What Really Goes on at Car Dealerships

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What Really Goes on at Car Dealerships

You probably loathe car salespeople. Most of us do and in many instances they probably deserve their sullied reputation.

These sometimes unscrupulous folks can be manipulative, pushy and downright dishonest in their dealings. We already walked you through the car-buying process but here’s what can really go on in a dealership’s shadows as one former metal mover opens up about his experiences in the business.

“If you don’t smoke as a car salesman you’re picking up a bad habit when you’re there,” said Josh Lewis, a one-time vehicle peddler at a combined Mazda/Kia dealership in North Carolina. With long hours and demanding supervisors “It was a high-stress job,” he said and a position that can lead to all forms of substance abuse, both legal and, well, not.

SEE ALSO: Tips From a Salesman on How to Buy a Car

Like big game hunters, salespeople start sizing customers up like wounded prey long before they ever limp across the showroom floor. “We judge the hell out of people,” said Lewis though, “If you look clean, if you look bright, we’ll chit-chat.” A little small talk before business can put both parties at ease.

Not surprisingly a dealership’s defensive perimeter extends far beyond the building itself. “If they [the customer] got in the door someone outside didn’t do their job,” said Lewis.

When a person walks in he said the salespeople tussle with one another to get a crack at the potential buyer. “Basically when they [shoppers] come up to the lot you do everything in your power to get their attention,” he said adding, “You have to be as polite as possible but you have to be assertive to make them want to come with you.”

Credit Application Form

Once a potential customer has been set up with a salesperson Lewis said the next step is often to fill out a long, boring form that covers things like income, home address, credit scores and much more. This helps determine how much the person can spend and what kind of financing they’re eligible for. Once the dealer knows a little about a driver’s monetary situation the salesperson can help guide them to the appropriate vehicle, whether it’s best for them or the dealership is another matter.

“I’d say probably 60 percent [of people] walk on the lot looking for a certain car or expecting to get a certain car and then actually end up leaving with something else, or nothing,” said Lewis, adding that there are several reasons why this can happen. “Sometimes the bank won’t buy them,” industry terminology for getting a loan, but there are sleazier explanations why sales don’t go through. “Sometimes it’s ‘this car is not going to make enough profit,’” he said. Managers will shoot things down if it’s not advantageous enough to their bottom line.

“Nine times out of 10 I knew if someone could buy something or not before I actually let them test drive a car,” said Lewis. And appropriately, “If I knew that they couldn’t buy it was my job to get them to exhaust every resource to get a cosigner,” be it a parent, a sibling or a friend, anything to make the deal work. “This was my job, this is what I had to do.”

2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat

And salespeople have many tactics to get you to buy something. Cars are some of the most emotional products in the world; there’s a lot of passion surrounding the automobile, even something as humble as a Toyota Corolla. Lewis said, “My job is to make them love something, fall in love,” even if it’s not the model they were originally interested in.

After financial formalities have been taken care of Lewis said it’s time to, “Let ‘em out of their cage” and go for a ride. “During the test drive you’re basically masking anything bad [about the vehicle] with lots of good praise,” he said. Giving an example he described a Dodge Stratus’ lackluster suspension as “sport tuned.” You get the idea …

SEE ALSO: What to do After a Crash

And of course during the road test you pray the buyer is a safe driver. Lewis said you “[hope] to God that they don’t have to do an emergency maneuver,” anything that would imperil your lives.

As Lewis mentioned, if you don’t already have a bad habit as a salesperson you soon will, and apparently the same is true for customers. Recounting one of his most memorable test drives, he was forced to go for a spin with a woman that was clearly intoxicated. He said he notified his manager of the situation but the boss was having none of it, demanding that Lewis take her out. Fortunately common sense prevailed and he drove the car, though you’ve got to wonder how you can get a feel for the way something drives by sitting in the passenger seat.

Test Drive

Ideally after the all-important test drive the customer pulls back into the lot and is encouraged to park in front of the dealer; this is a carefully calculated move so the vehicle is visible from inside. Then, “You pull them back into the office, set the keys in front of them on the desk,” said Lewis. “They’re just amped up and excited.” And then the emotional pitch begins. “You start to go Dr. Phil on them. You get preachy.”

