To: Car Salespeople; From: a Serial Car Buyer

(Updated 10:45AM PST, Saturday 14 November 2020, see below!)

This is an open letter to car salespeople, general managers, sales managers, basically whoever works in a dealership. You can do better, especially now. Pre-COVID, the car buying process was cumbersome and incredibly time-consuming. I thought one of the few benefits of the pandemic would be a change in the way dealerships do business. Having just traded in a car a week ago, and kicking off the process of potentially buying another one, I’ve been consumed in the frustrating process of COVID-era car shopping. Here’s what I’ve learned.

I totally wanted a Sunfire or Grand Am back in the day

Well, first, I’m not sure what constitutes a “serial buyer”, but my car buying bonafides are as follows. In the 28 years I have been driving, I have been a party to at least 32 vehicle purchases. I can share the list in the comments if anyone cares. Now I’m sure some people will go “oh I know a guy who’s had way more” and others will go “dude, WTF, you’ve got a problem”. But averaging 1.14 automotive purchases per year means I’ve seen some stuff, both good and bad, about the car buying process. Here goes.

(Update!) Please Have the Damn Car in Stock…

Seriously, I didn’t expect to have to update this within days of writing it, but here I am. I literally just spent the better part of two hours in the car going to look at two different vehicles. Both dealerships called me this morning to let me know that they were in stock and I was invited to come look at them today.

  • The first one, at a crowded semi-mask-wearing Toyota dealer was suddenly unavailable when I arrived 30 minutes after getting the call that it was available. The salesperson was very nice, but said it turned out that it had $4,300 in issues that they had decided against fixing. It was off to auction. The only other similar make and model were several years newer and $10K more expensive.
  • The second one was just as egregious. I got a call regarding a vehicle that I had been on the fence about previously, but after a good conversation with a salesperson, I decided to go take a look. Literally an hour later, I strolled into the dealership. The guy that I liked was suddenly unavailable so he handed me off to someone else to “show me around the vehicle”. When we got to it, it was a different vehicle. He showed me a two year newer, $6,000 more expensive version. Bait and switch? Maybe, or just ineptitude.

I really didn’t expect to need to add this section, but this was pretty ridiculous.

Please Go Virtual

This one shocked me, to be honest. Car dealers are still trying to get you to sit in a chair, in a cube, or amongst dozens of other people at a dealership, to discuss “the deal”. This bugged me pre-COVID, now it’s just dangerous. If a salesperson won’t discuss price, trade-in value, etc. over email or text, I’m out. My best car buying experiences have all been largely virtual. I enjoy the haggling and “getting a deal” aspect of car buying, I hate sitting in a dealership for four hours to do it.

Back in 2007, I traded a 2007 Focus and a 2004 350Z in for a new Infiniti G35S Sedan and did it all via email. Literally all of it. The salesperson noted that they would need to confirm the condition of my trades, but he gave me what I wanted for each. Same with the new Infiniti, after some back and forth, we agreed on an out-the-door financed amount after trade-balances were paid. I showed up in one trade, a stack of papers was sitting on a desk. I signed them, and a dealership employee rode back home with me to collect the 2nd car. Still one of the best car-buying experiences of my life, and it was 13 years ago!

My most recent buying experience was quite good as well, but the shopping experience sucked. Most of the dealers wanted me to “come on in, take a test drive, and discuss the deal”. I have to imagine part of the reason that part of why my actual purchase experience was so good was because it was from a dealership that was three hours away. They pretty much had the car ready and papers printed when I got there. I get why Carvana and Vroom and other all-virtual car-buying apps are becoming popular, dealerships had better adapt quickly or it’s not going to go well.

Stop Calling Me

Are car salespeople the only people that still insist on using the phone for actual calls? I never liked talking on the phone, unless it was a girl I was trying to get with back in the day. For each Cars.com, Car Gurus, etc. submission, I will literally get:

  1. a form email thanking me for my interest,
  2. a slightly more personalized salesperson email, usually without a link to the actual vehicle,
  3. a text message asking me if they send me text messages,
  4. a follow-up phone call,
  5. a follow-up phone call,
  6. a follow-up phone call,
  7. and a follow-up phone call.

