The Evolution of Car Salesmanship

When I came of driving age in the early nineties, car dealerships dotted the landscape and seemed to occupy almost every street corner.  A tire-kicking perusal would typically result in a friendly visit with a knowledgeable salesman, many of whom were somewhat rough edged and worldly-wise, smoked, knew how to laugh, and knew how to spin a good story.  They were typically sharp-witted, knew how to read people, and would occasionally shoot the breeze with enjoyable car talk, even if they knew a sale wouldn’t result.  They usually weren’t the slick crooks of Hollywood yore who lied through their waxed moustaches (though a number of salesmen wore them).

From the CC archives


On a nearby lot sat a small office occupied by a mustachioed owner/salesperson.  His name was Dick (a nickname that presumably had no anatomical connotations when the it was given or was given at a time when not every English word had such a connotation; perhaps an older commenter can clarify this for me).  He was a large, friendly bear of a man who had a good repertoire of friendly greetings and stories. He had no interest in watching cars grow stale on his lot and priced them just above wholesale.  “Wee-eell, have I got a deal for you!” he’d typically say warmly before he guided potential buyers to a vehicle on the lot.

When I visited his lot he took a liking to me and offered me a job: I would come over a couple of times a week, wash cars, help transport new acquisitions to his lot (usually from the Chrysler dealership a half hour away) and do whatever other lot chores needed doing.  At the end of the workday he would hand me a few cash dollars of amounts that varied depending on his mood or sales action that day.

Over the next couple of years, Dick showed me the basics of selling a car, how to approach a customer, how not to scare them off, how to pique their interest.  One trick he employed was to walk a customer past a more expensive vehicle and then tell them “No, that’s too much money” when they showed interest in it.  This would usually cause the buyer to stop the proceedings and ask for more details, often resulting in a purchase.

His excellent skills as a salesman caused him to be a target for a local Amway salesman who desired to make him a piece on limestone in his pyramid.  Dick was relatively patient with him until one day, the associate played the old trick of pretending to drop a large Amway royalty check on the office floor.  Dick, of course, was meant to see the check, be amazed at its size, and allow himself to be recruited.  Instead, Dick physically pushed him out of the office into the lot, crumpled the check and threw it at him, telling him firmly “I don’t want to see you around here again.”  Important lesson: never kid a kidder.

Under Dick’s tutelage, I decided to try my hand at curbing vehicles myself.  He would occasionally inform me of good local deals on used cars or swing deals for me at his suppliers, usually fresh trade-ins in which he wasn’t interested and which the dealer wanted to move.  One of the first of these vehicles was a 1982 Honda Prelude with a sunroof, a manual tranny, and 150,000 kilometers.  The dealer only wanted $1500 for it, and the only fly in the ointment was a large scratch on the side; however, after I purchased the vehicle, I found an approved insurance claim that covered the repainting.  I flipped it and made a few hundred bucks.  I wanted more of this.

CC archives


I learned from Dick how to read body language, which spouse to sell to, how to develop a friendly camaraderie with the buyer.  I learned the importance of being knowledgeable about the car you’re selling, showing concern with safety and reliability concerns, and being as honest as possible without shooting down the vehicle and killing the sale.

This was a small town, and I didn’t want to make enemies.  Unfortunately, at the local KAL Tire, I once bumped into a leather-clad biker to whom I had sold a 1972 Dodge truck weeks earlier.  He glared at me with arms crossed.  I greeted him, and stupidly asked about the truck.  “You shouldn’t be selling sh** like that”, he responded.  “It even has the wrong f***ing carburator on it.”  Not knowing how to respond to this, I turned and walked away ashamed.

I was stung by this.  As I was entering a different phase of life anyhow, I sold the 1973 Mercedes Diesel I was trying to flip at cost and exited the curbing world.

Since then, I’ve purchased cars to drive rather than flip.  I’ve even found some gems at car dealers though the years, becoming acquainted with salespeople.  However, I’ve found through the years that the old-guard types of salespeople, the skilled, knowledgeable and savvy ones, were slowly disappearing and being replaced by slick-looking young people who have little knowledge of vehicles.  Though they still exist, they’re getting harder to find.

I stopped at a used-car dealer in Red Deer Alberta because a 2011 Ford Escape caught my eye.  I went into the office and inquired about it.  Specifically, I wanted to know the price, did it have the V6, and how many kilometers?  Instead of answering, the twenty-something salesman, who wore a substantial underbite and reminded me of Adam Sandler in The Waterboy, offered me a chair.  He shoved a piece of paper towards me, on which I was supposed to fill out my contact information and desired vehicle information: what body style do I want?  What color?  How many seats?  Price range?

Without filling it out, I shoved it back across the desk and repeated my questions about the Escape.  He responded that he was trying to help me “get into a vehicle” based on what I wanted.  I repeated my questions about the Escape in a more irritated manner.  Instead of answering, he leaned back in his chair and asked “What do you want anyway?  Why are you here?”, prompting me stand up in disgust and prepare to leave, causing him to blurt out that they were asking $15000 for the Escape (a ridiculously high price, no matter how optioned).  I continued my journey out the door, never to return.