“You’d sell them on the fact that this is what they belong in,” he said, masking their insecurities about money or a potentially bad deal in the process by saying things they want to hear. “You’ve worked hard in your life, you deserve this,” he said, really sucking up to the customer and tightening the emotional screws. And of course “everything is today,” said Lewis, which builds a sense of urgency.

And if the customer likes things so far and the salesperson is lucky the deal might close, provided the dealership manager approves. Lewis said sometimes things go lickety-split and other times it drags on with offers, counter offers, credit checks and hunting for a cosigner, something that can be akin to searching for the Ark of the Covenant. On several occasions he said it took him six hours to seal a deal; one even drug on for eight!

And after an ordeal like that a buyer is probably ready to run for the door but they’re not done yet. They still have to survive a trip through the financing meat grinder. Lewis said be on guard during this portion of the sales process, which is just another way for a dealer to profit from you. “Finance guys are trained to milk money,” he said. “They don’t even have to be very good at math.” Watch out.

“If you sell someone a vehicle at way over the actual price ‘you knocked them over the head,’” said Lewis, recounting a story about how one of his colleagues sold a used Chrysler minivan for waaaaay more than what it was worth AND was able to get away with charging the customer a hefty premium for the removable rear seats, which should have been included. Perhaps it’s best to wear a helmet when looking for a new ride, or better yet do some research on AutoGuide.com.

Used Car Dealer

Still, Lewis hasn’t sold cars for quite a few years and he said stuff probably isn’t as bad as it used to be. “I think the process now has evolved and become better. Most new-car dealers have gotten better … [but] used-car lots are still on the shitty list for me.” Lewis also said if you’re shopping at a big-name dealership group the salespeople can’t rush you through the process or horse you around too much. “If they [customers] call the manager or leave a voicemail for the owner you’re screwed.”

SEE ALSO: What does a VIN do?

He may not be in the business anymore but Lewis still enjoyed his tenure as a car salesman. “I actually loved it, but it was the worst love I could have.” He likened the experience to being in a really bad relationship. “You wanted to strangle this person everyday but the sex was amazing.”

So yes, dealerships can be every bit as sleazy as you might have expected, at least from one salesman’s point of view. Fortunately things have probably gotten better, especially if you’re shopping at a larger, well-known store.

Want more stories like this? Check out our Tips and Advice section.

  • maryanne

    so far from the truth it’s disgusting – you should have, perhaps, done a little research before settling on and quoting a bottom feeder who, obviously, didn’t make it with his unscrupulous ways…… this is so far from correct it’s painful to read.

  • Dustin

    Seems accurate to me; what is incorrect?

  • Bellaire Boy

    This is as close to the truth as you are to the comma on your computer, and as far away from a lie as the shift key for capitalization. You are the weakest link, goodbye.

  • Steve2

    Please enlighten us then.

  • Phil Griffin

    Agreed this is about “old school” car business. The stores run like this are going out of business or being bought out. I now wonder about the accuracy of your other articles.

  • rob

    I’m a finance director at a large dealership, and yes old school was very much like this not at all true today or how about at least 10 years. Manufacturers now have survey they send out to customers if he dealership does not get a 100% satisfied then the dealer looses a good sum of its income ALL dealerships are ran in this way. The individual you sourced the information from was an unsuccessful week individual who could not close a door. the car bizz is very competitive and prices are very low, if you want to have an argument about that them blame to government for devaluation of the green back. all and all the dealership is a VERY safe place to buy a car and with most having a life time power train warranty and certified preowned you are sure to have a good experience remember if you walk into a place being a dick then you will get the same in return …..HAPPY CAR BUYING FOLKS

  • Reiter

    This article is inaccurate and the former sales guy obviously sold cars years ago, not within the last 10yrs. Please get an article from a current dealer employee, I would be more than happy to contribute.

  • kmancanada

    This article is bullsh/t and as bottom-feeder as the salesperson that is described within it.

    I already had AutoGuide pretty low in my esteem based on your egregious click-bait headlines on facebook; this just sealed the deal on the uselessness of AutoGuide.

    If you’re following AutoGuide for useful tips and advice on your car choices, know that you’re not getting any.

  • Laura Madison

    SEEMS????

