How To Sell New Cars (Without Hating Yourself)

Greg Campbell
by Greg Campbell

I remember the look on my father’s face when I explained to him that I would be selling cars. It was the look any of someone who has just heard the details of a grisly murder; a bit of curiosity, quickly overtaken by disdain. He sank into his chair. “It’s a job,” he grunted, and I realized that was as strong an endorsement for my new job as I was going to get. Truth be told, I felt about the same.

It’s no surprise that the car salesman has been painted as a snake-oil pusher; a charlatan peddling his wares to people in an unethical manner. Like all stereotypes it’s a vast overgeneralization, but I had the same perceptions of car salesmen as anyone going into my first day at work. I wondered: how accurate were the portrayals in popular culture? Would I have to get white shoes and slick back my hair? Would I have to wear a pinky ring?!

My fears were assuaged as I was let in on the trade secrets. Here’s the dirty, sordid summation of car salesmanship: guide, but don’t push. That’s it in a nutshell. Sure, we accentuate the positive attributes of a car and explain why the car fits the needs you, the buyer, have laid out for us, but it does neither you nor us any service to try and push you into a car you don’t want.

The nature of the business is a strange one; both sides, neither friends nor foes, feigning small-talk while each wanting to retain money that is up for grabs. As my contempt for my new profession faded and I discovered that a few bad apples had soiled the reputation of all car salesmen, I began to observe the odd interactions between buyers and salesmen. Certain unexpected truths quickly revealed themselves.

Truth Everybody Wants to Buy, but Nobody Wants to be Sold

On my second day at the job, a veteran salesman summed up every buyer: everybody wants to buy, but nobody wants to be sold. He was right.

Instead of pushing anything, I began to familiarize myself with cars and whenever I talked to an “up” (an on-the-lot customer), I started by asking buyers what were “musts” and what were “preferences”. The process started with them narrowing in on what they envisioned for their ride. If people envision driving down the freeway in a luxury SUV, no matter what kind of sedan you show them, they will feel conned if you push them towards a sedan. Then, you will have lost their trust and most likely, their business. So, we always take the buyer’s lead. “You want a ½ ton Chevy with an extended cab? Great, we have several of them. You mentioned you would like it black. If the price was right, would you consider a different color?” Every preference has its price.

Despite the shady reputation, car salesmen really do listen and care what car you want. The problem is that most buyers aren’t sure of what they want themselves. We have to guide you to the sale, but make sure it’s your idea. Honestly, it’s exhausting. Our persuasive skills mainly come into play in the negotiation process. So, before you step on the lot, write out your “musts” and be prepared to articulate them to your salesman and you’ll make it easier to find that for which you are looking.

Truth Buyers are (Most Likely) Not Professional Negotiators

As we walk amongst the rows of cars, buyers are wary of salesmen. They’re fearful we will pull some voodoo magic mixed with a Jedi mind-trick and force them into buying a car against their will. Once they’re in the office, a façade of skepticism and unearned bravado washes over them and anxiety dissipates like a Xanax in full effect. Husbands will swagger as if to say, “I’ve got this. I know how to haggle.” It’s an odd phenomenon because this is where buyers should feel the least confident.

We know the buyer likes the car. The average person goes through the car buying process a handful of times in their lives. Yet, while the salesman deals in car sales frequently, the buyer often puts forth a confident front. It’s reminiscent of the stereotypical tourist who saddles up to the blackjack table in Vegas insisting that he has a “system” after having read a book about gambling on the plane. Remember: they didn’t build Caesar’s palace by losing to tourists, and we don’t sustain a living by being bested by buyers. Does it happen? Sure, but not often.

It’s weird to witness; the theatrics people pull to show they won’t be pushed around. They will stomp out in a huff and hope we chase after them. They will low-ball us and claim that they saw the exact same car down the road for that price. If they had, they would be down there buying it.

The best way to get a killer deal is to approach the negotiation from a prepared standpoint. Do your research! Know, realistically, how much the car is worth (not according to Kelley Blue Book, but local market value), and understand that the dealership needs to make a profit, too. If they offer you a ludicrous deal, showing them that you know your stuff goes a long way to getting them to knock off the high-balling. If you come prepared with a reasonable offer, based on facts and not wishful thinking, things will go a lot smoother for everybody and you won’t appear foolish. While bravado is often a sign of unsure footing, preparedness illustrates to us someone who is not easy fooled and will often yield a better deal.

Truth The Real Savings are in the Trade-in Allowance, not the Price

People do whatever they can to not pay sticker price. Paying full sticker can feel like a moral defeat. However, where salesmen often have the most wiggle room is in the trade-in allowance.

