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Updated on Tuesday, September 18, 2018
The parade of people you encounter when buying a car may feel like a confounding tactic meant to throw you off balance — but it’s one that car buyers can also use to their advantage.
You might meet multiple sales staff members and managers, from the first person who calls you about a car to the person who finally hands you the keys. We’ll introduce you to each one, what they want, how they go about doing their jobs and how you can best respond to get the best deal on the lot.
The salesperson who calls you on the phone
You could get a call if you filled out an online form because you were interested in a car. Or, you could get a cold call, a sales call made to you without your permission. While the first might be welcome, most people find cold calls extremely annoying — and “most people” could refer to both you and the caller.
Who they are. The person calling could be a dealership salesperson or an employee at a call center (also called a business development center), which may be part of the dealership or a third party company.
What they want. If the person is a call center employee, their goal is to bring customers to the lot. If the person calling is an auto salesperson, they don’t just want you to come in, they want to sell you a car directly.
How they do it. Both call center employees and car salespeople will use charisma to convince you to come and look at cars. Because call center employees usually receive an appointment-based commission — they may get paid for each person who visits the dealership, whether you buy or not — they might disregard any concerns you may have about credit requirements.
Auto salespeople are paid for selling cars, not getting people in the door, so they may ask more questions to figure out if you are worth pursuing. They don’t want to waste their time on customers who can’t afford a vehicle. If they think you can afford a car, they want to make sure that you ask for them specifically. They may repeat their name often or have you write it down as they have lots of competition, even from other salespeople within the same dealership.
Response tactics. If you simply don’t want them to call, say so and tell them to take your number off the call list. If you are interested in what they’re saying, ask for more information and find out if they’re a call center employee or a car salesperson. If you want, you could set an appointment, but before you go to the dealership, make sure you do your own research on prices or any sale the person described. If you’re serious about getting a car, definitely get an auto loan preapproval before setting foot on the lot. Read more on why you should get an auto loan preapproval here.
The regular car salesperson
That stereotypical guy with slicked-back hair in a plaid suit waiting around like a vulture for you to pull up in the parking lot? He still exists, though he may have upgraded to a polo shirt and slacks. This is the most common job at a car dealership.
Who they are. They are usually very good at dealing with people — however, they are usually not experts in cars, and are probably even new to the industry. There is extremely high turnover in auto sales, due to high stress and long hours.
What they want. They want you to buy a car, but much of the process is out of their hands. They don’t set the prices and, like you, they’re at the mercy of a lender’s decision. If they spend five hours with you and you don’t buy for some reason, they may not get paid for their time or risking their lives on a test drive. They want things to go quickly and smoothly to maximize their chances of selling the most cars. And more to this point, they usually want to build a relationship with you in hopes of future business with you or your family and friends.
How they do it. They’re charming or, rather, they try to be. Each salesperson strikes a balance between being helpful (sometimes to the point of subservience) and being an authoritative figure. Even if they’re new to the industry, a salesperson will probably know more about the car-buying process and prices than you do. Don’t feel bad — it’s their job, while you might only buy a car once every seven years.
Salespeople may negotiate on a car price or monthly payment with you; the level to which they are allowed to negotiate depends on the dealership. No matter who sits down with you to talk about money, a common tool is a sheet called the “four square.” This worksheet breaks down four aspects of a car deal.
An old trick is to discuss everything but the car price in the four square. Instead of writing price negotiations in the price box, the salesperson might write reasons why the price is set, such as “leather seats” and “good gas mileage.” At the end of negotiations, the salesperson may write out and ask you to initial or sign something along the lines of “I agree to buy the car today if the monthly payment is less than $600, with a $5,000 trade-in and $1,000 down.” Notice that the price of the car isn’t mentioned.
Response tactics. Don’t let them get away with distracting you from negotiating on the price of the car. A big and most common mistake is focusing on the monthly payment — focusing just on the payment makes it easier for the dealership to keep the car price high and slip other things into your payment. Instead, focus on the car’s price. Look at the monthly payment only after you get the car’s price — if you get a good price on the car, the monthly payment will follow.
