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Car Salesman Confidential: We Secretly Hate You

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 2015-03-11 Mark McDonald

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The other day I was sitting around talking with a friend in the car business, an older gentleman who has been in finance and insurance (F&I) since the invention of the automobile (I think he may actually have been in the horse & carriage business before that), and completely out of the blue he asked me a question I could not answer.

“Why do we show such disdain for the people who feed us?”

By “the people who feed us,” he meant the customers. The ones who buy the cars. They’re the ones who put food on our table, clothes on our backs, and allow us to pay for our children’s education. And yet, as he pointed out, we in the car business routinely refer to people with credit problems with such derogatory terms as “bogues” or, worse yet, “roaches,” when these are the very people we make the most money off of. At the same time we have nothing but contempt for those people with credit scores of 800 and perfect credit histories because they don’t need us and we can’t control them.

If you come in and pay full price, you’re a “laydown,” which is, in a sense, the same thing as being a fool. But if you fight for your money, what do you get? Our respect? No way. We call you a mooch.

There is an incredible arrogance under the surface in the car business, and behind the smiles and the handshakes, an incredible disdain for our customers. In some places the culture has become so rotten it’s considered fashionable to talk in the most disparaging tones imaginable about the customers behind their backs. It’s almost as if salespeople are in a competition to see who can make the most damning statement about a customer. And we do this even as we’re trying to sell to them. If a salesperson takes the customer’s side or fights for a customer too much, they’re told they’re being “too much of a customer advocate” and viewed with suspicion. After all, it’s Us against Them. And you’re either one of us, or you’re one of them. You can’t be both.

The longer you’ve been in the business, the worse it gets. The proper stance for any veteran of sales is supreme cynicism. Cynicism is seen as evidence of wisdom and experience. If you show a tendency to believe in people and accept their statements as mostly truthful, you’re considered weak, naive, or a sucker. The strong do not believe in anything or anyone. Every customer is lying. Every customer is a con artist trying to “put us together,” escape a commitment, or avoid buying a car. We’ve got to be on our guard at all times, otherwise these people will steal us blind and screw us on the survey.

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And to be perfectly honest, after you’ve been in sales for a while and enough Little Old Ladies and Boy Scout Leaders and Fine Upstanding Pillars of the Community have lied their heinies off to you, you may start to be a little cynical, too. Everybody’s on the take. Everybody’s scamming me.

But then, you have to take a step back and say, “Is it really like that? Is everybody trying to scam me? Even 80-year-old Mrs. Fenster in her Buick Regal? Or is it only a few?” In my opinion, the folks who are quickest to believe they’re being lied to by their customers are the ones who do the most lying to their customers. They just naturally assume that because they’re doing it, everyone else is doing it to them.

There are good, decent people out there. And all they want is to be treated with honesty and respect. And after that, a fair deal. But first comes the honesty and respect. And yes, after 10 years doing this job, I am still naive enough to believe that if you give that to most people, you will get the same in return … from most people. Not all, but most.

Disdain is the accepted mentality in many car dealerships today. It’s sad, and it’s unfortunate, and I have no idea how to change it … except to say that we need to relearn how to respect our customers and genuinely appreciate their business because without the customers, honestly, all we’d have is a parking lot full of slowly rusting metal.

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