Selling The Dream or Flogging The Nightmare.
Many of us have to do ‘selling’ of some sort as part of our lives. It’s a branch of social negotiation. You have something you want someone else to do, and you need to present a case to them as to why they should do it. So, if you’ve ever had to persuade your kids to go to bed, you know how difficult it is to sell things.
Some people just don’t like being sold anything. They view the whole process as something beneath them. The salesman is invariably seen as an enemy, whose only ambition is to bamboozle and cheat their potential customers. That is a naively polarised view and, put politely, I think such people have had strangely sheltered lives. From time to time, I have to sell as part of my job. And in my personal life, as I write this, I have a 20 year old Audi parked outside that I really must get round to selling. More about this later. But, for some of us, it’s a full-time occupation. The words ‘salesman’ or ‘saleswoman’ are, for many people, as emotive as ‘traffic warden’ but, unless you are a hermit, this is hardly a fair or realistic attitude.
Generally, car salespeople are in the happy position of only having to persuade someone to buy their particular product in place of another’s, the idea of actually owning a car is already in the potential buyer’s mind. This is a significant step up from cold-selling, phoning people to persuade them they want something they never even considered, like drain insurance. I’ve not come across as many car salespeople as I might for the simple reason that I’ve not bought as many cars as I wish I had. And, please excuse me if from now on, I refer to the generic ‘salesman’, since although there are quite a lot of them now, I’ve only ever met one car saleswoman myself – and I suspect the latent sexism was the industry’s, not mine.
Although there are a million Powerpoint presentations that would say otherwise, good selling is an art, not a science.
Of course, there is a traditional hierarchy of car salesmanship and, at the bottom, there is the ‘secondhand car salesman’, a term so redolent with negative emphasis, that it is used as a general term of abuse to describe an untrustworthy character. In more recent decades, the dealer in ropey bangers has been joined by the ‘purveyor of classic automobiles’ but both these people have to confront an inconvenient truth that gives some basis to this generalised prejudice.
All cars live in an ongoing state of corruption. The guy on his drive every Sunday washing, waxing and polishing is fighting a battle that will, ultimately, be lost. As anyone who has had to sell a used car will, or should, know, it is usually accompanied by a catalogue of faults. In extreme cases these faults are terminal, in others they are just irritating, but in either case they present a moral minefield. In the case of the Audi I am selling, I can mention all the positives – the excellent engine, now cured of a coolant and oil leak with a new radiator, and also with an expensively rebuilt top-end by a decent firm of car engineers. The colour scheme will either endear or appal. I’d buy it – Oh, I already did. But what else do I mention? Because I know the car well, I could list maybe 30 things that are wrong with it. None is dreadful, you could go on running the car indefinitely without fixing them, but should I mention the broken driver’s seat heating, non-functioning rear washer, cracked exhaust mounting bracket, slightly erratic climate control, broken gear selector indicator bulb, incorrect fitting space-saver tyre, etc, etc. These are all things that the average car buyer, unless they commission an inspection, might well miss, and in some cases never even notice. But my conscience makes me feel uneasy about not cataloguing them to a potential purchaser. Which means that the buyer will either walk away or offer a really knocked-down price, because his mate has just bought a perfect Audi for the same price. Of course it wasn’t perfect, his mate just met a proper salesman.
Because a proper salesman, one whose career depends on it, has no choice but to be economical with the truth. He knows how unrealistic the expectations of the buying public are, such as the guy who’ll try to get another £100 off an already discounted £950 Focus because he’s just noticed a service stamp is missing from the Dealer book. For my part, I like a good salesman. I don’t want to battle to the death with them. Generally I know what I want, and they won’t persuade me otherwise, but I want them to add to the buying experience by impressing me with their art. Like most artists, it’s hard to define exactly why a particular salesman is good.
My Citroen was sold to me by the simple expedient of the salesman driving me down the road and back to warm it up, getting out and telling me to take it for a drive by myself. Fifteen minutes later I was infatuated. An hour later I’d bought it. That, of course, was in the world of ‘classic’ dealers where they can make their own rules.
