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A Tale Of Two Car Dealerships: A Lesson In Making The Sale Vs Being A Salesperson

By October 5, 2012June 26th, 2015Marketing Insights & Strategy
A Tale Of Two Car Dealerships: A Lesson In Making The Sale Vs Being A Salesperson

Salespeople may be some of the most despised people on earth, and what a shame, because each and every one of us is a salesperson. If you’re in business and you’ve got a product or service to sell, you’re a salesperson. If you want to go to the movies on Saturday night and your husband doesn’t… you’re a salesperson. If you want the kids to eat their string beans… you’re a salesperson.

Sadly, the concept of sales has been corrupted by the unethical, incompetent and self-centered.

Now combine “car” with “salesperson” and you’ve got yourself a stereotype that some people seem determined to reinforce every chance they get.

So I’m going to help these people out a little and share a recent experience with two dealerships at opposite ends of the sales spectrum. Maybe (the right) one of them will read this. Maybe I’ll email it to them as my next random act of kindness.

But for now, here’s a story that speaks to all businesses, no matter the size or industry. Let’s see how putting customers before sales is a win for everyone.

Dealership 1: The Haggle

Entire books have been written about how to get the best deal on a car. People will tell you how to determine the dealer’s markup, how to detect scams or, if you’re feeling generous, “sales strategies”, what to ask for in precisely what language to be as “strategic” as the guy trying to pick many thousands of dollars out of your pocket.

It’s ridiculous and exhausting but we’ve been conditioned to expect this and so we tolerate it. Unlike a movie theater, which we may choose to cross off our patronage list, we can’t exactly opt out of buying a car if we need one. And the dealership down the block is usually no better than the one you’re at.

Now, I’m ok with negotiation. I’ve won (and lost) many jobs over negotiations. I don’t mind asking for a deal or giving one when it’s appropriate. So bring on the negotiations.

The problem with most car dealerships is that it’s a ruse. You sit through an insulting process of haggling for two dollars a month more or less on a monthly payment, managers must be consulted, deals must be discussed behind closed doors, whispered offers must be made and finally after three hours you get that two bucks deducted and you feel triumphant… or beaten bloody with the blunt end of a stick, you’re not quite sure which.

Such was the experience I had with a salesperson a couple of years ago.

It seemed pretty cut-and-dried to me. I knew what I wanted, I knew what I would pay and I was long past being impressed by hushed whispers and the big grins and handshakes of managers who just had to meet me.

I let the salesperson do his salesperson thing. When it finally came down to the cost, it was higher than I wanted it to be. Not so much higher as to be a deal breaker but just enough higher that I was pretty sure I could get him to hit my target.

Do you want to guess what happened next?

He had to consult the manager… long periods of time went by during which men in suits discussed very important matters behind closed doors, then returned to ask me questions. Heads were shaken. Frowns appeared upon faces and pencils scribbled on paper. You’d think I had asked them to rewrite the national budget.

This ridiculous ruse went on for hours. And each time the sales guy returned to ask me if I’d take the car for just three cents higher than my target, I said no. The longer I waited the less I wanted the car at all and I was determined not to take it for a single cent higher than what I had asked for.

By the time I was fairly certain I’d need to bring in a cot for the night, the manager appeared from his very important office with a big “I’m the important manager” grin on his face and shook my hand. They could meet my price.

I’m not sure if he had to sell his first born to make that deal happen, but bless him, he made it happen.

I signed the papers.

But oh, it doesn’t end there, because after we had the “wow, this is the best deal anyone has ever gotten on this car ever” conversation, I was shuffled off to some other office to “finalize” the paperwork. Commence further insulting of the customer.

Sitting behind closed doors with yet another guy in a suit, I was informed about the car’s warranty – or lack thereof – and its cost, and the horribly dire, hellfire-and-damnation consequences of not getting it.

All told, it would add $15 onto my monthly payment.

You’ve heard the cliché “blew a gasket”? Seems punnily appropriate here. I’m pretty sure that’s what I did. After three or four hours of literally waiting for someone to tell me if they’d take a few dollars off the payment, this guy was telling me I needed to add 15 more.

Words were exchanged. Not friendly ones. I told him I wouldn’t pay more than 10. And considering that was $10 a month more than I’d negotiated, I thought that was being pretty generous.

