Fear and Loathing on the Car Lot

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago
fear and loathing on the car lot

How do you sell a car? You'd think that all the major carmakers would have an established sales methodology by now. After all, every McDonald's sells its products in the exact same way, and they don't do too badly. Shouldn't companies selling automobiles have a prescribed system for sales interaction, from the moment a customer enters the fishbowl to the moment the saleman seals the deal? Wouldn't that make sense?

Oh wait. The manufacturers do have systems– it's just that no one uses them. Despite their ceaseless attempts to introduce a measure of science and civility to the automotive sales process, car salesmen still make it up as they go along. Sure, the guys and gals working the showroom floor feed the corporate maw the requisite paperwork, pretending to adhere to company policy. In reality, they pay no more attention to their erstwhile sales structure than they do to GQ's Fall Fashion issue.

Quite simply, car salesmen don't like being told how to sell a car. It's not just a question of dominance: "we who grapple with rejection on a daily basis know more about car sales than you who make your living by getting us to role-play our dumb-as-toast customers". Nor is it a matter of willful ignorance: dumb-as-toast salesmen refusing to wrestle with difficult psychological concepts. It's a simple issue of efficacy. Their sales training doesn't work.

It's true. Theoretically, there's nothing wrong with the dozens of variations on the venerable "Qualify, Present, Close"– even when they come wrapped up in the latest psycho-babble. But when salesmen try to put the new techniques into practice, they invariably deliver the same, seemingly random percentage of ITABs (I'll Take a Brochure). Understandably, the sales force loses faith with the system, and goes straight back to their old, "intuitive" non-methodologies.

The fault for this lamentable state of affairs does NOT lie with the brave men and women on the front lines, or the captains of commerce who send them into battle. No, the blame lies with the sales psychologists who devise the sales systems in the first place. Ask one of these stat-friendly intellectuals why a customer buys a car. They'll claim there's no one answer; there are dozens of customer types, all with their own set of evolving motivations. In other words, they don't know.

Well I do. That's right, I'll give it to you straight. Customers buy a new/used car for one simple reason: their old car sucks. They hit the dealer floor when they finally decide that their current whip is too old, too slow, too unreliable, too small, too low class, too something to hang onto.

It may seem like a piercing glimpse into the obvious, but this analysis highlights a fundamental gap between the customer's psychology and the salesman's. Again, the vast majority of customers buy a new car because they no longer want the one they have. By contrast, people in the car biz buy a new car/house/boat/wife because they want the BBD (Bigger, Better Deal). It's maintenance vs. aspiration. Security vs. status. Risk vs. ambition.

A customer whose wants to change vehicles without losing what he already has meets a salesman who's convinced that everyone wants, no NEEDS, a better car. Instead of talking about reassuring similarities, the salesman bangs on about radical differences. The customer becomes frightened and confused. They try to block out the salesman's blather and reassure themselves that the new car will be at least as good as the old one. In fact, most people end up buy a new car despite the salesman, not because of him.

Psychologists and their armies of sales trainers have singularly failed to appreciate this rift. Their elaborate sales systems and training programs don't accommodate, reflect or exploit the automotive customers' underlying, over-riding fear of loss. Salesmen realize that they're on a different planet than their customers, but no one has told them how to come down to earth with their buyers. No one has told them how to sell a car.

So this is how you do it: Reaffirm the customer's suspicion/conclusion that his or her current car is crap, find out what they originally liked about it, show him or her how the new car is just as good as the old one once was, and then ask for the sale. It sounds simple, maybe even simplistic, but then so did the idea of selling a hamburger every ten seconds.

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 1 comment
  • Sherman Lin Sherman Lin on Apr 25, 2007

    I don't know. I mean the fact that I am on the lot means I aleady acknowledge my current ride sucks but I generally don't need convincing on the new ride. Its the I don't want get ripped off motiff that is my concern.

  • Chuck Norton And guys are having wide spread issues with the 10 speed transmission with the HP numbers out of the factory......
  • Zerofoo "Hyundais just got better and better during the 1990s, though, and memories of those shoddy Excels faded."Never. A friend had an early 90s Hyundai Excel as his college beater. One day he decided that the last tank of gas he bought was worth more than the car. He drove it to empty and then he and his fraternity brothers pushed it into the woods and left it there.
  • Kwik_Shift There are no new Renegades for sale within my geographic circle of up to 85 kms. Looks like the artificial shortage game. They bring one in, 10 buyers line up for it, $10,000 over MSRP. Yeah. Like with a lot of new cars.
  • Ribbedroof In Oklahoma, no less!
  • Ribbedroof Have one in the shop for minor front collision repairs right now,I've seen more of these in the comments than in the 30 years I've been in collision repair.