It may look like a world of balloons and bad tweed. But making a living on the lot is anything but a Sunday drive.
1. They read you like a book.
“I don’t care what anybody says, verbally,” says Prentiss Smith, the general manager at a Toyota dealership in Brookhaven, Mississippi. “If they pull up on our lot, they might say they’re not ready to buy, but that’s not true.” Salespeople watch for subtle signs to read your mind. “If it’s a trade-in and I’m doing an appraisal, I see how much gas is in there,” says Daniel Wheeler, an Oregon-based Hyundai salesman. “If it’s a quarter of a tank or below, it’s usually a fairly good sign [a customer is] ready to purchase.” David Teves, a California-based salesman who writes the blog Confessions of a Car Man, says he can determine a customer’s mood by the parking spot they choose. “There’s a place at the end of our lot we call ‘Laydown Lane’ because the people who park there are too timid to park out front. They’re either total ‘laydowns’—which means they buy whatever you want for whatever price—or they have extremely bad credit.”
2. They are speaking in code to each other. (Yes, about you.)
A potential customer is an “up,” a new salesperson is an inexperienced “green-pea,” and a buyer with no credit history is a “ghost.” Taking up too much of a salesman’s time without actually buying? You’re a “stroke.” If you’re lugging paperwork around—like newspaper ads or car reports—you’re a “professor.” And “one-legged shoppers” are customers without their spouses, which is a regular excuse for why they can’t buy right now—gotta ask the old ball and chain!
3. They believe there is no difference between a new car and a new puppy.
The best lingo appears when a customer is on the fence about buying a car: That’s when, sometimes, dealerships will insist they take the car home for the night. This is called “puppy-dogging.” Mark McDonald, a career car salesman and author of the “Car Salesman Confidential” column at MotorTrend.com, explains: “When customers show it to their friends and neighbors, they will make such a fuss over it—just as they would a new puppy—that they’ll have no choice but to buy it.”
4. Their co-workers are cutthroat.
Forget about the high failure rates, pressures to sell, and potential debts to their employers. Car salespeople also have to endure brutal tactics used by fellow salespeople. For example: It’s your day off? Opportunistic coworkers might tell your loyal customers that you’ve been fired, sell the car themselves, and keep the commission. “Some people would step over their own mothers to get that car sale,” McDonald says. They also risk life and limb whenever buyers take them out on a test drive. “I once went for a ride with a drug dealer in Oakland who took me on a test drive to collect drug money,” Teves recalls. “Any test drive when you come back alive is a successful test drive.”
5. They keep their eyes on the prize.
“Sometimes, a piece of inventory just won’t sell, so the general manager will keep lowering the price,” Wheeler explains. The dealership loses money on these cars, but the salesperson still gets commission. If a car is proving particularly hard to sell, some dealerships hand out cash prizes, called “spiffs,” to whoever finally sells it. As a salesperson, “you could make $5000 to $10,000 a year on spiffs alone,” McDonald says. In fact, the first car a salesperson usually shows you is a spiff. Instead of promising a specific cash amount, some dealerships have their own “wheel of fortune” with various spiff prizes on it. Salespeople could get $100, or they could get nothing, depending on where the wheel lands.
6. Despite the fun and games, they’re not rolling in dough.
The average car salesperson’s salary in 2012 was just under $45,000. And it doesn’t come easy. Many salespeople work purely on commission, meaning they only make money if they sell a car. “We’re not paid anything for standing there 12 hours a day and not selling,” says McDonald. “And if I work a whole week and don’t sell a car that week, I make nothing. When I do finally sell a car, I might make a minimum commission, which at my dealership is $125. When you divide that by 60 to 90 hours a week, it’s nothing.” Smith agrees, citing an average success rate of about 20 percent. “We lose in this industry a whole lot more than we win.”
7. In fact, they might owe their boss money.
If a salesperson has a dry spell, some dealerships will let them draw against their commissions until they can pay it back. In car sales lingo, this is called being “in the bucket.” McDonald says, “Once you get in the bucket, it can be very hard to get out. You could owe $4,000 or $5,000 after two or three months. When that happens, the only thing you can do is quit.”
8. Lots of movement on the lot? Must be a slow day.
One strategy for luring customers is to rotate the vehicles around the lot to convey a busy, vibrant environment. “I tell my guys all the time to go out there and move the whole front line of cars,” Smith says. “Play musical chairs with the cars and customers start moving in. Action creates reaction.” And while there’s no concrete evidence to support it, an unspoken rule is that balloons somehow sell cars. On slow days, salespeople go nuts with them. “I worked at a dealership where you had to put 150 balloons out every day,” Teves says. “By the time you were done, you were exhausted. You didn’t have any energy left to sell a car.”
9. The job is going the way of the dodo.
In 2015, more than a million Americans work at car dealerships. But that could change. Thanks to the Internet, people now walk into dealerships with their minds already made up. They don’t need—or want—a salesperson’s pitch. It makes sense that some dealerships are trading in their inflatable gorillas for online ads, as the Internet is by far their top referral source. In 2013, brand activity on Twitter alone drove $716 million in car sales, according to marketing analytics firm MarketShare. In other words, for better or worse, selling cars is becoming less of an art that involves human interaction, and more of a science that doesn’t.
10. Bad reputations sting more than you’d think.
In a recent Gallup poll, car salespeople were ranked as some of the least honest, least ethical professionals in America, just above members of Congress (who came in last) and below bankers, lawyers, and ad professionals. This stigma has genuinely negative effects: According to a 2007 study published in the Journal of Selling, awareness of this stereotype hurts job performance. When they feel they’re being judged, salespeople don’t try as hard; they think they’ve already lost the sale. Customers then see the salesperson as detached and uncaring, and aren’t as likely to buy—and the cycle perpetuates! Managers can help, the study suggests, by training and providing support and empathy for salespeople. Customers can try to keep an open mind. And the salespeople themselves? They can build relationships, follow up after a sale, and remember honesty is the best policy. After all, as Smith says, “It is our responsibility to help change their opinions.” Of course, that, like puppy-dogging and these things, could just be another hard sell.