Tip: Don’t be afraid to write on the four square yourself. If the salesperson tries to make you focus on everything but the car price, redirect them. Circle the car price that’s written on the four square and put a down arrow next to it. Say that the price needs to go down before you talk about anything else.
The mercenary car salesperson
These are your typical fast-talkers, paid-on-commission-only salespeople who are drastically aggressive, even when saying “yes, ma’am.”
Who they are. They are experts at making money in car sales. They’ve been in the industry a while and take no prisoners. They can cover a few car dealership job positions and function as a salesperson, closer and finance manager (positions we’ll go over next).
They’re generally not dealership employees, but part of another business that a dealership hires to come in and drive up sales for a short period of time. This makes any social repercussions from their work easy to avoid for both them and the dealership, as they usually do this type of work on the road, far from home, and the dealership can tell any disgruntled customers that person doesn’t work for them anymore.
What they want. Because they are usually straight commission, they’re driven to make a profit, and a large profit at that, on one deal. They probably aren’t interested in networking to build a relationship with you and eventually sell a car to your friends and family.
How they do it. The faster everything goes, the less time you have to think. They will try to hurry you through everything from picking a car to a test drive to signing on the dotted line. Remember, a car deal isn’t just about the car — it’s also about the financing and related products, everything from special wax to warranties, GAP waivers and service contracts. They may also use a four square — and before you realize it, a large portion of your money isn’t even being spent on the car itself.
Response tactics. Slow the process down. Tell them they can go help other customers while you think about something. When discussing monthly payments, tell them to explain everything that the payment includes — that way they can’t slip in a warranty or something similar you don’t want. And if they’re too aggressive, find a manager to ask for a different salesperson or go to a different dealership.
If a salesperson can’t get a commitment from you to buy a car, they may do a T.O., or a “turn over” to the closer; this is usually the sales manager. It’s the next step up from a salesperson in the hierarchy of a car dealership.
Who they are. Savvy negotiators who climbed their way up from being salespeople; they have years of experience and function as operational leaders in the dealership.
What they want. Their first order of business might be to prevent you from walking away. Their last order of business is to have you agree to buy a car at a certain price or monthly payment. They want you to make a commitment to buy.
How they do it. Establishing a rapport with you is important. You might have spent hours with the salesperson and things didn’t go smoothly (or they probably wouldn’t be there). They know that you see them as a random new person walking in to discuss your personal finances — which is to say, they need to quickly convince you to trust them enough to listen — and maybe spend several thousand dollars.
Response tactics. Look at the logic of what they’re saying. The best way to respond is to have other options. If they tell you, “This is a great price for this car!” show them the car’s value as stated in an industry source like the National Automobile Dealer Association’s guides, a free online resource. If they tell you, “This is the best APR you can get!” show them another loan offer or go get one from your bank or credit union to see if that’s true — it could mean thousands off the total cost. If you’re concerned about multiple hard credit pulls damaging your score, know that you can shop around for the best APR without being penalized; getting multiple loan offers within a 14-day window will not hurt your credit any more than getting one loan offer.
The finance manager
A finance manager’s expertise is to increase the total amount you’re paying for the car deal, one way or another. They can also be called the business manager, the F&I manager (finance and insurance) and, inside the dealership, “the spinner,” because they spin the paperwork around on the desk for everyone to sign. It’s considered one of the cushier types of jobs at a car dealership, as it requires a personal office and a lot of sitting inside, instead of walking around outside in whatever the weather is.
Who they are. They are usually experienced car salespeople who climbed the ladder and went through a certification program. They are on par with sales managers, but specialize in negotiating on two levels — with both lenders and customers.
What they want. They want you to spend more money, largely by convincing you to buy add-ons such as warranties, service contracts and GAP, which helps their bottom line. They also want the lender to give a finance offer that will let the dealership make the most money.
