Showdown at the Used Car Corral

They wanted to sell a used truck. My son wanted to buy one for his business. He asked me to come along to help negotiate.

An enticing ad had gotten us onto their lot. At this point, the truck was pretty much pre-sold. All that was left was to agree on a price that worked for my son, and to pass our mechanic’s inspection. Done deal.

That is…until they decided they had to sell us.

My son was an eager buyer. But instead of asking my son about his business, or even why he wanted the truck, the salesman was all about getting the sale.

The Negotiation

It started with a little lie: “There’s another customer looking at that truck now”

This annoyed my son. Claiming scarcity only works when it’s true. The only other folks on the lot were looking at cars, not trucks.

Then the salesman began to negotiate price. It turns out that the trade-in value was within my son’s range, but my son wanted a lower final price. After some discussion, the price went down a little and then I gave our bottom line number. It was ok. The salesman then stuck out his hand and said: “This is our final price. Deal?”

The “presumptive close,” accompanied by a smug smile. It just didn’t work.

He was all about trying to sell a truck; he couldn’t see this was about my son buying one.

Despite his eagerness, my son ignored the salesman’s attempt to close. We said he’d buy if the price was really final, with no additional document prep fee–and, we still needed our mechanic to look at the truck.

“EVERYONE pays the documentation fee,” said the salesman.

Funny; after more discussion, the price was reduced by the amount of the fee. Then came the final issue – our mechanic’s approval.

“Our policy is that we don’t let cars leave the lot for mechanic’s inspections. Very few of our customers even ask to have cars looked at by their own mechanics,” said the salesman.

My son called our mechanic from the lot. The mechanic said he’d never heard of a dealer taking that position.

My son got more doubtful by the minute.

The salesman explained that the reason customers aren’t concerned with having used cars seen by their own mechanic is because they buy the dealer’s extended warranty which protects them. Another follow-on service for us to buy, in other words.

We said no, and got up to leave, whereupon the salesman made another offer: “We’ll give you another $500 off.”

I said my son would pay the price without the additional $500 off, as long as the mechanic could OK the truck, but he couldn’t buy without that inspection. The response: “Do you want to put down a deposit? There’s another customer interested, and the deposit will hold it for you.”

They just weren’t listening. At this we gave up and left, disappointed and discouraged. My son really wanted to buy the truck. But we understood they had a policy, and we accepted that was endgame.

But Wait There’s More…

Then, two minutes after driving out, my son’s cell phone rang. Now the dealer was willing to bring the truck to our mechanic–a request we never even made. This last sale attempt convinced my son: “I wouldn’t buy a truck from them at all. I don’t trust them.”

A Few Simple Guidelines

How did this seller permanently lose such an eager customer? What are the lessons this dealer can learn?

  1. Just stop with the lying. Just stop it. Why do dealers lie so much?. Lying loses trust, and trust loses sales.
  2. Don’t fake scarcity. Yes it’s used a lot as a sales tactic. That doesn’t make it right.
  3. Make sure policies are grounded in some principle that is important. “You can’t take the truck to your mechanic” was a policy. And if you’re going to claim you have a policy, at least have the good sense to stick to it.
  4. Stop with the closing. Good closing happens when the buyer is ready to buy. It doesn’t happen because the seller says “deal!”
  5. Listen to your customers. Should it really be that hard?

I guess it’s not all bad. My son got to see how trusting (or not trusting) the salesman can affect a decision to buy even more than the object itself. I’m pretty glad about that.

18 replies
  1. David Gabor
    David Gabor says:

    That is an important story.
    If your salesman really felt that the truck was in good shape he had no reason to prevent your mechanic inspect it. The trust factor is that your son had to trust that he was buying a safe and reliable truck. You needed to be satisfied that your son would be alright.

    In law, making promises is, in my opinion, bad practice. I have heard so many clients and consults tell me about promises made to them by other attorneys: “I guarantee that I can have the case knocked out on a motion to dismiss.” “That case is worth at least a million dollars.”Part of my interview of the consult is to understand their expectations. If they are unreasonable I will not accept the assignment.

    Great lessons and I look forward to an interesting dialogue.

