Updated: Aug 21, 2022
I never in a million years thought I would sell cars. However, Covid had hit and I lost my job as a supervisor at one of New York’s most famous hotels. My wife was about to lose her job at the UN unless she agreed to move to Washington, DC. A few months later, we purchased a condo in nearby Rockville, Maryland. Once vaccination made getting a new job plausible, I answered a salesman ad for an automotive dealership. Though I could’ve easily gotten another job at another hotel, I was burned out on the hospitality business. I wanted a change. Something more challenging.
Everyone around me was skeptical. You? A car salesman? Right! My Dad told me I was much too honest for such work. They all had that image: sleazy man on the wrong side of forty, a slight paunch beneath his button-up, collared shirt, the design of which clashed with his plaid jacket and greased back hair. This person’s lone passion was to manipulate the naive into buying a vehicle that began at one price on the lot, turning increasingly more expensive the closer they got to his desk. As I came to find out, this image was not entirely inaccurate.
After two interviews, I was hired to be a car salesman with promises of easy money. I went through a week of training, which was 6-8 hours per day of listening to the general manager (Let’s call him “Rod”) discuss the ins and outs of the business. Rod spoke a lot about “gaming the customer.” This was a euphemism for “bullshitting the customer.” It wasn’t lying though. We were simply being selective about what information was relevant for the customer to know in order to close the sale. For instance, the sticker price didn’t include the “dealer markup” or the “$3,000 involuntary protection package.” Because, in the end, it was all about closing the sale. Nothing else.
Despite knowing very little about cars or even how they worked, I was given my own desk inside the main showroom. First thing I noticed was a pecking order between salespeople. Leads came to us in three ways—phone calls, emails, or walk-ins. The more experienced, proven salespeople received the hottest leads, which were usually the walk-ins and phone calls. Newbies like me got the emails because they were the hardest. Since a person could contact the dealership through our website by clicking a single button, the degree of earnest buying interest was likely very low. Nonetheless, I had to show an ability to close deals before I would get any good customers. But how was I supped to close deals without good customers, i.e. people who were actually interested in buying a car?
At first, when I did manage to coax someone the distance from their home to my desk, I was petrified of them. In most cases, they knew much more about cars than I did. I was sure this showed since my answer to practically every question was: ”Well, I don’t know, but I can find out for you.” I kept in mind what Rod had told us in training: “People don’t buy cars. People buy people.” My best (only) strategy was to just be the nicest fucking guy they had ever met in their lives. I could do that much.
The initial goal was to get the customer to test drive the car they were interested in. A crucial next step was to guide the customer back to my desk before grabbing a sales manager to join and, in many instances, take over the conversation. This was to give the customer the impression that a “boss” was stepping in to give them special attention. It was pretty effective.
The final step was getting the customer to finance their new car through us. This was huge because it meant more money for the dealership and more commission for the sales staff. (It was a shock to learn that dealerships actually make very little money on the cars they sell. Some cars—like the smaller SUVs—are even sold at a loss. Dealerships make the true bulk of their money from their maintenance department and financing office. Accessories such as floormats and splash guards can be a nice supplement, too.)
During my brief time as a car salesman, there was a nationwide micro-chip shortage in the auto industry (still is, I think.) With modern vehicles being so reliant on this micro-chip, production of new vehicles was severely slowed. The story was that the pandemic coupled with the Japanese tsunami had decimated vital chip-making factories. For this reason, most vehicles were sold before they’d even reached our lot. The lack of available new cars and trucks meant that the dealership markups were insane. Understandably, these markups outraged customers. It gave them the impression we were already trying to pull something over on them. I was never confident we weren’t, and I hated it. My attitude towards the job soured.
What I hated even more was Rod’s policy of having us email and call every potential customer every single day until they either came in and bought a car or begged us, “Please, for the love of God, leave me alone!” This eventually felt like harassment. Because it was.
Funny enough, our most successful salesperson was also our most mischievous. His name was Eric (changed) and he would do absolutely anything to close a sale. This included telling a customer whatever they wanted to hear. Did this car have that special feature they’d heard so much about? Of course it did! Did they get the extended warranty with this truck? Absolutely! Could they get free oil changes with this particular package deal? You had better believe it! Later, when the customer returned, enraged from getting “gamed” so hard---well, it was the sales manager’s job to get yelled at and to smooth things over. Eric didn’t give a shit.
I did and evidently, that was my weakness.
My career as a car salesman came to its abrupt end one morning when Rod called a meeting. He informed us that he was giving an extra bonus to those salespeople who had shown their loyalty to the dealership by having worked there for so long. These bonuses were funded by taking money from the checks of the newer salespeople such as myself. Um, what???
It didn’t take a genius to figure out this was in response to what had happened at our holiday party. Rod had made the head-scratching mistake of organizing a game. Three groups of us were called one-by-one to approach a Christmas tree-shaped design of envelopes taped to the wall. These envelopes were filled with different amounts of cash and that would be our holiday bonus. Because of the way this played out though, people who had been there only a couple of months, like me, ended up getting a holiday bonus just as big, if not bigger, than someone who had been there for decades. I could only imagine how they had cornered poor Rod afterward and given him an earful over how unfair this was. I would’ve been pissed too. Taking money out of our checks was Rod’s way of making things square.
To be honest, I would have been fine with this arrangement if I had been informed of it beforehand. An honest explanation would’ve been best, but to take money out of my paycheck without telling me first felt like the ultimate subterfuge. Instead of being straightforward, I received a song and dance that was as manipulative as it was misleading, much like the car sales business itself.
It was simply my turn to get gamed. My commission for selling five cars came to $125. I went home at lunchtime and never went back.
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