Apparently, lousy salesmanship is not limited to small corner lots.

A nearby new car dealership offered a used Escape in which I was interested.  I asked the young male salesperson if it had the 2.0 engine.  He asked another salesperson, who replied that yes, it has the 2.0; it’s an EcoBoost!  A drive to the dealer showed me that no, the Escape contained the 1.6 engine.  “I’m so sorry sir, can I show you a Fusion?  It’s the best-selling car in North America and has the engine you want!”

“Best-selling car in North America?  No, it’s not.” I replied.

“I can show you the stats!” He challenged.

Maybe I should have taken the young numbskull up on this, but what good would it do?  As I exited I heard another apology through the closing door.

Down the street, I saw a nice, clean used Toyota Matrix AWD on the lot at the Toyota dealership.  I informed the young salesman that I have cash, know what the car is worth, and would like him to speak with his manager and get the best cash price for me.  He returned twenty minutes later with a “great payment plan” for me, amounting to full asking price over several years, about 15 percent above market price.  As I left, the manager stopped me, wondering why I wasn’t interested is this great deal.

“I’m going elsewhere to look at a Matrix.”

“Why not just save yourself the trip and buy this one?”

Despite his charming effort to close the deal with me, I left without the Matrix.  At a subsequent dealer visit, I specifically asked if I could please speak to an older salesperson.

More recently, my mother set out to make her first new car purchase ever.  Her heart was set on a new Buick Encore GX.  (I quite liked it myself, so there!)  We were assigned an extremely nervous young saleswoman who had absolutely no clue about the material she was selling.  Every question my mother had (e.g. does the vehicle have good consumer reviews, is it a first-year design, it is reliable) was met with lengthy, nervous responses about how great this dealership is and how they would “only ever sell good cars”.  I got the feeling that if I asked her if the Buick was an electric vehicle, she would look at me like a deer in the headlights.

This, along with her obnoxious attempts at jokes and conversation was excruciating and I’m sure she could sense my annoyance.  I so desired a checkered-jacketed, cowboy-booted, smoking salesman of the past to enter the office to confidently stroll in and replace her as our salesperson.  We completed the deal anyhow, my mother is thrilled with her Encore GX, and everyone’s happy.  However, I came away wishing that the sales experience, which can be an important part of ownership and long-term impressions, could have been better.

Why does good car salesmanship appear to be a dying skill?  Do buyers respond to this new generation of what seems to be vehicularly-illiterate, socially awkward order-takers?

The advent of online shopping has definitely changed things.  As buyers typically find a desired vehicle on the Internet rather than from a trip to the dealer, they don’t require a knowledgeable salesperson guiding them into a suitable vehicle.  In fact, many car shoppers don’t like the dealership process at all, negotiating, travelling from dealer to dealer; instead preferring to perform the entire process online.  As it turns out, car buyers are often just fine with skipping the entire experience of test driving, kicking at tires, poking the dashboard materials with their fingers, and “popping the hood”.  No salesman required.

Perhaps the decline may be attributed to lousy wages. GlassDoor says that the national average salary for New Car Sales Manager is $65,710 per year in Canada, while the number is $55,608 for Used Car Sales.  Why would a skilled, gifted salesperson go into the car market when they can make a killing in almost any other industry?  It’s true that good car salesman can still make good money.  An uncle of mine, a sales manager at a Lexus dealership, and makes it clear to me that he makes far more than a someone selling Honda Civics. However, it seems that the skilled salespeople are now going into high-level real estate, pharmaceuticals, enterprise software, finance, consulting, and big public accounts (transportation, energy, social services, etc.) that can result in multi-million dollar deals.

It also doesn’t help that the term “car salesman” has become somewhat of a pejorative term, which could dissuade talented people from joining the profession.  In fact, a Gallup poll showed that the American public considered “car salesman” to be among the least-trustworthy professions (along with member of Congress).  Who wants to tell his friends and family that he’s decided to become a car salesman?  And for a people-oriented line of work, dealers appear to be completely missing the level of trust people have in them.  Research shows that “nearly 70 percent of dealers said their customers have a high level of trust in their salespeople. That is a huge disconnect from the December 2016 Gallup poll that showed just 9 percent of consumers have a high level of trust in car salespeople.”  The result is that the profession does not attract the best and the brightest.

It’s still possible that car salesmanship isn’t a dying profession, but simply an evolving one.   As cars grow more reliable, less knowledge of moving bits is required.  Today, a successful salesman is online savvy and relational, networking with clients.  Instead of descending like a vulture on every poor soul who enters the lot, he builds a relationship with buyers, who will return in a few years for another vehicle.  A kindly Toyota salesman recently told me that most of his sales are from repeat buyers and that his career couldn’t survive without them.  He says it took him well over a decade to build his buyer network, and he encourages the younger salespeople to do the same or plan on exiting the field.  Here’s hoping that this damaged profession isn’t headed for the scrap auction.