Do you want to guess again at what happened next?

I won’t bore you with the details but suffice it to say I got it for $10 a month – not the original $15 and the salesperson (paperwork guy?) assured me that I should never ever tell anyone ever that he gave me such a deal because he’d get in trouble.

I was sorely tempted to test that theory but to describe the result of that day as “having a headache” would be to insult headaches everywhere. I let it go and walked away with the car.

That was three and a half years ago. To this day I can’t remember that experience without needing to pry my teeth apart afterwards. I despised those people. And all for a few dollars a month. If I hadn’t negotiated a cent, I would’ve paid maybe $600 over 39 months. They wasted four hours of my time and the time of three different employees and they turned me into a diehard “I swear I will never shop at this dealership again” customer, for what? Less than $600 on a multi-thousand dollar sale.

Well done, sales department, well done.

Dealership 2: The Haggle?

I’m telling you this story because my lease was up this September and I was ready for another car.

Want to guess where I didn’t go? Want to guess whose phone calls I ignored every time they called me (three times a day) to tell me that my lease was almost up and they’d be happy to get me into another one of their vehicles?

Another year, another car, I went to a completely different dealership. I was greeted by customer service when I walked in. I was directed to a salesperson shortly after. I had my hand shaken by a manager shortly after that – a manager who then proceeded to leave us the heck alone and never show his face again.

Do you know why I didn’t mention being greeted at the previous dealership? Because I wasn’t greeted. I was accosted from all angles by salespeople who must have needed to make a quota or something.

It seemed pretty cut-and-dried to me. I knew what I wanted, I knew what I would pay and I was long past being impressed by hushed whispers and the big grins and handshakes of managers who just had to meet me.

I let the salesperson do his salesperson thing. When it finally came down to the cost, it was higher than I wanted it to be. Not so much higher as to be a deal breaker but just enough higher that I was pretty sure I could get him to hit my target.

Do you want to guess what happened next?

Well, I’ll tell you what didn’t happen next. There were no secret meetings, no long waits. There were no sweaty, grinning managers. The salesperson left momentarily, then returned alone to tell me that they could meet my price.

The End.

Sort of anticlimactic, right? Where was the manager? Where was the handshake? Where was the guy telling me I was a super negotiating genius because nobody had ever gotten a car that cheap before?

I’d asked for just about as much of a reduction as I had 39 months ago at another dealership – you know, the negotiation that lasted three hours? And within minutes this deal was done.

I waited to be told about the warranty. Or the extras. Or the thing that was going to be $15 a month or kittens everywhere would be struck dead.

He did offer me options for additional care on a leased vehicle, lost keys, damaged windshields. I said no. I waited for dead kittens to fall from the sky.

When nothing happened I signed the papers and walked out with a car.

Well, not literally – I had to wait a week to pick it up and this is important because when I returned to pick up the car, I was greeted by the customer service rep at the desk, the manager came over to congratulate me on the purchase and my salesperson met me with the keys. He asked if I wanted to reconsider the extra options. He gave me some compelling reasons to consider at least one of them, namely their ding-dent-repair coverage that would essentially wipe out any damage fees at the end of my lease. If you’ve ever leased a vehicle you know how sometimes the end-of-lease repair costs will really ruin your day.

I thought about what he said, including the fact that he told me I probably didn’t need most of those options. I read the description sheet. And I bought several thousand dollars’ worth of additional care and service options. And when I pointed out the services I wanted to add? He gave me a 10% discount on them and I never even asked.

All told, I coughed up several thousand dollars for services I didn’t have to buy. Yes, I’m the same person who wouldn’t part with an extra $600 for a different car. And do you know what? It was completely, totally and without question about the experience.

A Lesson For Businesses: We’re Not Stupid

I sometimes wonder if businesses hear that cliché “a customer is always right” and it gets mixed up in their brain and becomes “a customer is always stupid”.

Did I get a good deal on either car? I have no idea. Did I end up paying more for the second than I could have? Still, no idea. Do I remotely have any vague idea of what a car should cost and whether it’s worth it? Say it with me… no idea. Negotiations notwithstanding, I know what I want and I know what I’m willing to pay.

