My 3 Months in Car Sales

(Or as I prefer calling it, eternity)

I’m not sure why, but for a crazy moment in 1990 I decided to derail my career in TV advertising sales for the lucrative career in car sales. Knowing little about cars and the auto industry in general, I razzle-dazzled my way into a local car dealership that included LOTS of male salespeople and one lone woman. Back then, to be good at car sales, you didn’t really need to understand the mechanics of what hid beneath the hood of a Mercury Sable or how it differed from its cross-town sister, the Ford Taurus (Hint: there was virtually no difference other than window dressing). You simply needed to be good at selling. Or to hammer home the point, in the words of Blake in the iconic movie, “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “Learn your ABC’s. Always Be Closing. Always be closing! Always be closing!!”   

Trading in my knowledge of Nielsen ratings for Motortrend ratings, I quickly learned the salesperson’s ritual of the “walk-around,” best described as highlighting the basic features of each individual car. To female customers, I would point out the many cupholders and the little-known fact that the driver’s seat on the Sable was shorter in length to better accommodate female drivers, who were the target customer for this car—a fact I conveniently omitted when showing the car to men. Beyond that, people had few questions, and I never tired of saying, “Good question. I’m new here so let me get back to you with an answer.” Entering the majestic newly renovated two-story building sitting on the massive car lot, I immediately devoured the information available to me. Eager to learn, I attended our first sales seminar…   

“Remember to ALWAYS do the walk-around for the customer. It’s a step that CANNOT be missed.” The presenter was dressed in a bit-too-loud blue suit which I imagine he wore to every dealership for his seminars. He spoke in an excited pitch that left him no room for growth, even if he actually wanted to make a point about something. And every sentence he spoke was accented with an exclamation point. “And once you get them into the closing room and you’ve presented them with the numbers, turn the contract around so it’s facing them, and present the pen, letting it ‘slip’ from your fingers. That’s right, the pen will roll down the sheet, and the customer will instinctively reach for the rolling pen. And it is now in their hands! You’re about to make a sale!”

I believe an actual shudder traveled through my body as I glanced around the room, wondering if the other salespeople were as turned off as I was with this last bit of sales trickery, but all I saw were nodding heads. They were already practicing the “pen-roll” in their heads and counting their future commissions. I brushed it off and concentrated on the other tips I learned—tips that didn’t involve rolling pens.

But the “pen-roll” was just the beginning of a business that prides itself on upselling. While customers might think that once they agree upon the price, they are essentially done with the selling process, they are sadly mistaken. After we agreed on price, I kindly escorted the customers to the business manager, whose sole job was to cram as many options as he could on top of the already agreed upon price, and boy, was he good. So good, that he didn’t hesitate to simply add options after the sale was completed and the contract signed, leaving the salesperson the only option of having to “re-sign” the customer when they came back to pick up the car, having to explain why the monthly payment magically changed by an additional $50. “You really need the fabric protection. It will ensure your investment when it’s time to trade it in,” (It didn’t) or “Rust proofing is a must if you live in Michigan,” and so on. When I balked and questioned our business manager on his suspect practice of upselling, he simply replied, “I know you can resell it when they come back. You’re a great salesperson.” He was correct that I was able to sell the changes in the contract to the customers, but it most certainly did not make me a great salesperson. It did however make me a common car salesperson. I hated the business manager for his practices, and I hated myself for complying.

But I kept at it, surprisingly seeing very little in the way of sexist treatment from the dealership or pushback from customers. Soon after I arrived at the dealership, the only other female salesperson quit, leaving me as the sole survivor of the female species, a fact I used to my advantage. After all, I quickly learned that many male customers liked working with me, thinking they could outwit a woman in the car sales world.

They couldn’t.     

I recall only one time when a customer blocked my approach, asking to work with a man—a women, who said she would prefer to deal with a man because, “Men know more about cars.”

“No problem,” I said. “I’ll find someone who can help you.” And with that, I found the cockiest know-it-all in the bunch. “Good luck,” I said under my breath as he shook hands with his next victim.

We were trained to sell cars, period—working for the owner, who looked down upon us both figuratively and literally from his glassed-in office perched high over the showroom floor. Spiffs (added bonuses from the car manufacturers) and commissions drove us to steer customers away from one car to another, and customers with weak financial backing drove the business manager to offer inflated financing to those most in need of assistance. Looking for a comfortable monthly rate? This was music to our ears. No problem, we can just stretch out those payments a few more months.

And those hours… Most car dealerships are open six days a week, with hours that stretch into the late evening on two of those days. That’s 9am to 9pm. While we were granted a floating day off, as my manager explained to me on my first day, “Smart salespeople know to come in on their day off. You don’t want to miss out on a sale.” By the time Sunday rolled along, I was exhausted, knowing that the long workweek would be starting all over again.  

It took me three months to realize I had the philosophy of car sales backwards. I was approaching it as wanting to help people get into the car of their dreams. Instead, I only helped the owner of the dealership realize his dream of becoming king.

Heidi McCrary is a writer and author of the novel, Chasing North Star – available at Kazoo Books, This is a Bookstore, and online wherever books are sold. Follow Heidi at heidimccrary.net and facebook.com/HeidiMcCraryAuthor

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