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.
"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."
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