Shifting Metal

Selling The Dream or Flogging The Nightmare.

Audi S6 For Sale
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.

Packard Motor Car Co. Advertisement Scan from Boston University News, Tuesday, Sept. 21, 1954
1954 Boston University News

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.

Motor Sport Archives
Motor Sport Archives

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.

Motor Sport Archives
Motor Sport Archives

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 ………

Audi Rear

18 thoughts on “Shifting Metal”

  1. Somehow I’ve avoided all that except once when I bought a cut and shut VW Golf from a used-car dealer. So far I’ve never had any serious encounters with a real car dealership and I rather think that’s good thing to be able to say. I get very bored with the kind of detail they use to hide the financial skulduggery that all new car purchases require. To be plain, the car deal I want make is with cash to cover the entire car. As it’s unlikely I’m going to have €50,000 in cash my dreams of a fully loaded Opel Insignia are just that. Having read this article, I’m fine with that.

  2. You’re lucky Sean to have encountered knowledgeable and good car salesmen. My experiences have all been extremely negative, the most memorable being when I was looking at an Alfa 156 in Tunbridge Wells. Things had been going fine, with the salesman being rather oily and taking the opportunity to tell me what clowns the local Alfa dealers were. When I popped the bonnet, I noticed a loud and unhealthy tapping noise coming from the engine; on politely asking if he knew what the noise was he suddenly lost his block and told me he didn’t want to sell me the car and I could go forth and multiply. My most recent experience was at a large car supermarket where the salesman gave me a sob story about providing for his family but knew absolutely zilch about the car (or cars in general). I was told a catalogue of lies by him and his manager yet I still bought it because it was an unusual model with a sunroof – as rare as hens’ teeth, and I’d travelled from Cornwall to Sheffield to look at it.

    1. A good salesman provides a solution to a problem or something fulfilling a need. The bad ones will sell anything up to flood insurance in the Sahara. A good salesman may even decline to make a sale but such honesty will secure one next time.

  3. It is a bit unfair to damn sales folk for a lack of knowledge, especially if they are working a large second hand lot or car supermarket; the diversity of cars on offer and the constant wash of stock makes intimate knowledge impossible. What they really need is the ability to listen to your needs, then give you good options based on their summation of your character.

    Most people look on the net first and turn up to a dealer with a specific car (or a model and specification) in mind, so most often the sales person’s job is to ensure the buyer’s expectations match with reality. The net is such a pervasive sales window these days that many dealers price stock to appear at the top of the Autotrader list and work on a ‘no haggle’ basis. The only adjustable parameters are trade in and finance; if you are paying cash or expect a retail price for your trade in, then your room for negotiation is almost nil.

    Specialist car dealers are a different kettle of fish. There you can expect good knowledge from the sales person, mainly because he or she might only have ten cars in stock. They may also have been involved in bringing the car in, so will be acquainted with the ins and outs of the car.

  4. Sean, you really need to write a novel. Those lines of dialogue made the coffee splashing out of my nose!

  5. Thank you Kris, but I can’t take credit. All that and more was really said to me by cack-handed dealers. Naturally my rejoinders above are more pithy than they probably were on the occasion – l’esprit de l’escalier as Laurent would doubtless say.

    I admit that, now that I am older, car dealing gives me a perverse pleasure. So much so that I wish I had done it a lot more. Incompetence is certainly embarrassing to come across, but that sudden insight into the conflicted human behind the facade, as in Mark’s story, is quite fascinating.

    I omitted the guy I bought a Bedford Utilabrake off (since he was a private dealer) who, as soon as we’d agreed a deal added ‘and do you need any grass Sean’. There’s after sales for you.

    1. In view of the state of the Bedford when I got it home, had I availed myself every of his secondary services you can be sure, first, that I would have needed to roll myself a huge spliff to cheer myself up and, second, that it would have had no effect at all. It was the first vehicle I ever bought, the start of a long learning curve that I will never complete.

    2. “l’esprit de l’escalier”

      Eh? I tried really hard but I still can’t figure out which expression you had in mind…

    3. Then I can only assume that the modern young Frenchman no longer attends formal dinners in Parisien town houses. As they say, Plus ça change … No, that’s not right.

  6. Sean I have several times felt like getting in to your type of dialogue with the salesman (and it always was a man) but chickened out and left. I have had mostly positive experiences with car salesmen and of course I respect their work. My local VW dealer had a very laid back, non pushy salesman who sort of sold Mrs M. a Golf. Looking for a new car ten years later I asked after him. Oh, he’s regional sales manager now I was told; when I showed some surprise the reply, with a smile, was that his technique was very successful. My Subaru dealer sold me the car by just giving me the keys and telling me to “Give it a rake.” I didn’t buy a BMW X1 because the salesman never came back with an answer on the availability of a spare wheel instead of run flats.

  7. The most frustrating (and comical) experience i’ve had when trying to buy a car was when the Peugeot dealer at the other side of the street from my office flatly refused to sell me a car (at the heavily discounted price they were advertising in huge numbers in front of the store) simply for wanting to pay the thing upfront, without financing.
    No wonder they went out of business a couple of months later.

