An Internet car salesperson I talked to recently said that business was so brisk at her dealership she often had to hand off customers to the regular guys "working the [showroom] floor."
"There are some salesmen at my dealership I would never send a friend or customer to," she said.
"I know what they are going to do."
This was getting interesting. I had to probe a little deeper. "Really? What will they do?"
"Oh, you know, the usual..." She didn't want to go any further. This was like the brotherhood of silence among cops. She didn't want to rat out a fellow salesperson.
"Let me put it this way," she finally said. "I like to be up-front with all my customers. I show them all the numbers. I don't try to hide things or put extras into the contract at the last minute. I don't want any misunderstandings. But not everyone at my dealership feels that way. So I have a list of salesmen I use and others I'd never use."
There are good and bad car salespeople. Big surprise, right? But for you, the customer, it's important to know who you are dealing with. How do you know if you got one of the good guys? How can you "test drive" the car salesman?
Several years ago I ghost-wrote a book called Used Cars — How to Buy One with Darrell Parrish, who had worked as a car salesman. After a year of moving metal, he had a crisis of conscience, became an engineer and devoted his spare time to informing consumers about unscrupulous dealers. He coined the term "test-drive the car salesman" and we listed a number of points to consider. Since I ghost-wrote that book, I have been buying cars for Edmunds.com and referring friends and family to salespeople that I've met. In the process, I have compiled a list of qualities I feel a good car salesperson should have.
First, I need to say that most car shoppers don't realize they have a choice when it comes to salespeople. They walk onto the car lot, browse the rows of gleaming cars until a cheerful voice hails them: "Morning, folks! Welcome to the Quality Car Lot. How can I help you?" Now, at this point, you are basically stuck with this salesperson. That is, unless you want to raise a fuss, go to the sales manager and demand someone different. And most people don't have the stomach for that.
So why not back up a few steps? First of all, telephone the dealership and ask for the Internet or fleet department. Then, when you are connected, say, "I'm shopping for a Honda Accord. I haven't test-driven it yet, so I'd like to arrange a test drive. I'm not ready to buy yet, but I'll definitely contact you before I buy the car anywhere else. Let me give you the specs on the car I want, and I wonder if you could check your inventory to see if you have one in stock that I can drive."
The salesperson will probably have some questions for you and, while you are chatting, you can get a sense of how your personalities mesh. Leave your name and number with the salesperson and let him call you back (if you are nervous about being bombarded with follow-up calls, leave your cell phone number).
Now you are at a critical juncture. If your salesperson is good, he will call you back soon with a list of matching cars on the lot. Ask yourself these questions:
If there are any warning signals at this time, it is easy enough to terminate contact with this salesperson and shop elsewhere. Had you walked on the lot and been approached by the first available salesperson, it would be harder to walk away. You could be drawn into negotiations with someone you don't trust or someone who might pressure or intimidate you.
Let's assume that you like your telephone interaction with the Internet salesperson. Now you move to step two: the test drive. You have told the salesperson you are still shopping, so he should respect this. However, a little prodding is to be allowed. The salesperson might ask nicely, "Would you like to make something happen today?" However, beware of the more entrapping, "What do I have to do to sell you this car today?" If you do encounter this tactic, politely restate that you are still comparing different cars and aren't ready to buy. And leave the car lot.
Now it's time to ask another series of questions about your salesperson:
If you feel pleased after test-driving this salesperson, it's time to take the plunge. Call him and say, "I appreciate the time you took to show me the car and let me test-drive it. I'm interested in buying the car I test-drove. What's the best you can do on the price?" If so, you might want to confirm the deal by asking him for a worksheet listing all the numbers so you can see your out-the-door cost. If the quote is higher than TMV, tell the salesperson you want to shop around for a better deal. He will probably drop the price to get you as a customer.
As you work toward completing the deal, your early decisions about selecting a salesperson should make it a stress-free, enjoyable experience. And why not? There are some great salespeople out there, like the woman who gave me the idea for this column.