How to Sell a Car

Ransom Riggs

I wandered into a car dealership yesterday with a few innocent questions and about twenty minutes to spare ... big mistake. An hour and a half later I had missed a lunch, been through an (I think unnecessary) credit check and felt like I had been interrogated by the Gestapo. Naturally, I decided to find out what makes car salesmen tick -- and found some wonderful information online, in particular a long article by a journalist who had gone undercover as a car salesman for three months to learn the tricks of the trade (emphasis on tricks). From "Confessions of a Car Salesman," here are the top techniques salesmen use to get you to sign on the dotted line.

Be high-pressure because you have to be

When I was interviewed for the job, the dealership was vague about how I would be paid. On the one hand they promised I could make serious money through commissions — maybe four or five grand my first month. On the other hand, they alluded to an hourly wage to begin with. Now I found that I was, in fact, working on straight commission. If I sold cars I made money. If I didn't sell, I didn't make a penny. Maybe that's why there were so many salespeople working here (about 85 in new and used cars). It didn't cost the dealership extra to have a big staff.

Use the "up to?" trick

The process begins by asking the customer how much they want for a monthly payment. Usually, they say, about $300. "Then, you just say, '$300... up to?' And they'll say, 'Well, $350.' Now they've just bumped themselves $50 a month. That's huge." You then fill in $350 under the monthly payment box.

Michael said you could use the "up to" trick with the down payment too. "If Mr. Customer says he wants to put down $2000, you say, "Up to?" And he'll probably bump himself up to $2500." Michael then wrote $2,500 in the down payment box of the 4-square worksheet.

I later found out this little phrase "Up to?" was a joke around the dealership. When salesmen or women passed each other in the hallways, they would say, "Up to?" and break out laughing.

Create a sense of urgency

After the customer test-drove the car we brought them into a sales office and offered them coffee or a Coke to relax them. Then we filled in the information about the car [on the sales sheet] ... and called the tower [the sales managers]. Michael held his hand like a phone receiver with his thumb and little finger sticking out. "You say, 'Yes sir. I have the Jones family here with me and they have just driven a beautiful new whatever model, stock number blah blah blah.' Then you say, 'Is it still available?' Of course you know it is. But you want to create a sense of urgency. So you pause, then say to the customer, 'Great news! The car's still available!'

"Never give the customer even numbers."

"Here's another thing. Never give the customer even numbers. Then it looks like you just made them up. So don't say their monthly payment is going to be $400. Say it will be $427. Or, if you want to have some fun, say it will be $427.33."

Steal the trade-in

At one point he said, "Oh! This is a good one! This is how you steal the trade-in." He looked around quickly to make sure no one overheard him. "When you're getting the numbers from the desk, they'll ask if the customer has a trade-in. Say it's a '95 Ford Taurus. And say you took it to the used car manager and he evaluated it and said he would pay four grand for it. If you can get the trade for only three, that's a grand extra in profit.

"So what you do is this," Michael pretended to pick up the phone again, "you ask the desk, 'What did we get for the last three Tauruses at auction?' Then they'll give you some figures — they'll say, $1,923, $2,197 and $1,309. You don't have to say anything to the customer. But he sees you writing this down! And he's going, 'Holy crap! I thought my trade was worth $6,000.' Now it's easy to get it for $3,000. That's a grand extra in profit. And it's front-end money too!" (I later learned that front-end money was what our commissions were based on. Back-end money was made on interest, holdbacks and other elements of the deal.)

Get them off the lot

"You're walking through the lot with Mr. Customer and he's eyeballing all these cars," Oscar said. "He stops next to this one and bam! that's the one you're gonna sell him. You pull it out of the row, open the doors and ask him to see how good the seats feel. When he sits down you slam the door and take off."

"You mean, you ask him if he wants to demo the car?" I asked.

"Hell no. They never go for a demo if you ask them. 'Cause they know they're weak. If they drive it they'll buy it. The feel of the wheel will seal the deal, my friend. So you got to kidnap them, man. Just slam the door and take off. Come on, let's go."

We got into the car and he palmed the wheel, backing up, then pulling out onto the street. A block later we hit a light. When it turned green Oscar punched it and I felt the G's pressing me back into the leather.

"Whoa," I said. "Great torque."

"Strong," he agreed, checking the review mirror. We made a right, then another right into a shopping center parking lot. We got out.

