Car Salespeople ARE Aggressive and Obnoxious. Let’s Stop Blaming the Victim.


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Enter the phrase car salesmen are in a Google search window, and the application dutifully completes the phrase with four suggestions: scum, crooks, liars, and losers. If you want to finish off the expression with a more positive adjective, you’ll have to get creative. The only choices Google offers are pejorative. To some, this might appear as evidence of self-selection, where a peculiar subset of dishonest male social misfits shows an innate tendency to pursue a career selling cars.

Searching on the expression managers are tells a different story. The top results: viewed as planners concerned with, responsible for, and often referred to as. In this instance, Google serves up only one negative word – useless. Considering the merciless caricatures of management stupidity in the comic strip Dilbert, I find this an extraordinarily weird dichotomy. In heaping our scorn on sales practitioners, we exonerate the people behind the scenes. The ones who are directly responsible for their reviled behaviors.

The same myopia exists elsewhere, as Jeff Toister described in a recent blog, Comcast Botches Customer Service Failure Apology. Do people actually believe that a recorded service debacle involving a customer’s request for a cable disconnect was “not consistent with how [Comcast] trains [its] customer service representatives,” as the company stated in its public apology? Or, was the acrimonious conversation caused by a deliberate Comcast edict, suffused into its corporate culture, and written into its policies? As Toister writes, “this situation was failure by design.” From listening to the call, it’s clear that an employee’s role dictates his or her behavior. And for every company hellbent on minimizing customer churn, a thin line separates customer retention and customer intimidation.

Role dictates behavior is a phenomenon that exists in automotive sales, as well. To understand why we persistently harbor negative stereotypes of car salespeople, we must consider the economics of automobile manufacturing. We need to understand how those realities permeate every decision executives make, and how those actions flow right onto the showroom floor. What we most despise about the car buying experience wasn’t engineered in the showroom trenches, but rather, at the tippy-top of the corporate org chart. Directing our angst at salespeople only blames the victim.

First, since the earliest days of auto manufacturing, achieving sustainable economies of scale has required monstrously large everything – from machinery, to production capacity, to quantities of raw materials and output. That has meant incurring monstrously large amounts of risk. So, from the very beginning, manufacturers recognized they needed a distribution network that provided hegemony over the retail channel. This necessary imbalance enabled manufacturers to transfer inventory risks to dealers, which included the obligation to sell less desirable vehicles that would inevitably roll off assembly lines. “Our planners back in Detroit screwed up. If you want the hot-selling Mustang, you must accept your quota of slow-selling Granada’s.” So in 1974, when your grandma wandered into the Ford showroom looking for something new to drive to her weekly bridge game, the rapacious salesperson who greeted her guided her straight to the Pottery Beige wagon model that had been parked in the same spot for over eight months, baking in the hot Florida sun. “Ma’am, this lovely color will always look clean, and the fold down rear seat will come in so handy!” According to script, the salesman got Grandma to say “yes” three times, and the deal was done. “Such a nice young man!” Little did Grandma know that her salesman received a tidy spiff from his boss for moving a car off the lot that nobody else wanted.

Second, auto executives recognized the crucial importance of holding a large share of the consumer market. In pursuit of their strategy, a questionable retail model emerged. Rather than offering dealers protected sales domains, manufacturers reasoned that saturating geographic territories with retail outlets offered a fast-track to market domination. Under this model, new dealerships were free to open near established competitors. But the industry quickly discovered that consumers did not care much about where they purchased a car. Instead, prospective buyers honed in on a single differentiator: price. To sell off the inventory they were obliged to accept, dealers engaged in cutthroat discounting, which decimated profits.

Customer experiences deteriorated as dealership managers learned that tired buyers became weak negotiators – sales prey, in every sense of the word. Sales managers embedded buyer exhaustion right into the transaction process. The de rigueur tactic required a prospect (or “up,” to use car-sales vernacular) to remain in the dealer’s premises as long as possible, to endure grinding tag-team “negotiations” designed to wear them down, and to starve them of time. The kiss of death for a salesperson was when a prospect left the showroom, checkbook in hand, to visit another dealer just down the road.

It’s hard to find a person who can’t recall an unpleasant anecdote or two about a personal car buying experience. But rarely do the names William Durant, Alfred Sloan, Henry Ford, and Lee Iacocca enter the conversation. In theory, these visionaries should receive the full fury of customer contempt, the same way GM’s Mary Barra has for the Chevrolet Cobalt’s fatal quality defects. After all, they – and thousands of white-collar managers working behind the scenes – developed the retail sales model that salespeople are tasked with executing every day.

