Never Go Into a Car Dealership Alone!

Most of us dislike confrontation. In fact, unless you’re certifiably neurotic you’d probably rather deliver a speech to a large crowd rather than engage in face-to-face confrontation. OK, that was a bit over the top, but I’m going somewhere with this… One place you can fully expect confrontation – no matter how it’s disguised – is a car dealership. Which is why you should never go into a car dealership alone.

Most of us would prefer doing just about anything to avoid confrontation, especially when money is hanging in the balance. It takes us outside of our comfort zones. Shopping for a car is somewhat schizophrenic in that while looking at cars is fun, sitting down to negotiate the purchase reeks of confrontation – one we’re bound to lose in most cases. This is why unless you negotiate for a living, you should never go into a car dealership alone. Perhaps nowhere are us mere mortal types more heavily outgunned than in a car dealership.

The car dealership ambush

Never Go Into a Car Dealership Alone!
Never Go Into a Car Dealership Alone!

Few places in human existence are so magnificently constructed to rope us and hog tie us as our friendly neighborhood car dealer. And it’s no accident. They sell more cars that way.

When you buy a home, you’re somewhat insulated from the darker side of contract negotiations by the fact that the primary direct exchanges between the parties are typically handled by real estate agents, attorneys or some other intermediary. They handle the face-to-face contact, then relay offers, counter-offers, information and messages to you. This provides you with time to consider and react to events from a remote location and at your own pace.

No such insulation exists in a car dealership. If you go in there alone, then truly alone you shall be.

You’ll be greeted by a friendly sales person—and if he’s any good at what he does, he’s also personable and disarming. He’ll show you shiny new, fresh smelling models waiting for you on the showroom floor (hearts all aflutter).

“Do you like it?” he asks as you center your attention on a single vehicle.

“Oh yes, but…” you respond hopefully.

”Then let’s see how it looks on paper!”—standard issue bridge comment to move you from the showroom floor to his desk.

You go with him, still excited and filled with hope…but you begin to detect a vague sense of something that feels like dread welling up from the pit of your stomach. It’s still fun, but the noose is tightening.

At this point, you and the salesman are still buddies but the conversation’s getting thicker…little numbers…big numbers…ooh, and what’s that—a hidden number. You ask questions, trying to sound intelligent but the pace is quickening. Too many numbers, too many options, all flying too fast. The ultimate number is starting to creep up to an uncomfortable level. “Can you do any better than that?” you ask in a thinly disguised plea for financial mercy.

Your apparent ally across the desk responds to your groveling, “You know, let me talk to my manager” (you can almost hear the menacing music playing in the background).

What follows is a classic episode of the good-cop-bad-cop game with your salesman pretending to be arguing for you. I say pretending because the manager and your salesman work for the same organization, are both on commission, and both stand to benefit from you paying a higher price. They’re on the same side, get it?

This sad comedy plays out several times during the negotiations with the salesman conducting a physically impressive begging routine, while his manager makes exaggerated side to side motions with his face as if to say “definitely not”—all playing out in a corner office with glass walls so you can see the drama unfold inside. Finally, after your salesman has done “all he can”, the manager makes a quick guest appearance to deliver the let-me-give-you-our-bottom-line speech.

You’re uncomfortable with what you’re hearing, so the manager brings in the dealerships secret weapon—The Finance Guy. Every car dealership has one, and he’s not your friend any more than the salesman or the manager are. You didn’t do your homework and set up your own financing so here you sit, at the mercy of yet another predator in a business suit.

Another layer of complication will be added if you’re relying on the dealer to take your current car as a trade in. Enter yet another manager if you do.

They’re coming at you in waves and all you feel is…exhausted.

If this all sounds familiar to you, it isn’t an accident. It’s a script.

You’re weakened emotional state

Compounding the tag team fiasco described above is the emotional roller coaster you’re on. You’re hoping to enter one of the most blissful states of the human condition—buying a new car. Let’s be honest, it’s exciting. You’re practically entering a new phase in your life. After all, if we are what we drive, you’re about to become a new person. It doesn’t get any better than that.

You’re on an emotional high in a place where the primary objective is to separate you from your money. (Red lights flashing and loud sirens screaming!) If you’re all by your lonesome, you haven’t got a friend in the world in this place.

You’re counting on your sales person to guide you through the process, a.k.a. Negotiating Mistake Numero Uno. Newsflash: the counter party in your contract negotiations can never be your best friend and advisor in the transaction. Your goal is to get the best car at the lowest price, his goal—no, his mission in life—is to see to it that you don’t.

And he has friends. In the dealership. Usually in the next room. Waiting for the signal from him.

If you go into the dealership by yourself, you’re signing up to enter a gang fight…alone. How do you think that’ll turn out?

