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Car Salesman Confidential: The Process, Part 2

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 1/31/2014 Mark McDonald

In my last blog I promised to tell you what to expect when you go to a car dealership, and give you a map so you can navigate your way through the car-buying maze. Well, here it is. Today we’re going to do some fear-free shopping!


1. The “Meet & Greet”

When you go to a dealership -- even if you know that you have no intention of buying that day -- a salesperson is going to come out and say hello to you. This is called “The Meet & Greet,” or, as I think of it, “The Welcome.” Believe it or not, this is where a lot of car deals die -- at “hello.” Because people want to be able to go to a car dealership and “just look” at the merchandise without being bothered, and if a salesperson is too pushy they can run the customer off. But you have to understand that from a dealership’s perspective, everyone who sets foot on a car lot is a potential buyer. So when you go to a dealership, even if it’s really just to “look” with no intention of buying, you’re going to be greeted by a salesperson. They have to do it. It’s part of their job. And if they don’t do it, they can get fired. No kidding.

2. Needs Assessment (or Analysis)

In the next phase of the process, the salesman will try to engage you in a dialogue. He might ask you to come inside, sit down, and allow him to fill out a “Guest Sheet.” If you don’t want to go inside, he may try do it in the parking lot. The purpose of this is simple. We want to find out what you’re looking for. What kind of vehicle best suits this person’s needs? To that end, we ask a series of questions, like “Who will be the primary driver of your new vehicle?” “What do you like most about your current vehicle?” “Do you prefer two doors, or four?” “Lighter or darker colors?” And so on. Some people seem to think these questions are a trap, and avoid answering them. But they’re not. The purpose of the “Needs Assessment” is to help the salesman narrow down the many choices available to you on his lot to one or two vehicles that will best serve your needs.

Now, for the readers of Motor Trend (and “Driver”-type personalities in general), this part of the process may seem a total waste of time. “Why do I need to go through all this when I already know what I want?” But the Needs Analysis isn’t designed for the 5 percent of people who have already figured out precisely what they want. You guys are the exception, not the rule. It’s designed for the vast majority of people who don’t have a clue what they want, and go to several dealerships hoping something -- either a great deal or a perfect vehicle -- will jump out and grab them.

3. Product Selection

Once a salesman gets a fairly good idea of what you’re looking for, he’ll check his inventory and decide which vehicle is best for you, and then pull it around front to show it to you. The average dealership has hundreds of different vehicles, all with different options and features, and all with different prices. My goal is not to show you all of them. That would only leave you confused. My goal is to find the one vehicle on our lot that satisfies most of your requirements. It’s the right size, the right color, has the right features, and most important, it’s the right price, or close to it. The Needs Analysis and Product Selection are the most critical parts of the sales process… although it’s seldom recognized as such by the average customer (or salesperson). Most of us -- customers and salespeople alike -- want to jump straight to discussions of price. That’s a mistake. If I don’t “land you” on the right vehicle, I have no chance of making a sale. Worse yet, if I land you on the wrong vehicle -- if I show you a vehicle that will wind up costing you a lot more than you’re willing to pay -- I’ve just guaranteed that the next two or three hours we spend together will be a nightmare for both of us -- and a total waste of time -- because there’s no way I’ll ever be able to get my price low enough to make you happy.

4. Walkaround/Demo Drive

When I finally show you a car, I’m hoping I’ve done the previous steps correctly and this is the right car for you. And then I’m going to sell the heck out of it. If I’m a well-informed salesperson -- and hopefully I am -- I’m going to educate you on it, revealing things you didn’t know. And then we’re going to drive it. A good product presentation and test drive are the most powerful tools any salesman has. Contrary to popular belief, there are no “Jedi mind tricks” that will make someone buy a car. They simply have to drive it and fall in love with it.

5. Trial Close & T.O.

At some point during the test drive, I’m going to “take your temperature” and ask you if you’re ready to buy my car. If you don’t seem ready, I’m going to ask you for your contact information and then introduce you to a manager. This is called a “T.O.,” or turn over. This part of the process irritates some people, but it really shouldn’t. Remember I said that from the dealership’s perspective everyone is a potential buyer? Well, this is especially true of people who have just spent an hour or two looking at cars and then test-driving one. This says “buyer” to management, and they don’t want any potential buyer walking out the door until a manager has had a chance to speak to them and see if there’s a possibility of selling them a car. Don’t be intimidated.

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6 & 7. Trade Appraisal & Write-Up

Even if you say you’re not ready to buy, I might suggest we proceed to the next phase anyway (depending on what my gut tells me), and we’ll go inside to look at numbers. If there’s a trade, the first thing I’ll do is get my used car manager to do a professional appraisal. This may take 15 to 20 minutes if we’re not busy. If there is no trade, we’ll proceed directly to the write-up, or presentation of numbers. This will involve asking you a few more questions, like “In whose name are you registering the vehicle?” “How much were you planning to put down?” And then I’m going to go to “the desk”-- the sales manager-- to get a “Buyer’s Order.” This is the document that lays out what it will cost to buy your new car.

Hang on . . . we’re almost there. In my next installment we’ll talk about the part everybody loves most: negotiating.

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