Learnings from the Used Car Salesman

One of the strongest stereotypes in the business world is that of the used car salesman.

Close your eyes for 3 seconds and get a mental image. The odds are very high that:

a. You envisioned a man, not a woman
b. He’s wearing a suit
c. with a plaid pattern
d. with polyester fabric.

The used car salesman generates such antipathy not because of tactics per se, but because of his motives. It’s a great example of a core issue in trust: there isn’t a single behavior or phrase that either guarantees the establishment of trust or its destruction. Everything is colored by intent.

An interesting example of this can be found in a delightful posting called The Used Car Salesman’s Training Manual: 25 Tricks They Use to Charge You More.
(Thanks to Amy Quinn for pointing this out).

If you’re in the car market, it’s a good piece to read before going to dealers. And if you’re a student of trust, it’s a fine list as well. In the 25, for example, you’ll find “limited time offers,” “puppy-dogging,” “highballing,” and “lowballing.”

It’s a great list for raising your defenses.

Interestingly, it’s also a pretty good list for creating trust. Strip out all the negative, value-laden terms, and you’re left with characteristics which can be spun one way or the other—depending on motives.

For example, number 23:

Selling Up: If you’re not specific enough about your sales needs, you may get swindled into purchasing a car that is much more expensive or fancy than you need. After all, this is a salesperson’s job. So be very specific about the year, miles, models and colors you are interested in so you won’t feel motivated to buy something that wasn’t what you really wanted.

Let’s reword this in a way that you might expect to find in a sales training manual.

It might sound like:

Help Customer Determine Needs: If the customer isn’t clear about what kind of car they’re seeking, then you have an opportunity to help them define their needs, and then to identify the type of car that would best fit those needs. After all, this is a salesperson’s job. So don’t go first to specific details about the year, miles, models and colors they are interested in. Instead, learn about their habits, what they like and don’t like about driving, what role a car plays for them, what a car says about them, and what range they are willing to spend. That way you can either improve (or, at the least,validate) their insight into what they want from a car, rather than just being an order-taker for a pre-existing idea that hasn’t been thought through.

Which is right? Precisely what behaviors are different in one scenario vs. the other?

I would argue, not much. In sales, as in other rich human interactions, our intent infuses our words and behaviors.

This argues for high-bandwidth communication: voicemail over email, phone calls over voicemail, and meetings over phone calls.

But most importantly, it reminds us: the best way to be trusted is to actually be trustworthy—worthy of trust.

Do you have your customer’s best interest at heart? Or not?

The answer to that question overrides all the skills-oriented approaches you might learn.

9 replies
  1. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:

    Fascinating article, Clarke, and well worth the read.  It’s about a writer hired to do an "undercover" job of being hired as a new car salesman, and what he learns.

    A ton of fun, and quite eye opening.

  2. Gabriel Goldenberg
    Gabriel Goldenberg says:

    Hey Charles,

    You make a good point about intent. An example I can relate is that in hosting the New Year’s edition of the Carnival of the Capitalists, I didn’t include an insurance oriented blog. Not because I’m competing there or anything, but simply because the intent seemed to just get another link without providing any value (the post was meaningless).

    On a related note, I’ve got this post set to be linked to from an upcoming post about credibility at my site.

  3. David Watkins
    David Watkins says:

    Here is an excerpt from my website. I thought it would be relevant to this artical.

    An Ethical Car Salesman?

    I have always been disappointed that so many unscrupulous salespeople continue to be financially rewarded for their unethical selling styles. I will never forget when I

    was confronted by a very (financially) successful salesman at a dealership where I

    once worked. I told him I could not except some sales advice he was offering because I am an ethical salesman. He argued his contention that an "ETHICAL car salesman is a BROKE car salesman."

    I had to admit, up to that point, he was right. I had been selling cars in an ethical

    and honest manner and I WAS BROKE. It should never be that way… The good guys

    should be on top. For far too long, car sales has been dominated by career manipulators and masters of deceit that proudly refer to themselves as "Professional Mind Changers." Unfortunately, these guys continue to be financially rewarded

    because customers feel they have no other choice but to buy from someone they

    know, does not have their best interest at heart. The car sales industry rewards the

    most deceitful among us and that is a shame. It is time we reverse this tradition

    and begin a new trend.

    I know there are plenty of other salespeople, just like me, that are sincerely honest and will do anything to help their customers find a car at a fair price that will satisfy their wants, needs and budget. These guys (and gals) deserve the success that has eluded them because of their ethical ways. It was with this realization that EthicalCarSalesman.com was born.

    You Can Become Part of the Solution

    Please make a commitment to only purchase your vehicles from an

    EthicalCarSalesman.com Member.
    I am sure you agree… The good guys should always win.

    -david watkins

  4. mrlonglegs
    mrlonglegs says:

    Please I have been selling cars for over 27 years and I have heard more lies from customers than anyone.   Only the dishonest sales people have to lie to sell a weak product, we let our cars sell their self buy paying the right price to start with. With the time and money we invest in our product we have no need to lie to anyone.


  5. michael johnson
    michael johnson says:

    I am a newbie in the car selling business and i need help on designing flyers with no specials just about selling myself and the car company in which i work.  I have a good mind but need a push in the right direction possibly with a sample flyer just as a base to making something great out of me.  If you could help me with this, you would be helping me bring the best of what i can be, thank you!


                                                                                                                     Michael Johnson



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