"Now you got them away from the dealership, you can relax a little, show 'em how awesome this car is. What you want to do is open all the doors and windows, the hood and the trunk. Then you do your walk around. You start at the driver's door and you point stuff out as you go. 'Mr. Customer, this car's got the highest safety rating because it's got front crumple zones and breakaway engine mounts. It's got a 170-horsepower V6 with four valves per cylinder and blah, blah, blah.' See, it doesn't really matter what you say — most people don't even know what the hell you're talking about -— but the important thing is to keep talking: 'Here's the headlights, here's the gas cap. Here's the trunk. Here are the tires.' Anything! Understand?"

It all starts with the handshake

Over the next few days I noticed that car salesmen shook hands with each other a lot. I shook hands with each of my team members when I arrived in the morning; we shook hands before we left the dealership at night. We might shake hands with each other two or three more times during the day. If I happened to be standing on the curb and if another salesman walked up I shook hands with him. It was like we were all staying loose, practicing on each other, for that moment when we would greet Mr. Customer and needed to use a good handshake that's going to seal the deal.

At one point, during a sales seminar, I was actually taught how to shake hands. The instructor, a veteran car salesman said: "Thumb to thumb. Pump one, two, three, and out." Another vet told me to combine the handshake with a slight pulling motion. This is the beginning of your control over the customer. This would prepare the "up" to be moved into the dealership where the negotiation would begin. The car lot handshake is sometimes combined with the confident demand, "Follow me!" If you employ this method you turn and begin walking into the dealership. Do not look back to see if they are following you. Most people feel the obligation to do what they are told and they will follow you, if only to plead, "But I'm only looking!"

Make 'em laugh -- if you can

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!"

It's just like Glengarry Glen Ross

Compare this sales meeting with Alec Baldwin's famous, brilliant, and NSFW speech from David Mamet's masterpiece, Glengarry Glen Ross. I think you'll find more than a few similarities.

Behind the sales manager's desk were three large white boards. The first listed the names of all the new car sales people. Beside the names was a blue box for each car they sold. Since I started near the end of the month, some of the salesmen had a long row of blue boxes showing they sold as many as 35 cars. Others had only two boxes. This board enabled everyone to see who was doing well, and who was falling behind. The next board showed the number of cars sold by the entire dealership. And the final board listed the names of the salespeople who hadn't sold any cars for three days. "How ya doin' guys?" Ben asked, looking down at us. He was in his mid-forties with graying hair combed back. His face was thin, his nose pointed, giving him a fox-like appearance. "Doin' good, boss," the salesmen muttered. "You lose some weight, Ben?" one of the salesmen asked. "A few pounds maybe," Ben said, slapping his gut. "They didn't feed you much in prison?" the salesman said. Everyone broke up. Ben's face got red. "Will you quit telling everyone that?" It was an odd response. He wasn't denying that he had been in prison. So I had to assume it was true. "OK guys. Listen up. It is slow. Slowwwww. You need to start working the phones, get some customers in here. Who's got an appointment today?" A few hands were raised. "Here's the deal. No appointments, no ups. You guys each have to have one shown appointment or you don't get to take any ups." I found out that a shown appointment was one where the customer actually showed up. This prevented salesmen from putting down a fake name just to fulfill this requirement. "No shown appointment, no ups," Ben repeated. "Is that clear?" "It's clear, boss," a salesman mumbled. "OK. Now here's the other thing," Ben said, looking down at the assembled masses. "The guys in used cars think we're a bunch of wimps. They're going around telling everyone they can sell more cars than us. So I bet dinner, for each guy here, that we can outsell them over the next four days. What do you say about that?" We all cheered. Ben looked through the glass and across the dealership at the used cars tower. All the salesmen were in there meeting with their managers, just like we were meeting with ours. Ben picked up the phone. "Now I'm going to call used cars and we're gonna show them who we are." He dialed the extension for the used cars department. When they answered he yelled to us, "What do we think of used cars?!" He then held up the phone so we could collectively yell into it. We shouted, "Used cars sucks!" Then Ben asked us, "Who's strong?" We yelled, "New cars!!!" Meanwhile, of course, we could see the guys in used cars were yelling and screaming at us, telling us we were a bunch of wimps. The receptionist, who sat between the two towers, looked like she would die of embarrassment. "All right guys," Ben said. "Get out there and sell cars. Let's rock." The meeting broke up. The salesmen went outside and stood around grumbling. Then, one by one, they went inside and hit the phones.