Editorial Features

Serving Time in the Car Business

by | Sep 16, 2017

Everyone has at least one colorful story about an experience in a car dealership.  Why: because the car buying process is unlike anything else in the retail world.  It’s a wacky setting to do business.  Thankfully, car buying as a whole has become a lot less painful.  The shady practices that govern dealership stereotypes are by and large extinct.  Thanks internet!  Still though, dealership interactions stand out and often leave lasting impressions.  Lingering suspicions from a bygone era are such that people are still surprised to have a good experience at a dealership.  So much goes on behind the scenes that dictate how these interactions play out.  

I spent the last four years in the car business as a sales consultant in two different dealerships; an economy brand, and a luxury brand.  I wasn’t particularly good at it, but it was a valuable experience and I learned a lot.  This is not meant to be a negative critique of the car business.  I merely offer my perspective as insight into what makes the car business such a unique environment.

The salesperson is the primary point of contact and the very first interaction upon arriving.  Everyone has experienced the following: you drive into the dealership parking lot and see a group of salespeople waiting outside as you park.  At the very least, it’s intimidating and off-putting.  It may be slightly comforting to learn that the vast majority of salespeople have no desire to do this.  It’s also a phenomenon that happens almost exclusively with non-premium brands (more on that in a trifle).  These congregations occur for two reasons: pressure from management, and financial necessity.  The latter is usually an indication of slow business and/or a flooded sales floor, both of which have the largest effect on salespeople.  The former underlies the driving force behind most of what salespeople do and say.  

For example: if your salesperson says something reckless, there’s a very high chance a manager told them to say it.  I can’t stress that enough: managers are essentially marionettes.  The salesperson actually has control over very little; they are there only to facilitate your needs, and they’re the ones who suffer if anything goes wrong.  Now, it doesn’t do to be totally complacent; however being respectful towards the salesperson goes a long way.

After the polite hellos, intellectually stimulating small talk, and half a dozen test drives, customers eventually express their displeasure with negotiating.  It is still a prominent aspect of the sale process and probably the greatest contributing factor to the apprehension people feel when car shopping.  The logic is fairly simple: The dealership wants full price; the customer wants to pay as little as possible.  It’s one of the very few retail mediums in which this is common practice.  This makes negotiating the more defining characteristic of car buying and as such, it’s not going anywhere any time soon.  

Understand that dealerships exist to make a profit, so of course they’re going to try to get full price.  That doesn’t mean you have to fight tooth and nail to get the price you want, just that going into the negotiation with that understanding makes the process a lot less painful.  There’s no need to be angry, just ask.  As a wise man once said to me: “’no’ is cheap”.  They’re not going to say no anyways because they know you can very easily go to another dealer.  Don’t fret over negotiating.  After all, there are piles of paperwork and the RMV to look forward to once the deal is closed!

I mentioned above that I worked for an economy brand and a luxury brand, because the experience is quite different.  Big picture, you’ll see a lot of the standard high pressure sales tactics at economy brand dealerships, whereas lux brands typically have that dialed back.  It boils down to the difference between need-based products and want-based products.  With a different product naturally comes a different clientele.  The single parent of three shopping for a used Elantra is typically in great need of a properly running vehicle.  Dealerships recognize that need and will take full advantage of it.  The CFO shopping for a 5-Series to sit next to their Range Rover with a 911 in the garage doesn’t need a 5-Series.  Again, dealerships recognize the desire versus need.

Dealership shenanigans aside, the car business is actually a great career opportunity for someone with the right temperament.  I say that because this type of work is certainly not for everyone.  The hours are long usually averaging 60 hours/week with one day off (maybe). Time off is heavily frowned upon, vacation time is given very reluctantly, weekends are no more, and calling in sick more than once a decade is rewarded with ridicule.  Pressure to produce is always ripe.  Don’t turn tail and run just yet.  As a commission based job, there’s really no cap on income.  The more you sell, the more you make.

I’ve met quite a few salespeople who net well into six-figures.  In general, and in contrast to my paragraph above, there is no difference in income levels between premium and non-premium brands.  Then there’s the cost of entry into this business.  It’s pretty much zero.  No experience is required, and neither is a college degree.  Judging by some of the people I worked with, I think even middle school is optional.  Training takes maybe a week; then you’re ready to go!  Selling cars is a way of life.  With the right mindset in the right person, it can be a very lucrative way of life.

I’ve learned a lot in the car business.  Most importantly, approaching the process with an open mind and realistic expectations is an ironclad way to ensure that your experience with the dealership is at least satisfactory.  As a car guy, my most lasting takeaway is that the car business is not the place for a car enthusiast.  I’m only slightly ashamed that took me four years to realize.  It’s almost intuitive that a dealership is fitting, and that’s certainly what I believed at first.  I noticed over the years that very few shared my passion for cars.  Some even outright admitted they dislike cars.  The knowledge and desire to learn about cars stretches just far enough to get the product sold, because that’s all a car is to a dealership, a product on the shelf to be sold as quickly as possible.  

I did get to drive some seriously awesome cars though.  Worth it.