  2. Adrian Dayton
    Adrian Dayton says:

    Great story, such an obvious case of a salesman that wasn’t listening at all.

    Seem like you gave him multiple opportunities and he just kept digging a deeper whole.

    You really should mention the name of the dealership, it would help make sure they change- they didn’t listen to your son, maybe they would listen to some bad press.

  3. Jean Terranova
    Jean Terranova says:

    As soon as the sales rep objected to something reasonable and so obviously essential – having your own mechanic ensure the safety of the truck – he lost your trust, and hence the sale. What should a dealer do when stuck with a lemon to sell? Honesty is the only way to move forward – “Sure, you are welcome to have your mechanic take a look. Our own mechanic found these problems (x, y, z), which is why I have serious flexibility in negotiating the price.” How short-sighted to sacrifice his reputation for a few bucks commission, which he was never going to see, in any event, given the obvious obfuscation.

  4. Mike Halperin
    Mike Halperin says:

    What a wonderful story. It’s unfortunate that so many people, car salesmen included, see the world in a zero sum fashion, with no consideration of developing the relationship. It’s not just about this sale, it’s about building enough trust to WANT to come back to this dealer and salesmen the next time around. The repeat business and referrals come from being treated right, not being treated like a number, even in a numbers driven world.

    Quick aside: I couldn’t help chuckling reading your piece, which reminded of one of my mid-life crises (yes, there are more than one). During this one, I took an adult ed course on stand-up comedy, the final exam for which was performing a 7-minute set at a comedy club. My gig was about buying a car. Could have used your insights that night! 😉 Mike

  5. Charlie
    Charlie says:

    Hey David,
    Your comment reminded me of an old Tim Hardin song from more years ago than I care to think about: “Don’t Make Promises You Can’t Keep.” Been ringin’ in my head all day, thanks to you!

    Jean, you are dead right. Transparency and authenticity are so much more valuable than the risk these fools run by trying to cover up, but so many people don’t believe it. They think they’re controlling something by trying to cover it up. Little do they know…


  6. Stewart HIrsch
    Stewart HIrsch says:

    Thank you all for your comments.

    Adrian and Dana, I decided not to name the dealer or even reach out to them. I imagine this scene or something like it plays out in car and perhaps other sales situations. My goal in sharing this story is about the lessons. Well…maybe to vent a little too…

    David – Interesting point. Perhaps they were trying to hide something, but that could mean they made up the rule about not taking the truck to our mechanic. I just don’t want to believe that they made it up! As you so clearly point out, that kind of activity plays out in other professions as well, by creating the impression that all is well, when it really isn’t.

    Jean – funny you should mention transparency. That would have endeared us to them. Simply being honest and admitting if they knew there were issues would, at a minimum, have us come back in for another truck. One of the Trusted Advisor principles is about having a medium- to long-term focus, rather than a transactional focus. Sure wish they did!

    Mike –wish I could see your 7 minute set!

  7. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    “oh what a tangled web we weave, when we try to deceive…” all the tap dancing and machinations when it could be so simple and easy with honesty and transparency. And, if nothing else it’s exhausting on many levels. (I feel tired just reading about the experience.)More’s the pity.

  8. Stewart HIrsch
    Stewart HIrsch says:

    So true Peter – that’s how I felt – exhausted. I wanted to leave after the first 2 minutes, but the lessons were worth the wait.

  9. David Gabor
    David Gabor says:

    I am going to take this in a different direction. We have focused on the acts of the salesperson without considering the culture created by the dealership. I would think that the dealership should create an image of standing behind its product – a place where honesty, integrity and candor rule. A poor salesperson often leads to lost business for the entire organization as opposed to just that one individual. That being said, there is a responsibility on the part of the organization to ensure that all salespeople are trained and act in the manner that the organization desires.

    Each salesperson should be visited by mock customers to ensure that their work is proper. They should then be coached on how to improve their craft while following the core values of the organization.

  10. Charlie
    Charlie says:


    To your last comment about the responsibility of the dealership–no argument here. Any good business owner should be shocked that his or her employees are behaving like this. Unfortunately, “should” doesn’t mean much here, I have little doubt that the salesperson is doing precisely what the owner suggests.