That’s 100% beside the point. The point is that I walked out of Dealership #1 feeling – not stupid – but like they must have thought I was. Do people still fall for slick tactics and flattery? Maybe, but I think most of us are smart enough to know when someone is being sales-y and when someone is simply selling a product.

I didn’t walk out of Dealership #2 feeling like I’d gotten the deal of the century but that, too, is beside the point. I did walk out feeling respected, feeling like I’d been treated like a human being with a brain cell. I walked out thinking, “I’m never going to another dealership again.” I’m putting this sales guy on speed dial and next time I need a car I’m hitting that button.

Are You Making The Sale Or Are You Just A Salesperson? Here Are Some Distinctions To Help You Decide.

Car dealerships get a bad rap for being sleazy but “salespeople” in general don’t fare any better. I bet you cringe just hearing the word. Maybe, even, the idea of trying to sell something to your customers makes you uneasy because you think they’re going to look at you as one of those sleazy people trying to take their money.

But whether you build websites or bridges, sell furniture or house cleaning services, whether you’re a consultant or a retailer – you’ve got to sell. The good news is that you don’t have to be a salesperson when you do it.

A “salesperson” puts product (or service) first. It’s obvious that he wants you to buy what he’s selling and he’ll say and do whatever it takes to make that happen. This is sometimes called “aggressive”. It’s mostly “friggin’ annoying”.

A person who “sells” puts customers first. He finds out what customers want and need and offers solutions – not products or services.

A salesperson hides the warts – the warranties that aren’t included, the extras that he doesn’t want you to know about or maybe even the down-side to what he’s selling. He’s dishonest because he doesn’t think you’ll buy if you know the truth, which means that he probably doesn’t trust himself, his product or his service enough to sell it and he probably doesn’t trust you to make a good decision.

A person who sells is transparent about the details. He’ll tell you if there’s an extra fee or something you should be aware of. He gives you all the information you need to make a decision. He’s up front about everything because he stands by what he’s selling and trusts his customers to make their own decisions.

A salesperson approaches a relationship from a combative standpoint – him vs you – and he wants to win. His job is to convince you that you want or need what he’s selling and to get you to “cave in”.

A person who sells approaches relationships collaboratively. He knows that not all solutions are right for all people and helps customers come to a purchasing decision that’s right for them.

A salesperson pushes. He gives you a laundry list of product features that are supposed to impress you. He wants you to buy it.

A person who sells pulls. He gives you a reason to buy a product by showing or telling you how that product is going to be of benefit to you. You want to buy it.

A salesperson is interested in the sale.

A person who sells is interested in the customer.

Are you seeing the big picture yet? We all have to sell. But we don’t all have to be the stereotypical salesperson that we all know and hate. With a focus on your customer, honesty, transparency and plain old respect, you can walk into a negotiation – and walk out again – happy and unscathed, and so can your customer. And along the way, you’ll probably make the sale, too.

Now you tell me. Are you uncomfortable with selling? Do you worry that someone will think you’re pushy, sleazy or just out to make a buck? How do you approach customers for a win-win?

Join the discussion 12 Comments

  • F A Cerra says:

    Hi Carol Lynn,
    I had to chuckle reading your “experience” with 2 very different car dealerships.
    I was in the car business most of my adult life and have an insiders knowledge of some of the tactics you so eloquently describe. Here is where the “laugh” comes in, every time I go to purchase a vehicle for me or go with a family member. I get the exact same experience even when I let them know I was in the business longer than they (The newbee salesperson) where alive. I believe that the latter dealership you describe is a dying breed and you very well keep them on speed dial!

    • That’s hilarious, you’d think they’d change their tune knowing that you’re onto their tricks. After years of leasing cars (and getting stuck at the dealership every three years) I have a very long list of dealerships I will never return to for the same exact reason. Guess I should consider myself lucky I found ONE good one!

  • Adrienne says:

    I hate buying a car more than anything on this earth for that very reason Carol.

    My last purchase, I took the advice of a co-worker and went straight to their fleece department. Guess what happened. I told them what I wanted, they told me the price, I shook their hand, signed the paperwork and drove out with my brand new car that very day. 12 years later I still have that car and it runs great. Yeah, I’m a keeper..

    The sale starts with how we are treated. The brand, the company, everything depends on how we as customers are treated.