  • Jim Bell

    What year was this guys selling cars in and basing this article on? So far from the truth and what happens in today’s dealerships. We can’t lie and be deceitful these days. It’s called transparency people and the internet goes along with that.

  • Faz

    Dealerships are all crooks. You’re better off buying used from some random than putting up with their tactics. So funny to see all the obvious dealership employees on here supporting their crooked ways. You lie to us in the dealership and you’re lying to us now.

  • Keith

    Wreckless and lazy writing. Quoting one former car salesman as the source of your entire story is hack material. Shameful, lazy “journalism.”

  • JP Gwinn

    Wow Craig Cole ! I’m available for an interview any time. In fact 24/7 …..2 years in the automotive industry….I am a sales professional at a 30 year dealership.
    This is a slap in the face to all professionals in the industry.
    JP Gwinn Sales Professional Greg Lair Buick GMC Amarillo / Canyon 806.410.0546

  • Caebhin

    To JP Gwinn and all of the other car salesmen who feel slighted by this article:

    While I do agree that using a single source for a story intended to comment on an entire industry is lazy, it is what passes for journalism these days. However anecdotal, the poor
    reputation of car dealerships and salespeople are well deserved. As an engineering student, I was taught that the plural of anecdote is data. When I add my life’s experiences with car buying to the anecdotal evidence, I feel that the industry you belong to needs serious reform.

    Let me start with Greg Lair. Several years ago, I went to your dealership to buy a car for my youngest daughter. We had a little over $6000 for the down payment and TT&L. I forget the car she was looking at. But, it was used. I think the total amount financed would have been about $8000. We could not get a salesman interested. We walked around the car, went into the showroom, stood as people ignored us, and when I approached a man in his cubical he made it clear that he was completely disinterested in making a sale. We didn’t even get to fill out the loan application there. He handed us the application and asked us to come back when it was done. I said “No thanks, I’ll go where they want my business.” I left and I have not been back to your dealership since. Nor do I ever intend to.

    More recently, I purchased a new car from Texas Dodge. I felt that I got a fair deal on that
    purchase. It took a lot of hard-balling to get a deal we were all happy with. However, a friend of mine went into Texas Dodge on her own a few months later. She was absolutely raped and robbed by the salespeople. That will keep me from ever returning to Texas Dodge. You get one chance with me. You do good, you’ll get my repeat business… until you screw it up.

  • Mjal

    Car dealerships and car salesman…the crooks that continue to enjoy their enterprises without any harassment by law enforcement. It’s a shame that I am not the attorney general.

  • Pete Flynn

    I recently bought two cars within six months. Believe it or not, it wasn’t a bad experience and none of what you described happened. And I am pretty sure we paid a fair price. Maybe not the lowest, rip their lungs out price. But I’d go back to both places again.
    I’ll tell you one thing. If I had been handed a credit ap on the front end of the process, that’s where it would have ended.

  • ColumWood

    We at AutoGuide appreciate the feedback we’ve received on this article, both positive and negative. I have always believed that one can learn from criticism and I will concede that our choice of headline is rather sensationalist. True, this is just one dealership. And yes, the stories are not from a current salesman in the industry.

    Unfortunately not all salesmen or dealerships live up to a high code of ethics. Just today there’s a lengthy thread on reddit about dealership issues. http://www.reddit.com/r/cars/comments/2pon35/another_rant_about_car_dealerships/

    At AutoGuide we take our responsibility to our readers very seriously and we aim to provide them with the best information when it comes to buying a car. I feel this article provides some insight into unscrupulous tactics that any car buyer should be aware of.

    I can tell you that we are already researching a followup article, looking at how things have changed.

    Hopefully it generates the same level of discussion.

    – Colum Wood
    AutoGuide Group Editorial Director

  • Mjal

    Must be a car salesman lol!

  • Nick Sinko

    Wow! This article really is on the cutting edge of irrelevance.

    I can’t believe AutoGuide would publish this garbage. It seems it is in the interest of many 3rd party automotive companies and vendors to stimulate and perpetuate false information about car sales people and dealers so as to keep their public image as the “non partisan good guys that are just looking out for the consumer” safe.

    I am calling AutoGuide and its editors out as BULLIES.

    I am a car sales person, and can tell you from experience that this article is so far from the truth it is laughable.