Things will go from bad to worse the longer you’re there. That’s the way it’s set up to be. By yourself, you’re toast.

You get by with a little help from your friends

There are some places you should never go alone. An abandoned street at night comes to mind. A seedy bar on a Saturday night. A couples dinner. The Prom. A haunted house (my daughter thought of this one). And a car dealership to buy a car.

It’s worth repeating: Unless you negotiate for a living never go into a car dealership alone!

No good will ever come of it.

Bring a friend, preferably one who’s pretty skilled at negotiating. In a moment like this, a lousy friend with superior negotiating ability will be infinitely preferable to a close friend who’s skills are somewhere below yours.

Why would you want to do this?

  1. For moral support.
  2. To cut down on the dealerships numerical advantage, at least somewhat.
  3. Another party who isn’t emotionally invested in the outcome will likely be better able to negotiate for you than you can for yourself.
  4. In an imitation of the salesman/manager mini meetings, you can ask for a few minutes alone with your friend to discuss the transaction—sometimes all you need to do is to slow things down a bit. It creates doubt in the salesman’s mind—that can only help your cause.
  5. More people = more confusion for the dealer’s staff to deal with; you’re using classic car dealer tactics against them. Bring all your friends if you want to make this really work.

This single, simple step can save you hundreds or thousands of dollars when you buy a car.

How comfortable do you feel negotiating with a car dealership? Have you ever brought someone in to handle this for you?

( Photo by brownpau )

5 Responses to Never Go Into a Car Dealership Alone!

  1. The last time I went to buy a truck, I took my son with me to show him how the process worked. The people at the dealeship were so unrealistic and arrogant, that I walkded out and bought a used truck instead. Six years ago, trucks were really popular and dealers were charging a fortune. The 3-year old truck I bought with 39K miles cost half as much as a new one.

    I watched the exact drama unfold that you described. And, I had seen this act before and I expected it. What was really bizarre was the salesperson acted like I was completely clueless. He didn’t even look at my face to see if I was buying the act. I interrupted him a couple of times and asked him to drop the charade and get me a price. But, he stuck to the script, until finally I got up and left.

    Next time, I will buy on the Internet or from a private party. I will never just walk into a dealership again.

  2. Bret – That’s so true about the script. It’s a numbers game and they know that a certain percentage of prospects will fall for it, so they stay on message no matter how you react. I have a feeling that the presumption of customer ignorance is central to the act, so they continue the charade even if it’s obviously not working.

    I agree with you, used is the way to go and I’ve advocated for it in other posts. The playing field is even more level if the person you’re buying the car from isn’t a car dealer.

  3. Good read. I had the misfortune in my early 20s to get a “real job” full time with a Pontiac dealership. The “training” for it consisted of watching GM product videos and then a series of videos filmed in the late 1970s (“and that’s a feature you’d like, mr customer, isn’t it!!??”)

    The sales process you describe was for me shocking, and as the salesman who actually liked showing people the vehicles and building rapport, disheartening to me to see clueless people who trusted they would be fairly treated in the dealers for making such a substantial and exciting purchase.

    One of my biggest commissions on a sale ever came when I innocently asked them what they thought their payment could be (I was learning too). They replied “we need to be under say $300/mo). I knew this was doable for them in this case so I did the Manager March and told him. It was a flawless discussion with him, probably the quickest ever.

    Sale was made, they left happy and my check showed I made about $400 more on the car than I usually would have otherwise. I decided then I had to get out and did soon after that one. It was a shady business 20 years ago and still is today.

    The other best piece of support is doing background Internet research ahead of time, saying NO when you are there, and simply not falling in love as an emotional sale with ANY product.

    Or better yet, as Dave Ramsey will tell you, never buy a new car..why take a 60% depreciation in the first three years of the vehicles life yourself?

  4. Very interesting read, and while some dealerships still conduct business that way most do not. I would say those tactics have gone to the way side, now that we are in the digital age those tactics doe not work very often. But the part I am concerned about is you make it sound like all dealers are still this way. Would you write an article on how your Electrician or Doctor did something to make extra money and how evil they are? You seem to forget that these people have to make a living as well and most do not knock people in the creek and Comment to Edwardlife did you ever follow up to those customers who were happy about purchasing a car from you that they could afford?

  5. Hi Scott – You’re an industry insider, so I understand your point. However, when I was in the mortgage business I was well aware of the pressures to produce and the tactics used by so many insiders to do it. Since car dealerships are sales and numbers driven, I doubt much has changed even in the digital era. I’ve known enough car salesman to know the game. And one thing I’m absolutely certain of is that for the average person, entering a car dealership is most definately about the most uncomfortable, unbalanced buying situation possible. That’s why I recommend never going in alone.

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