When you're shopping for a car, the experience you have at a dealership can make all the difference. Edmunds.com Senior Editor Matt Jones worked for 12 years as a car salesman, Internet sales manager, and finance manager and sales manager. He now highlights dealerships and car-selling best practices that make car shopping easy and enjoyable. Got an innovative dealership story to share? Contact him: matthewj (at) edmunds.com.
I'd like to say I was once the Michael Jordan of car sales, but that simply isn't true. During my time on the sales floor, I'd occasionally lead the board (car jargon for having the most sales in the month), but most months I'd be just slightly ahead of the middle of the pack. I was pretty good, but not exceptional.
However, there were some car salespeople who consistently led the sales team in deals, month after month, year after year. As a shopper, you might be surprised how somebody becomes top guy (or gal) at a dealership. If you think it's the smoothest talker or the tough-as-nails bully who pounds his customers into submission, you're wrong. In my experience, the top salespeople tend to be pleasant, well-rounded employees who use their time wisely and focus on making customers happy.
Here's why the name at the top of the leader board matters to you as a car shopper: Most people are looking for two things when they buy a car: a low price and a hassle-free shopping experience. One of the easiest ways to get a good experience is to work with a good salesperson. Just showing up at a dealership and working with the first salesperson who approaches you doesn't guarantee you'll get the service you're looking for, especially if you have specific needs.
Laura Madison, national director of sales for Alan Ram's Proactive Training Solutions, and an ex-top car salesperson, agrees. "The best salespeople will often be in an office studying their product, following up with customers, or finding ways to be better at their job. They usually won't be standing out front, watching the lot."
It's easy to find a top salesperson. All it takes is a call to a sales manager to set up an appointment with that star performer. Or, when you walk in the dealership showroom, you can ask the receptionist for the top salesperson.
In most dealerships, the top salesperson is not only the one who sells the most cars, but also the one with high customer satisfaction scores and happy customers. Some dealerships will have more than one top salesperson. It's common to have a small core group who perform at a high level and are constantly vying for the No. 1 spot.
Here is a list of some of the most valuable traits of top salespeople, based on what I saw in my dozen years in the car selling business. Once you know what makes a top salesperson tick, you'll know what to expect as you make a deal — and after the deal is complete, too. This list isn't all-inclusive, and if you think I've left something out, please feel free leave it in the comment section.
Personality: An attribute that most top salespeople share is an easygoing, friendly manner. Car selling is social, and it suits people with outgoing personalities. However, being an extrovert isn't a requirement to make lots of sales. Even the most reserved salespeople can succeed. The top sellers will often be the perfect combination of friendly salesperson and active listener. And they will be likable.
If a salesperson is especially likable, the chances that he or she will get referrals from past customers increase dramatically. It's possible to be a top salesperson without a healthy dose of repeat and referral customers, but it's not very likely. If other car shoppers like a particular salesperson enough to refer their friends and family, there is a good chance you'll like him, too.
Persistent: Let's say you want a hard-to-find vehicle that's not readily available on your local car lot. Maybe it's a new car in a rare color. Or perhaps you need a particular type of used car under a certain price. Your salesperson is the person most responsible for finding you the car you need.
Your salesperson also will have to pester the management team for inventory swaps, scour the used car lot and check into local dealer auctions. A top salesperson will keep up the search until her or she finds a suitable vehicle. This can take days, or even months. Having a persistent salesperson can pay off big time for a buyer who is dead set on a certain vehicle. A salesperson who is not as motivated may decide that searching for your elusive next car just isn't worth the time or energy.
Pushy: Here is a simple truth about sales: Sometimes, a salesperson needs to nudge a customer into making a purchase decision. This doesn't mean shady sales tactics or aggressive behavior. Simply giving a customer good, valid reasons to do business now can be all that's needed to turn a shopper into a buyer.
This polite pushing doesn't stop with the customer. Top sellers know that to make every deal, they will have to push management, too. They'll push managers to pay more money on a trade-in, push for a faster deal or even push to take a deal the sales manager might not want to take.
While I was selling cars in the ultra-competitive Southern California car market, I'd occasionally have to encourage dealership brass to take deals they'd be more inclined to reject. I knew that in the long run, making one less than desirable deal could net me more deals in the future from referral and repeat customers.