    “If you sell someone a vehicle at way over the actual price ‘you knocked
    them over the head,’” said Lewis, recounting a story about how one of
    his colleagues sold a used Chrysler minivan for waaaaay more
    than what it was worth AND was able to get away with charging the
    customer a hefty premium for the removable rear seats, which should have
    been included. Perhaps it’s best to wear a helmet when looking for a
    new ride, or better yet do some research on AutoGuide.com.”

    That entire paragraph proves my point, and people are going to wake up to your hateful attacks on the automotive industry. We as sales people commit a huge amount of time and effort to ensure that our customers are beyond satisfied and the image that is pushed on us by third parties like AutoGuide borders on harassment.

    Very hateful.

    I also can be reached any time for interview.

    Nick Sinko – Toyota Town – 226 373 2674 – nsinko@toyota-town.com

  • Andrew Alvarez

    I find it amazing how articles like this inappropriately perpetuate the distrust in automotive dealerships. It’s hard to fathom how this article pertains to the current state of affairs in the automotive industry.

    Most dealerships are held accountable to a Customer Satisfaction Index score from the manufactures and are penalized or lose bonus for failing. Not to mention the power of social media that can kill the reputation of a dealership with one small click.

    Why on Earth would a dealership want to put their reputation and business on the line by being “unfair, scammers, etc”. To say we want to make profit. Absolutely we do. Obviously, the more profit we make, the more profitable we are, the better we can grow and serve our clients. If we lose money or make no money on deals, we can’t grow. Now this isn’t saying we want to “knock people over the heads” as your source says. That would be counter productive. We want to sell our clients more than one car and their friends too. If they can’t buy their second and third car from us, what good have we done. Oh, and did you know that Uncle Sam makes more in taxes on the vehicles than the dealerships make in profit?

    This article takes the same almost slanderous standpoint as many vendors in the automotive industry. Intentionally portraying the automotive professionals as liers, cheats, and crooks. I’ll quote you as saying “So yes, dealerships can be every bit as sleazy as you might have expected”.

    I’ve been in the car business for the past 7 years and since I first landed my sales job, I’ve been preached the Customer Satisfaction sermon. Now that I’m in management, I preach the Customer Satisfaction sermon and work hard at ensuring my customers are satisfied with the process, vehicle, personnel and dealership. Your article taking one former salespersons point of view and publishing it as such, is in my opinion, poor authorship.

  • Keith DeBoer

    If this is the best Mr. Cole can do for AutoGuide, do you really need him? What a slanderous spewing of BS! How about an article about the thousands of hard working auto salespeople that do the RIGHT thing every time?

  • Guest

    This is about as disgusting as it gets! I have worked in sales for about 2 years and my jaw is stuck on the floor! Whatever car lot this hackjob worked at must have been the worst and I would love to see the ratings for it! From the meeting to delivery of a car be it used or new we as salespeople are as transparent and friendly as possible out of genuine interest for the customer. Yes we make money on commission and the better the commission the better we get paid but outlandish and deceitful tactics are long gone! The credit app is key and does change the numbers we give for financing because without it we are guessing at how the credit is. If we’re told by a customer that they want $400 a month and have $5,000 down then a $65,000 Audi is out of the question! We need to know why your here before we can say anything else or its a waste of my time and yours. Bad credit means you get less car for the same payment, we can’t help that at all! Ridiculous charges are simply gone these days from NEW AND CREDIBLE lots! Uncle Al’s Used Cars tucked behind an abandoned library is not the same as Random City Dodge/Mazda. Between reviews, word-of-mouth, dealer scores and local competition you are guaranteed to find a great car! Also, I can not tell you how many deals we lost thousands on just to keep a customer! We want everyone’s business be it good or bad and will not turn someone down because we can’t make a profit. It should also be expected that a car listed at $25,000 can not be had for $19,500 unless it is under very extenuating circumstances such as the car being the oldest one on the lot or the manufacturing releasing huge savings for a short amount of time like year end or closing! And a trade in does not have sentimental value at all because the next person to buy it does not care about it being the car that you learned to drive in or that it was the first new car you and your spouse bought together. As salespeople we pass on those stories and it has never made someone say they’ll pay extra for it! Be reasonable, if it’s worth $13,000 then that’s it we can flex a few more dollars but we’re not giving you $17,000 for it. Deals only fall apart on a few things and the dealer will try everything in its power to make a reasonable deal. When things start to get hairy its usually due to consumers thinking they are getting screwed over because of poorly wrote articles like this from highly unreputable, outdated and poorly prepared sources such as Craig Cole.