I get it, you guys need to sell cars, but when I don’t answer the first couple of times, I’m not going to answer. Some places will let you annotate your preferred method of communication, and then they promptly ignore it. Stop calling me.

Don’t Try to Close Quickly

Just like when you are trying to “get with” that boy or girl, you can’t get too aggressive too fast or you’ll scare them off. I’ve literally had salespeople ask when I’m going to “come in and close the deal” or “sign the papers”. This isn’t Boiler Room, you’re not selling stocks, I understand that you’ve been trained to close, but dial it back. Like with the “get virtual” section, follow the lead of the buyer, if they seem to want to talk it through on text or email, let them. Low pressure always plays better with most buyers. Put on some smooth jazz and just let it happen naturally.

Make Me Feel Special

I’m not sure why this article has an overall dating tone to it, but it’s not that different. If someone makes you feel like a number, you’re going to be less interested. I literally got an email yesterday that came from “Dealership Name -LEADS”. Another had “LEADS” in big letters in the subject line. I get it, I’m a lead, but don’t make me feel like one. I’ve noticed that dealership Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software and apps are usually to blame. Salespeople are typically making the best of crappy software.

I had one salesperson say that she couldn’t send me pictures of the vehicle (which was just listed and did not have photos online yet) via the text string we were on, but that she could text me from her personal phone with photos. Good adaptation I suppose, but not exactly convenient for the buyer. The same dealership can’t seem to reply-all, when my wife touched base discussing a specific vehicle that we had looked at, they would only reply to her. When she asked them to include me, I got a separate email without her on it. Likely a limitation of their CRM tool, but it was really annoying.

My favorite example, the same dealer, was the text that I got “Hi William, this is [name] from [dealer]. Do you know about [wife’s name]?”. That actually happened. Last night. I assume she was confirming that we were both looking at the same vehicle. I replied, “we’ve met”.

Come on folks, we can do better.

Clean The Damn Car

This is more my wife’s pet peeve than mine, although it still makes my list. Clean up the car, please! We looked at a vehicle yesterday that literally still had dog hair on the back seat. It has been listed for well over a week, so there is no excuse that it “just came in on trade”. Also, the shift knob wasn’t actually attached, it was just placed over the stick and spun freely, and the gas cap wouldn’t stay closed. The vehicle also had no carpeting, which isn’t particularly uncommon in that type of vehicle (giving it a way a little there) but it was not clear in the photos, and after a 50 minute drive each way to see it, we were annoyed.

“Closing”

In summary, I know a lot of salespeople are doing their best. In DC many even have English as a second language, and their grasp of it is way better than my grasp of their native language. Add in COVID and technology challenges, and I’m not saying they aren’t trying. But some of the same systemic issues have plagued dealership buying experiences for decades and no one seems to be trying to change that. But Carvana, and sites like it, are only going to increase. Brick and mortar dealerships are in an “adapt or die” phase.

Some of these changes are easy, take your time, utilize virtual communication on all aspects of “the deal”, and stop trying to close quick.

38 Comments

  1. What type of dealership are you dealing with ? Having been in the business and sold a few along the way I have never seen anybody selling a dirty vehicle unless it was a back row special being sold wholesale. Also how do you trade in a car if you are not buying at the same time and place ?

    1. Oddly it was a Volvo dealer, very nice inside. I get the sense that, like some dealers, they don’t invest as much in their used cars. And I’ll clarify, it wasn’t filthy, but we had just seen a similar year/mileage vehicle the day before at a different dealer and it was immaculate inside. My wife has a way lower threshold for dirt than I do.

      Also a dealbreaker I forgot about, if it smells like cigarette smoke, I’m out.

        1. I actually really liked the sales guy, too bad the vehicle didn’t work out. Funny follow-up, I cut my test drive short, came back and put the key on his desk and asked the guy next to his desk if he knew where he was. He didn’t, and didn’t offer to get up and look around, or call anyone etc. So I just left. I shot him an email and said what I thought, he was apologetic. Naturally, he also called me. 🙂

      1. I bought a truck from a private party who worked at a place that had a strict no-smoking-on-premises policy. He was a smoker. Every breaktime he would go to the offsite parking lot, sit in the truck, and light up.

        There were probably a couple hundred butts in the ash trays, and more empty cigarette wrappers than I could count on both hands and feet. When bringing it home the first time, the windows were down for ventilation.

