Walking With Sharks……Random Reflections of a Used Car Salesman..(um…Sales “Person”)

It may be noted both from the banner of this site, and some of the posts herein, that I am a “car guy”.

It is no surprise, then, that, of my six or seven vocations since entering the workforce at 13 years of age, the one of greatest tenure was that of auto sales.  For 14 years I plied the trade and trod the lots of numerous new car; used car; ‘cash-only’ and ‘buy-here-pay-here’ dealerships.  While I have been out of the business for 11 years, I still wear a large, graduation-style ring on my right hand designating my one-time status as a “certified professional” with a major American manufacturer, a testament to my having achieved a ‘gold’  ranking for performance in product knowledge; customer satisfaction; and, of course…..sales production.

That car salesmen, especially used car salesmen are among the most despised of all service  and/or retail representatives, right up there with lawyers and insurance salesmen (…oops….just realized that I have been among the ranks of all of these),  is a common knowledge so visceral and universal that the curious observer can rightfully ask…”why would you want to do that?”.     Funny you should ask…… for me, it boiled down to the following:

“A Demo; A Draw, and a Day Off”…….    This constitutes the compensation; perks; and scheduling of the auto sales professional in a nutshell.  Simple, concise, and universal among all dealerships within any given part of the country.

The ‘draw‘, as most commissioned sales reps know, is a weekly stipend, usually calculated at total hours times the prevailing minimum wage paid as a ‘floor’ each week.  To the extent your commissions exceed this amount, you begin to make more than McDonald’s employees.  To the extent commissions do  not   exceed this amount, your commissions need to make up this surfeit with additional performance before you can add to the ‘draw’ with more commissions.

The ‘day off‘ means any day other than Monday; Thursday or Saturday.  Mondays and Thursdays are 12 hour shifts, typically 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m..  This is ‘written in stone’, in that, over  time, the buying public has grown used to knowing those two evenings are available for catering to their transportation needs.  Same with Saturdays.  Only managers, then, are able to enjoy two days off per week consecutively.

A “Demo“…..I gladly dealt with the compensation and scheduling issues due to the “perk”  of having a ‘demo’.  I was able to have and to drive, as my personal transportation, a spanking-new, pristine, awesome-smelling new car.  And, I was able, (even required), to  trade it in for another one every 3 to 5 thousand miles.  To one who grew up in the sixties counting the days until the new models rolled in each year (usually September) and knew the corner of the fence at each dealership in his town where he could climb up to see the new model changes in cars before they were officially released for sale, this was Nirvana; Elysium; Valhalla and Disneyland all rolled into one.

A five or ten-spot a week to the porter, and it would always be clean, down to having shiny tires.  And, if I could sell it within the 3 to 5 thousand miles, it would mean…..another new one!  (What a country!!)  I closed more than several sales by resisting a prospect’s interest in my demo by concertedly suggesting, not only an undriven alternative, but even another unit I would have to locate at another lot.  There is a psychological value in ‘exclusivity’ which often made my relenting to giving up “my baby” equal to or greater than a concession in sales price in the buyer’s mind.

In fact, one of the main reasons I left this trade is that, of late, insurance concerns have resulted in ‘demos’ no longer being available for salespersons.  They now provide a small monthly “car allowance” toward the expense of your own personal ride.   For me, the ‘magic’ was gone.

Moral and Ethical Education……Auto sales helped me to validate that my faith and upbringing were heartfelt and sincere.

Hellfire and Brimstone“–When, at the first dealership I worked for, which was owned by a gent whose commercial real estate holdings in the area were extensive, mandatory ‘sales meetings’ were promptly held at 8:00 a.m. three days per week.  Once, during these ‘motivational’ sessions, a sales manager, unhappy with sales production that month, reminded us of our singular function of being “wh*res” who needed to remember our purpose on the lot, which was to…”..go out and ‘f*ck’ them” .  That this is so vivid in my memory can be attributed to the furnishings of the meeting room……..an old church on one of the owner’s lots had been torn down, and we all of sat through these meetings on hard, wooden church pews!!

“Control C>Control V”–I once worked for a sales manager, who in an effort to ‘close’ a difficult sale of  a conversion van was trying to convince my prospect that the price we were offering was just “$50 over invoice.”  To this, the prospect (who was not from Missouri) replied…”show me!!”  As a conversion van has two invoices, one from the auto manufacturer as an empty ‘cargo’ van and a separate invoice from the conversion company which installed the velour; teak; folding bed and television.   This manager actually went to the office upstairs and cut; pasted and taped portions of invoices from two separate units on our lot and artfully xeroxed this ‘decoupage’ to hide the reality of our profit at the offered price.  (This was some twenty-two years ago, and I was amused, just this past weekend to note in the ‘Auto’ section of the newspaper an article heralding the arrival of this same sales manager at a new dealership in my neighborhood.)

“Barnum & Bailey and the ‘Egress”–Once, when agonizing at the possibility of a new car delivery being refused due to the existence of visible scratches on the roof and hood of  an old (and therefore, a ‘bonus”) unit,  another manager smiled, put his arm on my shoulder and walked me back to the wash rack.  “When your customer gets here, get him some coffee, run back here and spray the car all over with the hose.  Tell him we have installed at no charge a “diamond gloss” finish, and he must not wax off any water spots for at least a week”   The customer took delivery, and did not come back to complain. ( In fact, he never came back).

Stories I Will Tell My Grandchildren—  Many auto salespeople brag about their ability to ‘switch’ a prospect to a unit in stock.  This can often involve convincing the prospect of the virtues of a manual, “stick” transmission…..even if you have to teach the prospect how to drive it.  I myself was proud of my system of teaching folks how to drive a “stick” …(most of them were proud of their new-found talent, which came easily to them when it was made clear that the trick is not in the arm, but in the feet).   However, it happened that, one day on a used-car lot,   I had the occasion to go on a demo ride in an automatic Nissan with a female who had only ever driven ‘stick-shifts’….she had never driven an automatic!!

On the demo route, she constantly mashed her left foot (that’s the ‘clutch foot’) on the brake whenever the tachometer hit 3000 rpm …, so violently that I was compelled to move my seat back on its’ tracks to keep from repetitively lunging forward into the windshield. My life flashed before my eyes when, in the middle of the final left turn into the dealership, she mashed down the brake pedal again , exposing my side of the car to an oncoming garbage truck in traffic opposite us.

“GAS!!!”, I cried….and she complied, but would have run down a fellow salesperson coming out of the showroom door had I not THEN yelled……”CLUTCH!!!!!!!!! “