It was the last day of my career as a car salesman. I was working the evening shift at the no-haggle dealership, on a day in the middle of the week. A typical day. A slow day. I made my sales calls in the "business development center," trying to set up sales appointments I knew I would never keep. My heart wasn't in it and, not surprisingly, I couldn't convince anyone to sell me her "quality used car" for "above market value."
I sat at my desk in the showroom hoping for some diversion to pass the time. I had done that a lot as a car salesman. And on this day, sure enough, something happened to kill a few minutes. It involved a salesman I'd gotten to be friends with, a guy named Craig. He had recently moved from Montana and true to his roots he looked like the Marlboro man rugged features and a thick graying mustache. Unfortunately, Craig also had bad teeth and was a foot shorter than what I imagined the Marlboro man to be.
Early on, I had been told a good salesman "walks the lot" every day to check on inventory. Craig did this religiously and memorized the location of every car on the lot. If you were in the middle of a sale, and the customer decided he wanted a white coupe instead of a black four-door, you had only to call over to Craig and he would instantly give you the location of the car that would seal the deal. I later realized Craig had another reason for walking the lot. He had a bottle hidden out there somewhere. He'd always return from the lot a touch more animated, a glow in his face.
On one return trip from walking the lot, he went to sit at his desk and missed the center of his chair seat. The chair was on wheels and began sliding backward as he continued downward. Despite his heroic efforts clawing for handholds on a nearby potted plant down he went. And all this happened right in front of the boss's office window.
There was silence in the showroom for a few seconds, then high-pitched squeaks of laughter from a saleswoman, named Allie. Her laughter continued until it infected the rest of us. We stumbled outside to recover ourselves and, as Allie lit up a cigarette, she began regaling us with stories of other mishaps involving the parade of salesmen and women who had worked there during her tenure. I felt odd as she talked about past co-workers since I knew I would soon be joining their ranks, disappearing into the anonymous job market.
Allie told us how she had helped a friend named Mark get a job as a salesman there because, "He was an even bigger klutz than me." One day he took a customer's driver's license into the showroom to photocopy before going on a test drive. Turning back to the customer, he walked right through a plate glass door, saying, "Here you go," and handing back the license as if nothing had happened. As he turned away, Allie saw blood spurting from his knee where an artery had been severed. They wrestled him into the break room and a mechanic in the service bay, who had been a medic in Vietnam, staunched the bleeding. They rushed back outside to tend to the customer and discovered he had a long shard of glass protruding from his foot.
Another time, Mark went outside to "lock and block" and never returned. Lock and block is a nightly ritual where the sales staff makes sure all the car doors are locked and the entrance is blocked by parked cars. In this case, the salesman had pulled on a chain link gate to see if it was locked but succeeded in pulling it down on top of himself, pinning him to the ground. When they lifted the gate off him, he had a waffle pattern on his face from the chain link fence.
As we talked, the afternoon turned to night and a chilly wind came up. Allie went inside to make more sales calls and Craig drifted away to do a thorough check of our inventory. I leaned against a car and watched the traffic passing in the street. From where I stood I could see the guys across the street at the Dodge dealership drinking coffee and smoking. It was slow over there too. I began thinking back on my experiences, summarizing what I had learned from my three months as a car salesman.
Of course, I absorbed a lot I couldn't easily describe, bits and pieces of information I knew would come back while I was at Edmunds.com. But how had my view of the big picture changed?
I know for sure I'll never look at car salesmen and women in the same way. I used to hate and fear them, to lump them all in the same category with sweeping generalizations. Now, I had some insight into the waters they swam in. I sympathized with them, I pitied them, and in some cases I admired them.
I saw that many car salesmen and women, like myself, were just moving through the dealership experience, on their way from one point in their lives to another. Most of them didn't have college degrees and were trapped in lives that they thought offered few chances for advancement. The car business offered them a way to use a lot of hustle and little book learning to make money. I admired anyone who was trying to improve his (or her) life, particularly through hard work. But making big bucks in the car business wasn't the slam-dunk it was made out to be.
Previously, I had known car salesmen from the outside, as I encountered them while buying a car. Now I had worked alongside them. I had been rejected by customers and bullied by sales managers. I had been excited by a big sale and disappointed when a sure thing fell apart. I saw the same dream they saw: big commissions from easy sales. All you had to do, as my assistant sales manager Michael told me, was get "right in the head."
In the Friday morning sales meetings at my first dealership the managers tried to psyche us up by saying that we could make more money as a car salesman than a doctor. True, some of the successful salesmen made a lot of dough. But the vast majority of car salesmen were eking out a living, thinking that some day, somehow, their luck would change and the money would begin rolling in.
So, you think I'm romanticizing car salesmen? Trying to clean them up and excuse their evil ways? And, you might ask, if the salesmen aren't the bad guys, who is?
Having been a salesman myself, I began to view the managers and dealership owners as the real culprits. While salesmen play people games with the customer, the guys in the tower work the numbers with computers, their eyes fixed on the bottom line. They can see at a glance what kind of profit they are taking from the customer and they do it any way. Furthermore, they bully the sales staff, encouraging them to manipulate, control and intimidate customers while they take the lion's share of the profit.
Sometimes, the profit a salesman generates is not even pocketed by them. One salesman told me the F&I people can work their magic to rob a salesman of his commission. They move front-end profit to the back end where it evaporates from the salesman's voucher and returns, over the years, to the dealer in the form of high interest and steady payouts. I experienced a little taste of this myself. I leased an SUV to a single mother and at sticker price expected a nice commission. But on payday I cashed a $65 check. No explanation. No hint of where my commission had gone.
The management pushes the salesman out the door, lets him meet and greet the customer, then takes the profit. Not only that, but the management also blames the salesman when something goes wrong. I saw this quite clearly when the TV news team did its hidden camera investigation of the dealership (more on this in Part 6). A salesman was made out to be the bad guy. When the camera was turned on the dealership owner he disavowed knowledge of what was happening in his business and promised a complete review of their practices. This, despite the fact that at Friday sales meetings, the owner was cheering the boys on to get more deals at a higher profit.
By itself profit is a positive word. But in the car business, the dealership's profit is the consumer's loss. I'm not suggesting that the dealership be run without a profit, but in one case I heard about, the dealership made a 16 percent profit on a $25,000 car. That meant the consumer, the average Joe buying the car, paid about $4,000 too much.
While working as a car salesman I became impressed with the damage a bad car deal can do to the budget of an ordinary person. In one case, I participated in leasing a car to a couple at well over its value. I was haunted by the thought that this nice ordinary couple had trusted me, and I had let them sign a contract that would bind them for five years to a high-interest lease. I consoled myself thinking perhaps another dealer would have inflicted greater damage.
How did the car business get so screwed up? There's nothing else in our society that is sold with the consumer so conspicuously unprepared.
During the sales seminar I took, the instructor attempted to tackle the "Why is it this way?" question. He said that just after World War II there were a lot of people who wanted to buy cars, and there were a lot of people who had money, but there weren't enough cars to go around. So the car salesman didn't really have to "sell." Their job was merely to qualify customers, to find out who was really going to "buy today," so they could move on to the next customer. This set the tone for the business and it is still that way today.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.