        A thorough cleaning/upholstery shampoo got out 95 percent of the odor. A retreatment took it to 99.9%.

    2. I used to photograph cars for dealer advertising, and taking forever for cars to get detailed wasn’t entirely uncommon. I remember one late-model 3-series (at a fairly big BMW dealer!) which the used car manager expected me to reshoot 3 or 4 weeks in a row, even though they clearly hadn’t touched it since arrival (undetailed, still had some of the previous owner’s stickers on it).

  2. Amen, brother. Most of my car purchases have been from private sellers, but I’ve had enough dealership experience to absolutely loathe the process. You’re probably more considerate than me, because I tell them up front that I’m a no-BS kind of buyer. If I sense even a whiff of “pushiness”, I’m out. Period. I don’t care how much I want the car– there are bound to be others like it being sold by individuals with more social finesse.

    I’d electively get a redundant vasectomy before suffering through another “traditional” dealership experience.

        1. But it takes literally 30 seconds to determine such things. You can burn 2 hours in a dealership trying to buy a virtually new car that you’re 99% certain is problem-free!

      1. The caveat is that most of my private-seller purchases have been with old cars that are pretty easy to evaluate in-person (i.e. fewer hidden issues). I’ve walked away from many opportunities, but have never been burned buying from a private party. I can usually smell a BS-er through the initial text/email/phone call. Plus, it’s much easier to haggle with an individual seller. I only bring the (best-case) amount of money I want to spend, and if I have to adjust down based on my inspection, I do so. If negotiations don’t reach my designated mark, I walk. Easy as that. I rarely spend more than 15 minutes inspecting and reaching a deal (or leaving).

        1. Well, I thought so, too, about myself. But I have fallen face first a couple of times. Once, trying to buy a Peugeot 504 in the North. 14 hour bus ride, 1 hour on the ferry. Upon arrival on the island, I can tell from a good distance that the rockers are gone. I could see the road driving it. It was supposed to be “rust free”. Seller was a church foreman and, back then, I thought religious people had some incentive to be honest (yet, I have since learned, some also have a solid apologetic backbone that allows them to…bend the truth). Another useless trip was to Eastern Norway, trying to buy a pristine Volvo 940. Seller was the club foreman for the local Amazon chapter, knowledgeable, kind, chatty. I arrive there, and my first impression are Chinese tires, mounted against their directional arrows, and a fresh, oily stain on the garage floor. Lots and lots of other nitpicks, I almost bought it. But the general impression was that it wasn’t worth the solid ask for a preserved future classic.

          After that, I have mostly bought cars locally. Apart from the Centennial, that is. Would have been an opportunity wasted.

          1. It’s rust-free when the rot has progressed to the point that all rusty bits have fallen off, right?

  3. Funny, when we bought the i20 last week (or the week before? COVID life has me all fuzzy), this was only my tenth car in 20 years of driving, and my first non-private purchase. Going to a dealer felt quite weird, but my wife and I had agreed on a target price, and an alternative purchase lined up. We didn’t think they would agree to our price, and were prepared to drive home empty-handed.

    Surprisingly, mr. Seller let himself get worked with. From a steadfast “no”, we carefully nudged towards our final goal, bizarrely we got within 30$ of it. But he dragged it out so much…taking breaks “calculating”, looking at us concerned, having my wife feel that we pressured him to a bad deal. No, he knew where he could go the second he went into work that day. I don’t believe you can push a professional seller into closing depression. So that part was just weird. But all our communication before and after was via email – documentable, clean, in proper time. I complimented him for that, too, when I picked up the car.

    That said, I was prepared to go 10-12% over private market prices. For that, we got a clean car, great customer rights, and a six month warranty. Even though I was slightly annoyed that the clean car was only washed, not polished. That’s what we did to used cars when I worked at a dealership as a teenager. Always polish, clean, spray carpets black etc.

    1. I love to go in with some semi-unrealistic payment target and seeing how close they can get. I love it when they’re wayyy off and still plunk the sheet down in front of you like “look at how good we did!”. Uhh no.