Perceptive: Car shoppers will not always say exactly what they are feeling. That doesn't mean a salesperson can't pick up a shopper's signals. A perceptive car salesperson can read clues about a shopper's level of excitement, and if the salesperson is going in the wrong direction or not engaging the shopper, he will know to shift gears. Body language tells a story, and good car salespeople understand how to read the nonverbal cues.
For example, a customer may not jump up and say, "I'm very concerned about fit and finish," but might inspect the seat stitching and storage door latches. A perceptive salesperson will pick up on that and discuss some of the steps the carmaker takes to ensure a durable interior.
If a shopper goes at a leisurely pace, a good salesperson will slow down his selling style to match. Perhaps a customer is more interested in the car's safety features than its performance aspects. Instead of using a generic demonstration, the good salesperson will tailor his or her presentation to best fit the individual shopper's interests and needs.
If a perceptive salesperson feels that the customer simply doesn't seem to like him because of clashing personalities, he'll introduce the customer to a salesperson who might be a better fit.
Phone Savvy: Being friendly and speaking clearly is a good start, but today it takes more than good phone manners to a sell a car, Madison says.
"A professional salesperson isn't calling a customer just to chitchat," she says. "The phone call will always have a purpose: Maybe to provide new information, or offer a new incentive to help motivate a car shopper to get into a car. Some salespeople clog up customers' voicemail, but don't offer anything new."
Another aspect of phone skills is knowing when to call and when to fall back. There is a fine line between calling a customer too often and not reaching out often enough. Top salespeople know the perfect balance.
When you deal with a top salesperson and don't buy immediately, you can expect a follow-up call to make sure that all is well, and that she's handled any outstanding questions or concerns.
Cream-of-the-crop salespeople also will keep in contact with you after the deal is done.
They do this to answer any questions the new owner may have and to make sure the new car is performing as intended. When Madison sold cars, she made it a point to contact her customers once a quarter to make sure all was well. Finally, these post-sales calls lay the foundation for the next car purchase, whenever the customer is ready.
Presentation Skills: This one may sound obvious, but there is no guarantee that a salesperson will offer a good product presentation to a potential car buyer, although he certainly should. In fact, some salespeople are so eager to start working out the numbers that they overlook demos altogether.
Top sellers don't skimp on demonstrations. They understand that a car shopper is looking to buy a product, and the better the product presentation is, the more likely the shopper will be to buy.
Even the customers who have done tons of research can still be wowed by features in a new car, especially if the salesperson doing the demonstration knows what they are and how to explain them.
"Demonstrations are more important now than in years past because of infotainment systems and new in-vehicle technology," Madison says. "How can you expect a buyer to pay good money for something they don't know how to use or understand?"
Prompt: A shopper whose e-mails or phone calls aren't returned quickly can morph from a sales prospect to an ex-customer in no time flat. Add in a helping of anger if the call is from someone who has just bought a car and has a problem or a question.
A top salesperson will respond to voicemail, e-mail and texts quickly. And even if these salespeople are busy, you can still expect a call back to let you know that's the case. In short, top salespeople don't leave their customers hanging.
Positive: Selling cars can be difficult, frustrating and tiring: often all three, on the same day. Customers aren't always polite. Managers aren't always helpful. Co-workers aren't always friendly. Combine these stresses with whatever other personal issues may be going on means life as a car salesperson can be tough.
The difference between the car salesperson and people in other high-stress jobs is that the salesperson is in front of customers who are making one of the largest purchases of their lives. These are customers who may be wary of the sales process, uneasy about spending so much money or in need of somebody to help them through what can be a daunting process. It's no place for a grumpy or distracted salesperson.
The best salespeople try to provide a comfortable, easy experience for the buyer, even when they're feeling down in the dumps. They know that an unhappy shopper can mean more than a single lost sale. It can mean that the dealership loses that customer (and his friends and family) forever. And it can mean a bad online review to boot.
The Easy Way To Ensure a Good Car-Buying Experience
A bad salesperson can squeeze the fun out of what should be a joyful day for a car buyer. And when you're spending thousands of dollars, a good experience should be part of the deal. So take a few minutes to find out who deserves your business. Who's the most prompt, perceptive, personable, persistent and phone-savvy person at the dealership? It's the top salesperson. Once you've met that person, you're on your way to the kind of hassle-free car buying you might never have dreamed possible.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.