Car Salesman Confidential: Working the Desk in Pursuit of Deals


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For whatever reason, the salesperson occupies a strange position. He or she is essentially a middleman, a “go between” for the customer and those unseen people who sit behind “The Desk” and provide prices and accept deals, the sales managers. At most dealerships, a salesperson doesn’t have the power to set a price or say yea or nay to an offer from a customer. They have to take it to their boss, the manager, who is the one who decides to accept the offer. So in essence, salespeople are powerless.

Or are they?

The answer to that is I am whatever I choose to be. Some salespeople accept a passive role and act as an agent for the dealership. They think of themselves as representing their employer’s interests and do whatever their managers tell them to do, regardless of how they feel about it or how successful it’s likely to be. If a manager gives them a “pencil” (a worksheet showing the selling price of a vehicle) at full sticker price, they’ll present that pencil to the customer—even when the customer has already told them that they’ll walk if the salesman comes back at full sticker. If a manager “lip loads” the salesperson, telling them what to say down to the exact words to use, the salesperson dutifully repeats what the manager has said as if the words were their own. This kind of salesperson is a puppet. The managers pull the strings.

I have never been one of those salesmen. Sometimes I’m an advocate for the dealership. Sometimes I’m an advocate for the customer. But most of all, I’m an advocate for me. My primary goal is to make sure a deal happens—because that’s the only way I get paid. So if a situation calls for it, I’ll fight for the customer. If a customer tells me up front that they don’t like “a lot of back and forth” and promise to get up and leave if I come back to them with full sticker price, I make sure management knows that. And if a manager ignores my advice and tries to send me in at full sticker, I’ll do my best to persuade them to “cut to the chase” and give the customer our best price because, in my opinion, full sticker is just going to insult this type of customer and cost us a deal. And I’d rather have a “Mini Deal” than 30 percent of nothing.

The truth is, the middleman has tremendous power. As a salesman, I can make or break any deal I’m involved in. I can do it accidentally, through my incompetence, or I can do it on purpose. The source of my power is, first, I’m the one with the relationship with the customer. I’m the one who just spent four hours with that customer in the 90-degree heat and 100 percent humidity, crawling through SUVs with their wife and three screaming children. By the time I’ve done that, I’ve got a pretty good idea of who they are, what they want, and how they’ll react. So when I go to The Desk to get my customers a price, the information I present and the way I present it are critical to the way the deal gets penciled.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in 12 years it’s this: sometimes it’s better to just give the customer what they want.

Usually, The Desk listens. But sometimes they don’t. In the car business, it’s not always the customers who are unreasonable. Sometimes it’s us. Which means that, as a middleman, salespeople sometimes finds themselves at odds with the very people who are there to help them sell cars. This leads me to the following conclusion.

There are two ways of selling a car. One is Working the Customer. The other is Working the Desk. To be a good salesman you must be able to do both. This can range from asking The Desk to cut the price to telling them to hang tough and not lower it another penny because you think you can “hold gross” (make some money). I might ask for more for the trade-in or extended terms or a better rate. I’ll argue with The Desk, plead with them, joke with them, flatter them, even threaten them on occasion—whatever I feel is necessary to make a car deal. And from time to time I might even tell them a Little White Lie.

I once had some customers who wanted a car that was difficult to come by and wanted it in a color combination that was also difficult to come by—a Zorch Commander with a manual transmission in Sparkly Sapphire Blue Metallic. Had to be a manual transmission, had to be Sparkly Sapphire Blue Metallic. The wife was insistent on those two things. After five minutes of talking to her I knew there was no chance in hell I was going to change her mind. She was a very stubborn lady. But of course my manager didn’t believe me and told me to try to “switch them” to a vehicle we had in stock, one that didn’t have a manual transmission and was a totally different color. “Sell out of stock!” That’s the old-school motto. And there’s a lot of wisdom in that. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in 12 years it’s this: sometimes it’s better to just give the customer what they want.

But I was ordered to switch them, and I did my duty. As I expected, I got nowhere. Then my manager went over to talk to them, and he did his best to switch them. He tried so hard, in fact, that my customers got irritated and left. “Call us when you find what we want,” the husband told me on his way out.

My customers were mad, but they liked me. I knew that. So the next day I told my manager that they still wanted to buy a car from us, but only if it had a manual transmission and was Sparkly Sapphire Blue Metallic. My manager, who was pretty stubborn himself, did the usual hem and haw, stall and delay, claim-he-was-looking-but-do-nothing routine for the next three days. The thinking behind this strategy is if salespeople hit a brick wall and become convinced the car can’t be found, they’ll put enough pressure on their customers that they’ll break down and buy what we have in stock. (This is called “Working the Salesman.”) What managers don’t realize is that customers don’t have to take whatever we have in stock anymore. They have this little thing called the internet, and if the local dealership says they can’t get it, guess what? Folks just go online and find it for themselves somewhere else.

Which is exactly what my customers did. They found the exact car they wanted at a dealership less than 200 miles away. But then they did something extraordinary. Instead of just driving to the other dealership and buying the car, which is what 99.9 percent of people would do, their loyalty to me was so strong that they called me and told me where the car was located and asked me if I could get it for them! Amazing.

So I went to my manager and told him. And still he did nothing. Instead, all I heard was griping and moaning about how difficult it was to trade with that particular dealership. “Are you sure they won’t take something we have in stock?” the general manager asked, as if no one had thought of that yet. By now, I was more than a little peeved, so I decided to take action. I called up my customers and told them an alternative fact, which went like this: “Great news, folks! We got the vehicle you wanted! When can you come in and sign up?” That’s called “Working the Customer.” But it was also Working the Desk. Because I knew exactly what would happen next.

What happened next was my customers showed up that afternoon, checkbook in hand, ready to buy a car. I cheerfully announced their arrival and told my managers they were here to do paperwork on the car we had located. “What car?!” my manager screamed. “We haven’t located a car! What’re you talking about?!” He went into complete panic mode. I just played dumb and told him our dealer trade guy (who just happened to be off that day) had said we had a car lined up. At that point, it was as if someone sounded a fire alarm and all the firefighters got off their butts and started running around the firehouse, trying to locate a vehicle to sell these folks. Live bodies sitting in a salesman’s office ready to buy—yep, that always gets their attention. And before you know it, a car was located, a price was nailed down, paperwork was signed, and a $1,000 deposit was taken. Done deal.

How did I do it? Well, I worked the Customer, and I worked The Desk. But mainly I worked The Desk, because I knew from experience that without the pressure of buyers sitting in front of them, The Desk would do absolutely nothing. My tactics were slightly unethical, true … but my customers got what they wanted, I got what I wanted (a commission), and the dealership got what it wanted—it sold a car. In my book, that’s a win-win all around!


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