    It does raise another interesting question however: How much responsibility for ethical (or honest, or trustworthy) behavior should rest on the individual, and how much on the employer?

    It’s true as David Gebler points out that much of what we can do about workplace ethics is to alter the environment in ways that encourage and support ethical behavior. It’s also true though that an over-dependence on environmental engineering can have the knock-on effect of making employees think they have no responsibility in the matter.

    Your thoughts?

  11. Stewart HIrsch
    Stewart HIrsch says:

    David – good point, and I’m glad you mentioned that, includng your suggestion of tesing with mock customers. This of course, leads to a discussion of whether the leaders of an organization wants to create a values-based culture, and if so, how to go about doing that. And as you intimate, as customers or clients, regardless of intent or training by the organization, we only see the culture as it is presented by the face of the representative with whom we interact.

  12. David Gabor
    David Gabor says:

    Charlie, ultimately the organization is responsible for the acts of its employees. You can invent the greatest product in the world and build the perfect mousetrap in which to sell. However, a lousy salesperson can hurt the company. Have you ever gone to a restaurant with wonderful food at a fair price only to have a horrible host or wait-person ruin the experience? There are other restaurants, you know.

    There is a responsibility that the individual has as well. I would not work for an unethical organization even were it to pay me a million dollars per year. I have to be able to look in the mirror at night and respect both what I do and how I do it.

  13. Michael Webb
    Michael Webb says:


    What a great story and a great analogy for sales of any kind. I cut my teeth in auto sales 20+ years ago and learned many lessons selling Chevys, Lincolns and Mercedes-Benz. The most important lesson? Regardless of how ethical you try to be as a salesperson, if management is not willing to back you, you are sunk.

    The auto industry is a volume business and car-count rules. When the daily sales meeting is about a $200 spiff for whoever moves the most iron that day, it is hard to compete. The Rudy Russo’s will run you over and do what they must to get the sale. Talk about eat-what-you-kill, this is Darwinian economics in its purest form.

    Think Alec Baldwin’s famous quote from Glengarry Glen Ross: “Coffee is for closers”

    Management/Ownership often assuages their own conscience by pointing out that the customer must have been happy, since they bought the car. They are not concerned with a goody-two-shoes salesperson who doesn’t have the skill to close the deal.

    When management allows those aggressive and uber-eager salespersons to run off the conscientious ones, they ultimately diminish their own credibility.

    We can have a completely separate (and voluminous) conversation on how this little homily applies to law firms and lawyers. =)

    Thank you for sharing. By the way, did your son ever find a truck?

  14. Kristin Going
    Kristin Going says:

    I also wanted to chime in that I think these lessons are applicable across all types of sales- horses are my hobby, and I can tell you from experience almost every one of these “tactics” is used by horse sellers – the scarcity argument is my favorite -every time I look at a horse, I am pretty much guaranteed to be told someone else is interested and will probably be back later that day. My response to that is always- well then I don’t want to get in their way! And I leave. Great lessons Stewart.

  15. Stewart HIrsch
    Stewart HIrsch says:

    Michael- So right you are about running off the good ones, although I’ve had a few very good experiences in the past. And to answer your question – no he hasn’t found a truck yet. Which is why he likely would have bought this one. However, I understand it’s still on the lot.

  16. Stewart HIrsch
    Stewart HIrsch says:

    Kristin – thanks for sharing your perspective. Interesting that cars replaced horses as a means of transportation, and the sales process is so similar! Wonder if there’s a connnection… I think your suggestion of what to say is a great one!! I’d love to hear that our readers follow your approach next time they go to buy a car.

  17. David Gabor
    David Gabor says:

    Stewart, horses get better mileage but you can’t get a bumber to bumper warranty.

    Kristin, I grew up with cats, dogs, a goat, horses and a sister. She is still in the horse business and I truly loved what you wrote! I shared it with her earlier today.

    I bought a car earlier this year and walked off 2 lots because of what I believed to be disingenuous offers. One dealer insisted that I name the first price. He asked me what I wanted to spend. After some back and forth I told him $10.00 per month. He rolled his eyes and I exited the showroom never to return.


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