How they do it. They use the same principles as magicians — they show and hide things very selectively. If you agreed to buy the car for a payment under $600, the finance manager might tell you something along these lines: “I have good news! I convinced the bank to lower your payment. They had it at $630 but I talked them down to $615 and that’s with a warranty. Sound good? Sign here. Now there’s also a pre-paid maintenance plan we offer…”
What they aren’t saying in this example is that without the warranty, your payment is actually $580 — and they definitely wouldn’t tell you they increased your APR. So if you agreed to the $615 payment plus the maintenance plan, that’s an extra $54 a month for 72 months — you just paid the dealer nearly $4,000 for things other than the car. We break it down below:
Response tactics. Much like you did with the salesperson or the closer, don’t just say “OK” to a monthly payment. Ask what the payment includes and then talk about the total price for each thing. You should not be required to buy anything in order to get a loan or a better deal on a loan. If they say otherwise, tell them to show the requirement to you in writing.
If your APR is over what you think it should be, tell them to “drop the points and take the flat.” When a dealer makes money by increasing your APR, it’s called making points (APR points). But a dealer can still make money by taking a flat rate from the lender instead of making points. Of course, to know what APR you deserve, you should get preapproved loan offers from other lenders before you go to the dealership to shop for cars.
The general manager
If a dealership is a kingdom, the general manager (GM) is king — this person is at the top of the hierarchy of a car dealership.
Who they are. They are in charge of the entire dealership, from the janitors to the managers. They are ultimately responsible for dealership profitability and are held to that by the owner(s). They may have started their careers as a salesperson.
What they want. If you as a customer meet the GM (unlikely, though it does happen occasionally) one of three things could be happening. They’re making rounds to raise customer satisfaction scores, acting as a sales manager to keep their skills sharp and retain the respect of the managers by doing some “floor work” — or there’s a huge problem that needs their attention, in which case expect a quick decision and quick result.
How they do it. Depending on what their mission is, how they accomplish it will vary, but quickly and with authority generally applies.
Response tactics. If you believe the dealership flubbed, make your case. GMs want happy customers and are usually busy, so they may side with you quickly. If they don’t, know that you have other options — there are other dealerships to try.
The service writer
After you buy a car, this is the main person with whom you’d interact if you take your car back to the dealership for servicing, from oil changes to complicated repairs.
Who they are. This person interacts with you if you go for an oil change or car repair. They put the appropriate orders in and deal with any warranty companies — in fact, they may literally run back and forth between the mechanic bays and the customer waiting area.
What they want. They want you to be happy so you’ll continue to come back for servicing and so you may buy more accessories or services from them. There are often bonuses and prizes for service writers who sell parts, accessories and future services to customers.
How they do it. The shadier service writers might tell you that you need parts when you don’t, or that you must have a more expensive part when a cheaper one would do just fine.
Response tactics. Look up what the part costs online. Manufacturer parts (such as Toyota, Ford, Chevy parts) can be three times more expensive than aftermarket parts (ones not made by the manufacturer). If you doubt something needs to be fixed or they refuse to use a less expensive part, get another opinion by taking it to an independent mechanic with a good reputation.
People behind the scenes
There are some people behind the scenes you probably won’t officially meet at a dealership, but may impact you nonetheless.
- Porters. They may drive off in your trade-in car or bring your new car up to you. In the service drive they could take your car to the mechanic bay and back to the customer area. They drive cars to and from different car lots.
- Detailers. They clean cars inside and out both as basic upkeep on the cars that are for sale and as a final cleaning after you decide to buy the car, before you receive the keys.
- Finance director. This person is the head of finance managers. They could step in if there’s a complication with car title paperwork if you need your new car registered out of state or your trade-in has an out-of-state title or registration.
- General sales manager. This person trains sales staff and is the head of sales managers.
- Internet sales manager. This person is usually the head of the internal dealership call center, if it has one, and works with the marketing team to post the vehicle details and photos you see online.