    Everyone who read your experience with the first dealership should know that’s the reason they’ll never get returning customers. So think about that the next time you approach someone. Help them first and make it a good experience.

    Don’t be a horrible car salesman.


    • I lease my cars, Adrienne, so I have to deal with them every three years! I have a long list of dealerships that I’ll never return to. I hate being pressured and I especially hate when people treat me like I’m stupid. I wonder if these car manufacturers know what a disservice their salespeople are doing to their brand!

  • krusecontrol says:

    What a great glimpse into today’s car buying experience, Carol. I’ve managed dealerships most of my life and I feel your pain. I’ve actually shared your post on a few “car person” Facebook groups to get their opinion and I’ll keep you posted. I totally agree with you that a person who sells should be interested in the customer. It’s sad that many still don’t get it.

    • Thanks, that’s great – I would definitely love to hear what anyone “in the biz” has to say. Sadly my experience with just about every dealership has been nothing but aggravating. I could tell stories all day, but I picked this one because it was the most recent. Definitely keep me posted!

  • Louise says:

    Hi Carol, I’m sure every person reading your post will be able to relate to your experiences at the first car dealership, so no wonder car salesmen enjoy such a dubious reputation. Selling a car is no different to writing copy. You sell the benefits, not the features. But it is the overall customer experience that will keep customers coming back.
    My worst salesman experience was with a kitchen salesman though. He came to my home in the evening to discuss my requirements. I let him do his sales talk for a while and then he told me I had to sign that night to get the ‘50% off deal’. By this time it was getting late and there was absolutely no way after being badgered all evening that I was going to sign up for that kitchen. I had to threaten to call the police to get him to leave, but leave he eventually did, without a sale and in a very bad temper. Needless to say, I would never use that company again. It was nothing to do with the kitchen or the price that stopped my from signing up for that kitchen, it was the salesperson’s tactics.

    • Wow, Louise, sounds like a total nightmare. I wouldn’t have bought anything from that guy either! And I’d probably make it a point to tell everyone I know to avoid him and his company. My dad always told me “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” and I know it’s sort of cliche but it’s true. If you put the customer first, you’ve got a good shot at making the sale. If you don’t then you NEVER will. Fortunately I have a very no-nonsense husband so when we get stuck in those endless sales loops he pretty much kicks the guy out 🙂

  • Carol Minarcik says:

    Hey Carol, Thumbs up to this artical. Wow, reading this reminds me how I do not like when its time for the “new car” thing…I normally have had good luck tho as I have used the same dealership for years….last 30 yr. to be exact. I live in a very small town, we have two dealerships. I normally check with the cities to see what the best price on the vehicle I want is actually being charged then I make the ending deal with our local dealerships. Most of the time the deal is done over the phone. By doing this, I know they cannot talk me into any upgraded vehicles that I really do not need. I enjoyed this artical all the way to the end. Way to go!

    • Ah, you found a dealership that respects you! That’s why you’ve been going there for 30 years. A little customer care will go a long way. It definitely built some loyalty in your case, and I’ll tell you, I love this new dealership and I’ll call them for the next 30 years as long as they keep up the great service!

  • Hi Carol,
    Here I am finally making it to this post. May I say that I “hate” car salespeople?
    I’ve had an experience 9 years ago that made me hate them forever I guess. I don’t know if I was still too young and too stupid (the later probably 😉 )but they got me by trying to intimidate me and it worked. But needless to say that they’ve lost me as a customer forever, like your own experience made you never come back to dealer number one in your story.
    The lesson that I’ve learned from this bad experience is this: NEVER, ever feel intimidated by those shmocks, and ALWAYS remember that you can LEAVE anytime you want. Those guys totally intimidated me making me believe that I had no choice, that I was too deep in the process. I could have just walked away and leave them high and dry, but I didn’t.
    That’s changed my care buying for ever though, and I will never leave a car dealer a loser again.
    Thanks for this great story-lesson 🙂

    • I know what you mean about them making you think you’re already too far in to back out. I guess they’re so incompetent that they figure the only way they can make a sale is to badger and intimidate people. What a shame. And one dealership is just like another so they all get away with it. I’ve walked out of plenty of dealerships because of their poor tactics and I’ll never get suckered into doing something I don’t want to again!