Buying my Cube from a car supermarket, I had lower expectations. Possibly too many bad experiences with ‘major electrical retailers’ made me expect a similar standard of treatment. “What’s the difference between the Sony and the Panasonic?” “Um, yeah, well, the Sony’s compatible with the DIN Standards … um .. yeah, so’s the Panasonic actually … um …. well it’s £7.25 difference?”. I might have been fortunate, but the salesman was actually excellent. But don’t think I mean that I thought he was my mate, that he let me make my own decision and that he didn’t care if I bought or not. I’m not that foolish. He was hungry and I was food, but he dispatched me with skill and compassion, and I admired him for that. He showed enough of his own character, he knew enough about cars, he did enough, but not too much, small talk, he commented intelligently on the car’s virtues. We did the deal and, indeed, I liked him so much that I even let him sell me an additional ‘bodywork protection’ service that I neither believed in nor wanted, but because I know that is where he makes his commission.
Of course, trying to preserve the customer’s dignity can go too far. Concluding a deal for a secondhand Peugeot once, I thought I’d done OK until the salesman said to me, in a theatrical whisper “you drive a hard bargain Mr Patrick”. Did I believe him? No, but it was only then I realised I must have been been shafted.
At the other end are the duffers, the ones I’d find it hard to buy a car from however much I liked it, because I find their lack of skill so embarrassing. To illustrate, I will combine several actual experiences into one imaginary (no) deal. To set the scene, I’m in the showroom looking typically scruffy in bike jacket and jeans.
“Can I help … uh, Sir?”
“Yes, I was looking at the mirror moulding on this new car. It looks like it would be pricey to replace if you knocked it in traffic”
“Well, I don’t think the sort of person who can afford to buy this car really worries about that sort of thing”
“Actually I was thinking about buying one?”
“Oh right … Sir. I’m Sam, would you like to look inside?”
“I’m Sean. Yes please”
“Are you getting it for the wife Sean?”
“No, it’s for me”
“Oh Right. What car are you currently driving Sean?”
“A Citroen SM”
“Right, yeah … is that the people carrier Sean?”
“No, it’s an old car”
“Right, and you’ve decided to get something new. Will you want to part exchange Sean?”
“I don’t think so”
“We’ll give you a good price on your Citroen people carrier Sean. Match anything you’re quoted by another dealer. Let me show you the car, Sean.
“Is this the diesel version, with the engine that’s bought in from BMW?”
“No, it’s our own unit Sean”
“Oh, I’d read that it was actually a BMW unit”
“No, I … don’t think so Sean. See it’s got our name on it.”
“Oh well. That’s the motoring press for you. Anyway, I don’t want a diesel”
“Why’s that Sean?”
“I think they’re a bit dirty”
“No, no Sean, that’s all changed. It’s the Euro regulations, see? With the praticulate filters and stuff, the air coming out’s actually cleaner than when it goes in. It’s the latest technology calibrated using CAD see?”
“If I get the petrol version, what would be your best price?”
“Well Sean, how much do you want to spend?”
“That depends how much it costs”
“No Sean, ‘cos we can tailor a finance deal to whatever your budget is. Don’t worry Sean, we can sort it out so you can afford it”
“I know I said call me Sean, but not that often. Also, that’s not what I asked”
“These cars are really in demand at present Sean. It’s a new model. You’re not going to find a better deal than ours. You must have a budget”
“Not really. Anyway, first I’d better have a test drive”
“We only have this one car Sean”
“Well, can we take this one out”
“Well Sean, if you’re actually committing to buying it, we could take it out I suppose”
“I can’t actually tell if I want it until I drive it”
“Well, all the reviews say it’s a winner. Very easy to drive with class-leading handling Sean. Came out first on Top Gear’s comparison”
“Yes, but I still might not like it”
“I’m willing to bet you will Sean. But the problem is if we take it out and you don’t buy it we’ll have to valet it again. If you can’t commit now, have you tried Johnsons? They’re a bigger dealer and usually have dedicated demo cars. Then if you like it we’ll match their price”
“You know what? Fuck off!”
“Look, you’re in our fucking showroom, you fuck off.”
Except for the last two lines, I’ve had all these conversations and more. No wonder I hold on to cars. Anyone want to buy an Audi. She’s a real beauty. It breaks my heart to part with her really. If it wasn’t for the peeling paint, the broken door lock, that odd noise from ………