviewing the application as if he might have missed something. "So you've got no experience selling cars?" he repeated.
No, I admitted for the second time, no experience.
Regretfully, he said he couldn't hire me until I had experience. He added that treating their customers well was more important than selling them a car. I told him that was exactly why I was here. I knew I could treat his customers well. This didn't cut any ice with him. He'd seen guys like me before, trying to fast talk their way into a job they weren't qualified for.
"I'm sorry my friend, but you have to prove it first. We need quotas. It's not enough to talk the talk. You need to walk the walk before you can work here." He handed me back the application and I left.
The next day I had a chance to interview at a dealership that sold American cars. Right away I sensed these guys were different than the salesmen at the dealerships that sold Japanese cars. There, they were slick young guys with expensive silk ties and gold watches. Here they were down-home, average Joes selling pickups and American-built cars.
I shook hands with a man named Jim who had slicked-back hair and a goatee. We sat in a selling room and he began telling me how great business was here. He said the dealership was perfectly situated on the Auto Mall, and the Auto Mall was the busiest in the area. And this area was the busiest place in the country. And America was the busiest place on the planet. So life was good and everyone was making lots and lots of money.
Jim asked me a number of questions about how I would handle situations on the car lot. He wanted to know how would I go about selling cars. I told him simply the best way to get a sale was to repeatedly ask for it. He liked this a lot. I could tell he was agreeing with all my answers so I wasn't surprised when he told me he was going to have his manager speak with me.
Several moments later (no waiting around like at the other interviews) a new guy entered named Stan. He said he had just told the sales staff, "If they sell two more cars by 6 o'clock we're all going out for pizza and beer."
I could tell that Stan couldn't figure out why I was there. I didn't make sense to him as a car salesman. But the more I talked the more he warmed to me. Finally, he said, "You play any sports?" I told him I was a big golfer. He asked me what my handicap was. I told him I was down to a 12 but I knew that if I took this job my golf game would suffer.
"Oh no. You're gonna get to play a lot of golf on this job. You have your mornings free and you'll be working evenings." He snapped the folder shut and said, "I asked you about sports because I wanted to see your competitive side."
I knew these interviews came in threes, so I wasn't surprised when Craig walked into the room. He told me that he had been a schoolteacher before he got into the car business. I could see him as a teacher he had a warm, intelligent manner. He said that being a car salesman was hard on your life. "Truth of the matter is, you lose all your friends. Not because you're a car salesman, but because when you're around, they're not. And when they're around, you're not. You wind up making all new friends." I thought of the guys getting pizza and beer after selling two more cars. Would they be my new friends?
Craig asked me questions about myself, but mainly he was there to tell me the realities of the job. He told me that I would be successful selling only 20 percent of the time. So about 80 percent of the time I would be failing. He asked me how I took rejection. I said, "If you knew my wife, you'd know I'm an expert on handling rejection." He laughed and said, "A good sense of humor is important."
I was left alone for a few moments while the three of my interviewers held a pow wow. I overheard one of them saying, "He seems like a nice guy." The other one said, "Yes, definitely." Craig returned and told me that I would be sent for drug test and background check. If both of these were clear they could start me in about 10 days.
As I left the dealership I realized I was facing a dilemma: did I want to work with the slippery guys who first interviewed me? Or should I go with the good ole boys at the American dealership? At this point I was leaning toward the slippery guys. I knew I was going to leave in a month anyway. I wouldn't mind cutting and running from the Japanese dealership. The other American boys might shake their heads and say, "If only he'd hung in there, we could've helped him become a successful car salesman."
I called the first dealership back for about the 20th time. This time I didn't give my name, but I had Rosa paged. After a long wait, she came on the line.
"Oh yes," she answered cheerfully (no mention of why she hadn't called back). "Come down Monday morning and we'll send you off to get your car sales license. You can do that while we're finishing your background check."
Did that mean I was hired? On Monday I went to the dealership and Rosa gave me the forms to take to the DMV. But first, I had to have my fingerprints scanned. I went to a local university's security office where they had a special computer for this purpose. I waited three hours before being led into a small, hot room. A sweaty young technician rolled the pads of my fingerprints across a glass plate. He told me that my prints were being sent by modem to the Justice Department a scary thought. I then went to the DMV where I had another long wait because the computers were down. Finally, I went to the window, paid $56 and had my picture taken. A few moments later I was handed my "Vehicle Salesperson Temporary Permit" with my photo on it. I was now a car salesman. So I decided to play the part.
Speaking through the glass, I told the DMV clerk, "I just got my sales license. You'll have to come on down to the dealership. I'll sell you a car."
"Sorry," she said. "I just bought a new Toyota."
The rejection had already begun.