  4. You’ve got me beat. In the 34 years since acquiring my first car I’ve owned 31 street-legal motor vehicles, eleven of which I still have. I’ve gotten none of them from dealers; all but one have come from family (1), friends (10), or random private sellers (19). The only one I “professionally” acquired is from a small museum that held an auction to thin its collection, from which I bought a run-down example out of their storage facility as a parts car. The museum was in Great Britain and they boxed it and shipped it to me themselves, so judging from how everything was handled and the nature of the paperwork that came with it (or, more to the point, didn’t come with it), I’m fairly certain no dealer was involved.

      1. Yes, so much so that I felt bad about getting rid of the crate. The contents were, in fact, good ol’ 9540 RK 71. A guy at the museum built a very nice plywood container around the car (with its wheels removed) that cleared everything by about one inch all the way around, then hauled it directly to the airport. I got the impression they were happy to see it on its way to a distant land…

    1. And you have me beaten. Only 26 for me in 31 years, not counting my wife’s vehicles. I’ve bought 4 from dealerships.

      More interestingly, I’ve only bought 3 cars since getting married 18 years ago. That’s the most telling of my statistics. Twenty-three cars in 13 years, then a mere 3 in the next 18. Sad…

  5. My sister’s family had an overseas assignment. Rather than shipping cars, they sold theirs domestically and planned to buy new ones at their new home. They decided on Hondas. The dealership had about 10 cars in the showroom and another 10 on the lot, so two cars would have been a significant percentage of the dealer’s inventory. They already decided which exact vehicles they wanted–no need to kick tires.

    They arrived around lunchtime. The salesguy/manager/owner was locking up. “Come back at 1:30.” They had to plead with him to postpone his lunch long enough to go through the transaction.

  6. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve only bought two cars from a dealer, and both of those were dealers I had some association with, which I’m sure at least slightly tempered the desire for usual tactics. One was a beater off the trade in line, which was bought after about a 30 second discussion with one of the managers and a credit card transaction. The other was the Mazda I’m driving now (from a dealer I serviced) – being bought new meant it took a little more time to get through the paperwork, but still, buying from the bottom end of the market left little room for negotiation (knock a few hundred off the asking price given the slim margins, apply whatever eligible manufacturer discounts), the dealer actually counteroffered more than I asked for my ragged (and declared as such) trade, and the F&I guy accepted my many “no”s with no further response.

    For that matter, I didn’t have to deal with any follow up calls, as the dealer I bought from (and the couple other dealers I did test drives of other models at) were all clients I visited weekly, so they knew I’d be back in some capacity.

  7. When I bought my Mazda 2, there was a Ford Fiesta I was also interested in. The two cars were fairly evenly matched as far as my desirability for them, the Mazda had a more driver’s orientated interior, a nicer shifting transmission, lower price. The Fiesta was a few years newer, had fewer miles, better equipped, a gutsier engine. So it really came down to the dealership experience.

    The one salesman was super friendly, laid back, let the car speak for itself, and was completely understanding when I said there was another car I wanted to check out before I made my decision. The other salesman seemed rather annoyed when I said I wanted to look at a little subcompact, constantly chatted some sales pitch during the test drive, then put a lot of pressure on me, trying to ram financial paperwork down my throat afterwards. Needless to say, the second guy lost the sale.

    1. It’s like a short story with no resolution! Which one did you get!!!! haha

      Oh wait, you said Mazda2 at the beginning. Nevermind, it’s like Pulp Fiction. 🙂

  8. theory: the carvana model can only work because used cars on the market now are so reliable. prices are easier to assess against a standard data set because the cars’ condition is less variable. before the 2010s or so you needed a lot of trust in whoever sold you a used car to have represented it truthfully. now you know it’s probably fine if it hasn’t been crashed.

  9. I’ve acquired 23 cars in 34 years. Most were from private sellers, a few from dealers and a couple from family.

    I wholeheartedly agree with this post. Dealers tend to make things difficult. When we bought my Prius, we test drove one and the dealer gave us a low offer for our trade (something like $4K under KBB and less than Carmax had offered). I mentioned that I would try my luck on Craigslist and they mentioned that I should be careful, someone got shot trying to sell their car on Craigslist.

    I found another, 2 hours away. No need to haggle, their price was quite good. Negotiated the trade over email and I drove up, we each drove the other’s car to verify condition, and closed the deal. Painless.

    They should all work like that.

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