Thursday, July 30, 2009

CAR BUYING 101: Going to the Dealer or "Hello Herb Tarlek"

You remember Herb Tarlek don’t you? You might if you’re over 40. He was the advertising salesguy on the TV show “WKRP Cincinnati” back in the 70’s. An obnoxious wheeler-dealer who epitomized “over-promise/under-deliver”.

That’s the kind of guy everyone assumes they’re going to encounter as a salesperson when they go to a car dealership. And all too often it’s true in one shape, form or fashion. You know, the guy who smells vaguely of bad cologne, breath-mints and cigarette smoke. He’s approaching you with an overbroad smile, hand outstretched and a standard greeting, “Hi there, welcome to ABC Motors, my name’s Herb and you are? Are you here for our big sale?”

Do you know why car salespeople greet customers like that? Well, there’s 2 main reasons. One, they don’t know any other way to do it. And two, their managers train them to do it that way because it’s the “best way” to “make friends with the customer and take control of them.” Horsecrap!

And dealers wonder why, even though customers are looking forward to buying a bright, shiny new car they dread having to go to a dealership.

Look, in order to buy that new car you’re going to have to go to a dealership to get it. It’s that simple. You can’t get it on Amazon and have it delivered. There are definitely some things you can do to help yourself and the salesperson. First and foremost is to realize that you’re going to have to collaborate with a salesperson in order to find the car you want and to get it for the price and “deal structure” that you want.

First, select the dealership you think you want to do business with. They have to carry the make you’d like obviously. Use whatever criteria you want. One of the best is if you know someone who had a good experience there. I have a prejudice against dealers who get on the tube and “yell and scream” about how great their deals are—especially if you’ve got “bad credit, no credit, bankruptcy, divorce or military”. As I said earlier—horsecrap! The dealer which focuses on “subprime credit” or “spi-fi” (special finance) tends to drive away good credit customers.

I remember the “spi-fi” director at one of the first dealerships where I worked telling a customer, “Sir, divorce doesn’t cause bad credit. Not paying your bills causes bad credit!” And also telling a customer, “There are 2nd chance banks. There are no 3rd chance banks!”

So, like every other aspect of this process, be prepared. The best thing would be if you have a friend or relative who had a great experience and provides you with that person’s name. Then you can contact him or her and set up an appointment (assuming that they sell the make/model that you’re most interested in).

Or do this: Call a dealership you think you want to do business with. Talk to the receptionist. Tell him or her “I’m interested in buying a car but don’t know anything about your dealership. If you were buying a car at your store, who would you trust the most to take care of you best?”

The receptionist will give you a name and then ask to speak to that person and set up an appointment to get together if your conversation convinces you that this is a person you’d like to do business with (i.e. one you can trust to work with you).

Remember something else when you get there and start working with the salesperson. He or she works for commission and, especially on new cars, there is precious little commission. You may buy a $20 to $40 thousand car and this person might make $100 for his efforts. Seriously! This guy is a “working stiff” trying his best 50 to 60 hours a week to make a living in a challenging environment where he is often verbally abused by managers equally desperate to “sell a car”. Most car sales people make $30,000-40,000 a year and spend a lot of their time with a sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach about how they’re going to sell a car and pay their rent or mortgage this month.

So, bearing in mind that your best bet is to show up with an appointment with a specific person, make sure and ask for that person when you get there by name and say you have an appointment. That way whoever just “upped” you when you got out of your vehicle will find or summon the person with whom you have an appointment. If he tries to tell you that the person isn’t there, ask (insist) to be taken to the sales manager. It’s your call. If the person blew you off, you may just want to leave and try another dealer. Or if the guy who “upped” you is trying to “skate” the person with whom you have an appointment (skating is trying to cheat someone out of a deal by falsely claiming they are unavailable) that’s why you go to the manager.

When you’re with your salesperson, he or she will try to source or qualify you as to what you need or want. You should have already covered some of this in your initial phone conversation. Now is a good time to reiterate it. If the salesperson does not offer to go inside and talk, suggest it to him. Then you can go through your specifications as to model, equipment, options, etc. And, have a couple of different colors in mind not just one! When I sold cars I asked my customers “are there any colors which are totally objectionable to you”.

If you do it this way, you’re communicating clearly with the salesperson. You’re making their job easier.

So, let’s go back to how salespeople are trained—which at the vast majority of dealers is little more than a joke. At most dealers, managers tell sales people repeatedly to “make friends with the customer” and “take control of the sale”. Most managers don’t have any more of an idea of what these 2 things mean than their sales staff does and that’s why the training at so many dealerships is lacking.

I always trained sales staff that making friends is not as important as being friendly (and they’re 2 different things). You’re not going to go out to a sportsbar for a beer with the salesperson after work—in other words odds are you’re not going to be friends. The most important thing is trust—that the customer trust the salesperson. If I don’t trust a salesperson I’m not spending $20,000 to $30,000 on a car with them!

As far as “controlling the sale” is concerned, most managers and sales staff construe this to mean that the salesperson is in charge. You can’t earn trust that way! You can’t get someone to part with their money that way either. Most dealerships have anywhere from an 8 to 12 step sales process (it’s all pretty much the same). This includes: meet & greet, sell yourself & the dealership, needs assessment, land the customer on a car, demo the car, write-up, negotiation, closing, delivery and follow-up. What I always trained is that the salesperson has to be so intimately familiar with the process that he/she is leading and guiding the customer through the steps—up to and including taking some “out of order” to facilitate the smooth flow of the process.

Understand that. Don’t allow yourself to be manipulated by it. And, don’t allow yourself to be rushed through it. Bottom line: It’s YOUR money! YOU earned it! YOU’RE the customer.

And, when it doubt—leave. “Be Backs” are great although most managers try to tell sales staff that “the “be-back” bus don’t run”. Yes it does—somewhere! And you can make it run back to that dealer or you can go someplace else.

Bear these things in mind when you’re going to the dealership. It is a process—both for you and for the sales staff. You DON’T have to “buy and drive today”. Start with that premise and if necessary remind the salesperson AND his/her manager of it. But you are serious about buying a new car either today or tomorrow or as soon as you get the “deal” that you want.


  1. Really impressive everviwe of the life and tactics of a car dealer. It brings about a sense of confidence when walking in to a car yard as I now understand what is going on and now realise that the 'smooth operator' style isn't always smooth with a car dealer, it's often rough and cheap. Just like that cheap calone you mentioned they wear hey.

  2. We have a lot of experience with car dealerships and your comment: "Most managers don’t have any more of an idea of what these 2 things mean than their sales staff does and that’s why the training at so many dealerships is lacking." is true in our experience, even here in Australia.