Not every person who goes to work selling cars or conversing with callers in a support center is stamped from the same personality mold. Over time, people exhibit the behaviors that are asked of them. In 1971, an experiment was conducted at Stanford University that involved 24 male college students from the US and Canada. Eponymously named the Stanford Prison Experiment, the study arbitrarily grouped the subjects into two roles – guards, and prisoners. The experimental design called for the subjects to adapt behaviors congruent with their situation. What the researchers discovered was that the subjects, who had no prior background as prisoner or guard, quickly became immersed in their assignment. “Guards” began to abuse prisoners with unrestrained cruelty, and “prisoners” felt traumatized, becomming angry and depressed over their dehumanizing conditions. The planned two-week investigation was terminated after just six days for fear of furthering the psychological damage that had already been created. “The experiment shows how ordinary people who should know better and who are better, easily get swept-up into playing ‘games’,” Graham Hill wrote in a 2007 blog, Are You Ready to Break out of Customer Service Jail?

The Stanford Prison Experiment has been criticized because the findings were considered subjective and anecdotal. Others diminished its value because it was impossible to exactly reproduce the experimental conditions. But the experiment does support the conclusion that situations, rather than an individual’s personality, may be most influential in determining a person’s behaviors in his or her job.

The next time you’re asked to complete the phrase, Car salespeople are . . ., you might want to consider choosing kind, intelligent, shy, or congenial. We just can’t be certain about which behaviors they brought to the job, but found out they had to leave at the door.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


  1. Fortunately, not all dealerships operate in this way. Some years ago, Bob Thompson interviewed me for CustomerThink; and one of the exemplars mentioned in our discussion was Price Automotive Group. Here’s what I said about them:

    “Price Automotive Group. This is a group of seven or eight dealerships that’s based in New Castle, Delaware. Every process in the customer life cycle is closely managed, beginning with when a prospect walks into a showroom. Seventy-five percent of their customers complete the purchase transaction in under two hours.

    Of all of those people who complete that transaction in under two hours, 100 percent of them plan to repurchase or refer. Sixty-seven percent of this company’s business is repeat or referral. Their salespeople are very loyal. They have a very, very strong employee base. The average salesperson sells 50 percent more vehicles than their counterparts at other dealerships. Ninety-seven percent of their customers are A & B credit-scored. What that means is that they can give very attractive loan rates to their customers, as a result of attracting only the best customers.

    They’ve learned how to simplify, and streamline, the purchase process. At most dealerships, it’s drawn out and painful. People don’t like to negotiate. Price Automotive Group uses a one-price, extremely high-value approach to selling cars. It’s very, very personal. One of the things that they understand is that, in leasing or buying a vehicle, time equates to trust. The longer it takes to go through the transaction process, the less trust you have as a customer. So if it’s over two hours, you can watch trust diminish.

    They have been able to set up their purchase process so that it’s under two hours. When you go into a finance and insurance office, that’s usually an hour—hour and a half—before you get out of there. Purchasers are concerned about being pressured to get expensive warranties. Price has simplified the F&I process so that it’s only 25 minutes on average. Their people are specially trained to guide customers through the transaction quickly and efficiently. Both sides see the value. There is customer lifetime benefit. It begins before the sale, continues through the purchase process, the delivery process and post-delivery service and communication. And you’re working with a team, by the way. There’s employee continuity because Price staff is engaged and loyal, with very little turnover.”

  2. Michael: thanks for taking the time to comment and to share this vignette. I looked up Price Automotive on Yelp, and see that there are positive sentiments about their customer relations. This points out the advantages that companies can gain by not adhering to business as usual in the industry. Despite the pressures imposed by auto industry economics and retail structure, it’s refreshing to learn that by taking the high road in selling, businesses can build lasting value.

  3. Hi Andy

    Car salesmen are the way they are for a reason; it matches their personality type. There is plenty of evidence that shows salesmen have different personality types to the general population. These differences make them more compatible with the high-pressure sales environment found in most car dealerships. The personality selects the job people end up doing.

    It doesn’t have to be that way.

    When I worked for Toyota one of its more entrepreneurial (multi-brand) dealerships identified an opportunity buying up and selling remaindered cars of all brands that other dealerships had difficulty selling. The business model was based upon the arbitrage available from buying the cars cheaply and matching them very carefully to prospective customers who were likely to buy them for a marginally higher price. That meant creating a field salesforce that went out to talk to prospects rather than waiting for them to stroll into the showroom. Most car salesmen are vey uncomfortable with this kind of pro-active, relational, trust-based sales process. So what did the dealership do? It created a field salesforce from the ground up. One of its rules for recruiting field salesmen was that they should never have worked in automotive, nor in sales in the past. They preferred to find people whose personalities meant the could be trained to sell in the new way, rather than try and change the personalities of the existing auto salesmen. The dealership was highly successful in its new business. As the stories about its success spread its field salesmen became much sought after in other industries too.

    You can’t change a leopard’s spots. But you can change the leopard.

    Graham Hill


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