We get a commission based on the profit the dealership made. We also give you the littlest amount for your trade-in so that when we sell it, we make the most money. Furthermore, we need to allow as much room as possible in case your trade-in (that you swore “runs like a top”), needs costly repairs.

When you come into our office and demand we lower the asking price, we are hesitant to do so because it eats away at the profit margin as well as our commission. A better tactic is to ask for a better price on your trade.

This is tricky. Don’t be defensive. Everybody is defensive when that jewel of a car is appraised for two-thirds its actual value. Instead, insist that the sticker price is a bit high, but that you are more concerned with the trade-in allowance. Getting a thousand dollars more for your trade-in is the same as getting a thousand dollars off the selling price. But it can be easier to get the trade-in number to budge.

Of course, every dealership is different and may have different policies as to how they figure commission. So it won’t necessarily work at every dealership. But if raising the trade-in allowance doesn’t affect the salesman’s commission, then you will likely get less resistance from him.

It’s a strange business, alright. However, people need cars and as my dad said: it’s a job.

Greg Campbell
Greg Campbell

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  • Dynamic88 Dynamic88 on Nov 07, 2011

    Buickman, please write the book. It would be very interesting.

  • FleetofWheel FleetofWheel on Nov 09, 2011

    The numerous comments and sordid tales in the comments to this post are evidence of the needless complexity of buying new cars from haggle dealers. But for that bad franchise laws, most new cars should be sold direct from manufacturer to customer. New cars are mass manufactured objects made with precise JIT control methods. They are akin (and yet less complex) to desktop PCs which are easily configured and ordered via a step-by-step wizard online. Test drives would be about $12 for a 30-40 minute drive. Anyone seriously looking to spend $15K-$35K on a new car would see this as a reasonable cost of research. The purchased cars would be picked up at a Sears/Walmart type of depot and then you'd get all your maintenance at any auto service shop like you do now anyway. The internet killed off most of the home visitation insurance salesman selling term life insurance. A simple product made needlessly complex in the pre web days. It is time for the ranks of car salesman to focus on three areas: 1) Work independently as personal car buying agent for very low knowledge or anxiety-ridden(yeah, more commission!) clueless buyers. 2) Work independtly as personal car buying agent for very high end buyers who want a 'car butler' to fetch their new cars from the depot. 3) Work used car lots so they can revel in vagaries of used cars where each is unique-as-a-snowflake.

    • Highdesertcat Highdesertcat on Nov 10, 2011

      I'm all for being able to buy a car through a Big Box store. I have ordered new cars though the military BX system while overseas and have had great luck with it while saving a ton of money that otherwise I would have had to pay to a dealer. While in Viet Nam I ordered a '67 Cougar directly from Mercury for delivery in Los Angeles. While in Europe I ordered a Toronado directly from Olds for delivery in Antwerp. And when I came back from Europe 8 years later I had a Volvo 745 delivered to Bayonne, NJ. Saved a ton of money doing it that way. Really great experience! My brothers were in the new-car retail business for more than 30 years and they would do whatever it took to make a sale. That's the nature of the business: to part as much money from the buyer as you can get away with. Dealers pretend to be your friend but they won't know you from Adam after the sale is completed. They've got to make a profit in order to stay in business. And they'll do it any which way they can.

  • EBFlex At the summer property putting boats in the water, leveling boat lifts, cleaning the lots for summer, etc. Typical cabin stuff in the most beautiful place on the planet
  • Lou_BC I've I spent the past few days in what we refer to as "the lower mainland". I see Tesla's everywhere and virtually every other brand of EV. I was in downtown Vancouver along side a Rivian R1T. A Rivian R1S came off as side street and was following it. I saw one other R1S. 18% of new vehicles in BC are EV'S. It tends to match what I saw out my windshield. I only saw 2 fullsized pickups. One was a cool '91 3/4 ton regular cab. I ran across 2 Tacoma's. Not many Jeeps. There were plenty of Porches, Mercedes, and BMW's. I saw 2 Aston Martin DBX707's. It's been fun car watching other than the stress of driving in big city urban traffic. I'd rather dodge 146,000 pound 9 axle logging trucks on one lane roads.
  • IBx1 Never got the appeal of these; it looks like there was a Soviet mandate to create a car with two doors and a roof that could be configured in different ways.
  • CAMeyer Considering how many voters will be voting for Trump because they remember that gas prices were low in 2020–never mind the pandemic—this seems like a wise move.
  • The Oracle Been out on the boat on Lake James (NC) and cooking up some hella good food here with friends at the lake place.