Confessions of a Car Salesman
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Confessions of a Car Salesman

Part 4: Life on the Lot


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When I took this assignment as an undercover car salesman I knew I was agreeing to join the enemy. Everyone knows that the car salesman or woman is the enemy. He or she is the person we have to do battle with if we want a new car. I had always been on the customer's side of the desk. Now I was crossing enemy lines. But I didn't feel like the enemy until the first time I greeted a customer on the lot.

Here's how it happened. I saw a young couple get out of their car and wander uncertainly toward a row of compacts. They were there to buy a car. I wanted to sell them a car. I walked toward them with the best of intentions.

As I reached the couple I gave them a cheerful, "Good afternoon!"

They turned and, in an instant, I saw the fear on their faces. Fear of me!

Let me quickly add that I'm not the type of person who normally elicits fear from the people around me. I've been called shy, reserved and quiet — all euphemisms for meek, mousy and at times practically invisible. But here I was with my white shirt and tie, my employee's badge hanging from my belt. I had become the enemy. And they were afraid of me.

What were they afraid of? The short answer is, they were afraid they would buy a car. The long answer is that they were afraid they would fall in love with one of these cars, lose their sense of reason and pay too much for it. They were afraid they would be cheated, ripped-off, pressured, hoodwinked, swindled, jacked around, suckered or fleeced. And, as they saw me approaching, all these fears showed on their faces as they blurted out, "We're only looking!"

During my short stint as a car salesman I saw this look of fear from customers many times. It ranged from a mild apprehension to abject terror. Sometimes customers would actually become hostile. I'd cheerfully say, "How can I help you?" And they would lash out with, "Can't you leave me alone for one second? I just want to look! On my own! OK? On my own!"

What the customer didn't realize was that the poor car salesman or woman was not really the enemy. The real enemy was the manager sitting in the sales tower cracking the whip. Suppose for a moment a customer told us they were "only looking," and we said, "fine, take your time," and went back into the sales tower. Now we find ourselves looking up into the steely eyes of the sales manager.

"That's your customer out there," the manager would say.

"But they said they're only looking," I would answer.

"Only looking? You're going to take that for an answer?" Foam was beginning to form at the corners of the sales manager's mouth. "What the hell kind of salesman are you? Of course they're looking! They're all only looking until they buy. You want them to go across the street and buy a car over there? Because they have real salesmen over there. Now go back out there and sell those people a car. And don't let them leave until they buy or until you turn them over to your closer."

So that's why the car salespeople stick like glue to customers. Their fear of their managers is greater than their fear of offending the customers.

Many salespeople find that humor is a good way to overcome objections. If a customer says they're "only looking," the salesperson might answer, "Last time I was only looking I wound up married." If a customer objects to being hurried into buying the car, the salesperson might say, "The only pressure on this lot is in the tires." These prepackaged lines were exchanged between car salesmen in the slow times with the feeling that the right joke at the right moment could be the ticket to a sale.

Of course, a good joke in the salesman's opinion might be considered the ultimate cornball line by the customer. In one case a veteran salesman bragged to me that he sold a car to a woman by telling her, "You know, you look great in this car. The color matches the color of your eyes." Oddly enough, that very night I was talking to a woman who told me she had once had a car salesman tell her that the car matched the color of her eyes. Her reaction to this? "Oh please!"

Car salesmen and women seem to exist in their own world. What they think is cool is viewed by the public as tacky and obvious. For example, why do they insist on wearing white shirts and silk ties? Or what about gold watches, rings and chains? Who wears that stuff anymore? Don't they realize they are turning themselves into walking cliches? The only answer I came up with was that, as a salesman, I spent all my time with other salesmen. They were my friends. Believe it or not, I tried to fit in, to belong. So I began to develop an interest in gold ties, white shirts and dress shoes. I even grew a goatee because a lot of the guys had beards. And I put gel on my hair and combed it straight back.

During the first week as a car salesman I used to come home and describe the scene at the dealership to my wife. I told her how we were instructed to follow cars as they pulled onto the lot and stand beside the car until the customer stepped out. She was incredulous.