  • Doni Whittier

    Doni Whittier
    a few seconds ago
    This is about as disgusting as it gets! I have worked in sales for about 2 years and my jaw is stuck on the floor! Whatever car lot this hackjob worked at must have been the worst and I would love to see the ratings for it! From the meeting to delivery of a car be it used or new we as salespeople are as transparent and friendly as possible out of genuine interest for the customer. Yes we make money on commission and the better the commission the better we get paid but outlandish and deceitful tactics are long gone! The credit app is key and does change the numbers we give for financing because without it we are guessing at how the credit is. If we’re told by a customer that they want $400 a month and have $5,000 down then a $65,000 Audi is out of the question! We need to know why your here before we can say anything else or its a waste of my time and yours. Bad credit means you get less car for the same payment, we can’t help that at all! Ridiculous charges are simply gone these days from NEW AND CREDIBLE lots! Uncle Al’s Used Cars tucked behind an abandoned library is not the same as Random City Dodge/Mazda. Between reviews, word-of-mouth, dealer scores and local competition you are guaranteed to find a great car! Also, I can not tell you how many deals we lost thousands on just to keep a customer! We want everyone’s business be it good or bad and will not turn someone down because we can’t make a profit. It should also be expected that a car listed at $25,000 can not be had for $19,500 unless it is under very extenuating circumstances such as the car being the oldest one on the lot or the manufacturing releasing huge savings for a short amount of time like year end or closing! And a trade in does not have sentimental value at all because the next person to buy it does not care about it being the car that you learned to drive in or that it was the first new car you and your spouse bought together. As salespeople we pass on those stories and it has never made someone say they’ll pay extra for it! Be reasonable, if it’s worth $13,000 then that’s it we can flex a few more dollars but we’re not giving you $17,000 for it. Deals only fall apart on a few things and the dealer will try everything in its power to make a reasonable deal. When things start to get hairy its usually due to consumers thinking they are getting screwed over because of poorly wrote articles like this from highly unreputable, outdated and poorly prepared sources such as Craig Cole.

  • jerimiah

    Unfortunately, most of this article holds no substance. The stigma long associated with the car industry is waning, whether you want to believe it or not. Due to the intense nature of internet shopping, and the amount of information available to a consumer… many dealerships are stuck in a mud wrestling match against each other to offer the most satisfactory price. This often leads to posting a negative front end, often eating into dealer holdback. Anyone in the industry can attest to how the “good old days” no longer exist, and how most dealerships have switched to volume based pay plan, not gross. You might meet the streaks of old school sales staff that might feel pushy, but rest assured that era is almost over. This career should command more respect, as the hours are brutal, the stress is almost unrivaled unless we are talking about a combat related job, its thankless, and the amount of money in relation to time given never balances out.

  • Jon Ryder

    With used cars the scams have just followed the technology, so no, it’s not waning. In fact, internet bait and switch tactics are becoming a huge problem. Another driving factor is too much credit. Just like the housing market bubble, today there is an auto bubble. People who try to pay cash suddenly get a new sticker shock and find that the car suddenly received $5000 in upgrades in the past 30 seconds. There is a reason why people STILL consider car sales to be one of the more dishonest industries and it’s NOT because dealers suddenly had a digital change of heart.

  • Jon Ryder

    There’s an old saying the applies here. “A bit dog yelps.” All of you salesman complaining about the nerve this touched are not going to change people’s opinions with “nu uh!” comebacks. I’ve purchased 8 vehicles for my business in the past 2 years and not ONCE did I experience an honest salesman from 8 different dealers. I’ve seen it all. The car magically went into “service” at the time I was supposed to meet them, the internet price turns out to be “incorrect because the person who posted it made a typo”, or a black car shown online magically painted its self red and wouldn’t you know it, another typo..this time the VIN number. Imagine the luck. It’s amazing how freight, advertising, and double destination fees sneak in there with so many HONEST salesman out there. Truly amazing.