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.