  8. Salesmen? What’s a salesman? I last sat down with a car salesman in 1992.

    I ask because I’ve used ‘net based lead generators to buy my last four cars. We knew what we wanted, just told the lead generation sites and waited for offers from dealers to turn up in the e-mail in box.

    Then a round of questions to make sure that we knew each dealer’s price (car plus destination charge [ a US custom, price set by the manufacturer, not sure it exists in the UK] plus taxes plus paperwork charges plus anything else the dealer wanted to charge for). Some of the dealers who responded weren’t fully forthcoming, had to be prodded to get their “out the door” prices.

    Finally, a round of minor haggling. “Must we take your appearance package?” Charges for low value items, wheel locks, for example, that the dealers wanted to charge a lot for usually vanished.

    Then we picked the low bidder, went to the dealership, sat down with a sales person who was really an order taker, filled in the paperwork, and endured a last attempt by the finance person (had to spend a little time with it even when we had our own financing or were paying cash) to sell us things we didn’t need. And then we had a new car.

    I had telephone conversations with the sleazier dealers along the way. “If that’s really the price X quoted [implied: you liar, you] he’ll never sell you the car for that.” “Bring us your signed purchase order and we’ll match the price.” Such statements disqualified the dealership. By the way, we ended up paying the price X quoted.

    1. I get the impression north Americans are simply better at working the sales system than any Europeans I know. A friend of mine in the US was the same way. He approached the car purchase with more data than the dealers and he got exactly what he wanted at the price desired. As a used-car buyer (cash, small sums) I live on a different planet. I think I’ve done quite well in terms of getting cars I like for not much cash. I admire the nous of the hard-nut new-car customer though.

    2. Richard, I appreciate your preference for not spending a lot on the next car and, therefore, buying used and inexpensive. When I was younger and poorer I bought used cards, more from dealers than from individuals, and ended up with a few, um, catastrophes.

      More recently I’ve always shopped relatively new used cars as well as new ones when looking for the next car. I’m focused on Hondas because they’re not too nasty and have served me well. In the US two-year old Hondas typically cost as much as new so there’s little incentive to buy used. They depreciate, but really good deals on new ones can be found. I’ve bought one used Honda, a ’99 Integra GSR in, if I recall correctly, ’03 that had gone 58k miles. It was “Certified Pre-Owned,” i.e., came with a bumper-to-bumper warranty good to 100k miles. The car had been abused, needed some expensive parts replaced. The warranty paid. By the time 100k miles came up it was in good order and ran trouble-free until it was stolen at 180k miles. I’d have bought another used one, in fact found a good one the the insurance settlement would have bought, but my wife was a little shy of them because of the time getting the ’99 into good order took and because they need premium fuel.

  9. The sub £5k market is where all the interesting characters are. I recently went to see a Jaguar XJ (that car again) I had spotted in a trade advert on Autotrader: 10 years old, reasonable miles, FJSH, very clean inside and out, £4995. I rang the dealer to make sure it was still in stock and the sales bloke said yes, did I want to make an appointment to have a look? Odd, I thought, I’ve never been asked to make an appointment at a car dealer before. So anyway, I go to the lot at the allotted time and lo and behold, there was no lot: the ‘dealer’ was a bloke selling cars from his house. I asked the bloke why he listed his advert as ‘trade’ when he definitely wasn’t, and he said something about working as a “qualified mechanic”. I asked, are you trading as a registered company? No, he said. And with that I walked away. Shame, as the Jag looked like a peach.

  10. That was great fun to read Sean!

    Luckily (?) I had little contact to car salespersons so far. Like Richard, most of my purchases were for small money from private persons, ranging from a friend of my dad to a desperate restaurant owner who bought a 18 year old Citroën CX for his wife/girlfriend because it was cheap, never imagining that she would have so much difficulties driving it.

    The only time I really went through dealers’ ads was with my latest car, because I wanted a young used one with service history and warranty. I only looked at four cars, but that already covered a very broad range of how such a dealer can act. The highlight was certainly the one who didn’t even leave his chair behind the desk. I think he only spoke two sentences. The first one when he handed me the keys for the test drive: “It’s outside, in front of the door, you must have seen it when entering”. When I returned and said I was not interested because the interior was too worn and smelling of smoke: “OK, bye”. I finally bought from the one who took over an hour of his time to explain and show the car, come with me on an extended test drive and was much into CX talk the whole time. This was really a positive experience, and although he was certainly eager to sell me the car, I never felt like I was pushed into doing something I didn’t want. Actually, the car was a very good match of what I was looking for and was in a very good condition as well.

  11. The comments here show how a good salesperson will subtly shift their approach to suit the client. Barry and I were both sold cars by salesmen who sent us off to drive them alone, Simon was given the same treatment which gave him enough time to realise the cars shortcomings. Of course a salesperson certainly needs to try hard to sell the car to an uninterested or uninformed punter. But they can try too hard.

    Years ago my business partner and I looked at a new C3 Passat. The test drive involved listening to sales patter of world class boringness. By the end of the drive the salesman’s character had rubbed off on the car in our eyes. To this day, I can still raise a smile in the office with the phrase ‘commmpuuuter aideddd deeeesign they call it’ and the clincher was ‘Lovely ride too, I took the wife away in one of these the other weekend and she slept all the way’. I bit my tongue, said thanks and we ended up with a Peugeot 405.

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