"Do they think that's going to make people want to buy a car?" she always asked. "If it was me I'd just keep driving. I'd want time to pick the car myself. To relax and sit in the car and not be pressured." I could only answer that the system was not set up for educated people who thought for themselves, it wasn't to help customers make informed decisions. The system was designed to catch people off guard, to score a quick sale, to exploit people who were weak or uninformed. Those were our buyers.

Let me say that the dealership I worked at was notoriously high-volume, high-pressure. Even so, there were some salespeople there who were relaxed and friendly and treated customers with respect. I also know that there are many good dealerships across the country that are concerned with their long-term reputation. But as a whole, the dealership where I worked encouraged the salespeople to use pressure to speed up a deal, to get a customer to accept high payments, to get the customer to buy a car they really didn't want.

I had been working for several days by now. My manager had trained me on the basics and then told me to watch the other salespeople interacting with customers. Finally, he let me "meet and greet" customers and then turn them over to another team member. Now, it was time for me to actually start selling cars. So I went outside and began waiting for ups.

The dealership where I worked had "an open floor." This meant that any salesman could wait on any available customer. However, if there were 10 salesmen waiting for ups and one car drove in, how did we decide who would help them? In some cases, the salespeople "called" the ups. They would scan the traffic passing by the dealership. If a car turned into the lot, someone said, "Green Toyota!" And this gave him the right to wait on that customer. When you shook hands with the customer you were, in a sense, claiming your territory.

Since I was still a "green pea" the other salesmen tried to push me to wait on undesirable ups — the undesirable customers who the salesmen thought wouldn't or couldn't qualify to buy a car. My manager had, at one point, described the different races and nationalities and what they were like as customers. It would be too inflammatory to repeat what he said here. But the gist of it was that the people of such-and-such nationality were "lie downs" (people who buy without negotiating), while the people of another race were "roaches" (they had bad credit), and people from that country were "mooches" (they tried to buy the car for invoice price).

I'll repeat what Michael, my ASM, told me about Caucasians . He said white people never come into the dealership. "They're all on the Internet trying to find out what our invoice price is. We never even get a shot at them. I hate it. I mean, would they go (to a mall) and say, 'What's your invoice price on that beautiful suit?' No. So why are they doing it here?"

I was already beginning to see the impact of the Internet because of something that happened during my first few days there. I was sent to the service department to talk to customers waiting for their cars to be fixed. Salespeople feel this is a good source of leads to buy new cars. Say a customer has just gotten nailed with a $2,000 quote for a transmission. Now's the time to move in and pitch the virtues of a new car.

There were typically a dozen or more people waiting for their cars to be serviced. They would either watch TV or read while they drank coffee and Cokes from the vending machines. I handed out my business card and chatted with a few people. One young guy was killing time by goofing around with his Palm Top computer. He was outfitted in designer jeans and a T-shirt, so I wasn't surprised to hear that he had just bought the radical new SUV our dealership sold. Michael had told me these vehicles were selling for over sticker prices, so I asked Mr. Palm Top how he made out.

"I got an awesome deal," he said.

"How awesome?"

"Three hundred below invoice," he smugly answered.

I asked how he did it. He said he checked prices on the Internet. He then called the fleet manager and made the deal over the phone.

I had a schizophrenic reaction to this. Part of me admired the fact that he had outfoxed the dealer. But the car salesman side of me was angry that I never "got a shot at him." It seemed like just a matter of time before people who, in the past, walked onto our car lot, would be on the Internet making deals.

The salesmen are only vaguely aware of this developing trend. I was standing on the curb next to George and we saw one of these high-demand SUVs ready for delivery.

"Another damn Internet sale," George said. "Why don't they turn that car over to us? We'd get a grand over sticker. Instead they're selling it at invoice. Does that make sense?" As the days passed I noticed more and more cars marked "carsdirect.com." And as I approached people on the car lot they often informed me that they were here to see the fleet manager. More Internet customers.

Back to that first couple I greeted on the car lot. I don't remember much about them other than the look of fear on their faces. They didn't buy a car from me. In fact, I didn't have a real good prospect for another two days. I had plenty of people who were just looking. Or said they would be back. Or said they had a doctor's appointment. Or had to pick up their kids at school. These were typical excuses they had for escaping. But the salesmen told me to disregard all these stories that customers gave me. As they put it, "Buyers are liars."

Read Confessions of a Car Salesman Part 5: A Tale of Two Deals


To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.

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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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