How to sell a car

By WittyKnitter

Used car salespeople generally have a very low rating in the public’s estimation. Some of you may remember the poster of Richard Nixon with the words “Would you buy a used car from this man”, a tagline credited to New York political journalist Noel Parmental.  (I found a copy here.) I once discussed the purchase of a used car through three car-yard visits, but when I told him I was going to buy it he looked doubtful and enquired whether I had asked my  husband. Well, it was 1983. Sadly, I had to grit my teeth and push through with the sale because it was the only suitable car that we could afford in a smallish city, and urgently needed. This wonderful video in which Billy T James buys a car is roughly contemporaneous with that experience, and for an added bonus it’s based in New Zealand and features possibly the best kiwi comedian ever.

People who sell new cars might be considered a rung up the ladder. They’re probably less likely to be covering for a vehicle’s faults – what they’re selling comes with a warranty built in. And of course their customers are going to be spending a minimum of tens of thousands of dollars rather than upwards of a few thousand. But years ago my late partner, who sported the number plate GAY666, pulled into a new car yard to be greeted by a bouncy salesman with “How are you today, Gay?” “It’s not my name, it’s a position statement”, she growled before getting back into the car and leaving. On the other hand, when we were signing the papers to buy her last car another salesman bounded over and confessed that he was often behind us on the morning drive to work, and our number plate gave him a lift every time he saw it.

Sandra and I (middle-aged women, neat but not very flashy dressers) recently went though the experience of shopping for a new car. Sandra bought her last new one (a Peugeot) five years ago, and it hasn’t been a great success. (What kind of idiot designs a car in which the computer is just below several reservoirs of fluid that can split and leak?) I sold my car two years ago, and this is the first car we’ve bought together. This may be the last car we buy using the University’s lease scheme. We decided on the brands we would look at: Toyota, Renault, Volkswagen, Subaru, Citroen, Mazda. We set aside a Saturday morning to see as many of these as we could, planning to make a shortlist of two or three to test drive. One of the specific things we were interested in was that the driver’s seat needed to be equally comfortable for both of us – we are very different in height and build, and one of us prefers an armrest and one can’t bear an armrest.

Luckily, three of these brands are sold by one company based not far from home. The first salesman – Citroen – was respectful and interested. We sat in the car on display and it was was lovely – but it wasn’t the baseline model; it had leather seats, leather steering wheel cover and a few other extras. Hmmm. Still, add to the shortlist: the armrest could be flicked up. As we were leaving a younger blond salesman appeared, looked us up and down and visibly sneered. Hmmm again. We decided that the next car wasn’t suitable – it was so close to the ground that we couldn’t get out of it comfortably, but we added a Renault to the shortlist.

On to the Mazda place where the salesman nearly knocked us over in his enthusiasm and a stream of technical information. The car was horrible – there was so much built in around the driver that we felt as if we were in a space capsule, and the non-armrest person (me) nearly had an attack of claustrophobia. We escaped before a fit of the giggles at the salesman’s behaviour destroyed our dignity.

The last visit for that day was Toyota, a brand we were really interested in. But, despite us being really clear that we were looking for a small car to replace our small car, the young man insisted in showing us a people mover that was ‘new in that week’, and visibly lost interest when we politely said it wasn’t for us. It turned out he wasn’t for us either, so we left.

Finally, we went to look at a Volkswagen. The saleswoman was helpful. She sat us down at a table to go through the features after we’d sat in the car. She didn’t talk down to us; she listened and responded appropriately.

Over the next couple of weeks we looked around on the street and decided that we didn’t like the shape of the Renault so much. So two weeks later we went back to the Citroen dealership to take a test drive. The pleasant man we’d dealt with on our first visit was occupied, so we were approached by the younger blond. He shepherded us over to an area where there were several cars of the size we were interested in. Then something he said made my ears prick up. Something about ‘low mileage…’. :”Sorry”, I said, “Aren’t these new cars?” No, it turned out, they were ex-showroom cars, with a whack knocked off the price. When we said firmly we were looking for Brand New Cars, he seemed a little put out. I guess we didn’t fit some profile in his head. Sandra politely asked to see a new car, and she sat in the drivers’ seat with me in the passenger’s. Check. She got out and I walked around to the driver’s side to take my turn – and he, looking the other way, shut the door, nearly on my arm. He was profusely apologetic, of course, but wtf? Sorry, Citroen, your sales staff aren’t observant enough. She’s not my ‘friend’ and this is a joint purchase.

Back to Volkswagen. The saleswoman we’d dealt with earlier wasn’t there, so the manager was called. He couldn’t have been more helpful. We took one for a test drive. And we loved it. So that’s what we’ve ordered.

So, how to sell a car:

  1. Don’t make any initial assumptions at all about your customers –
    1. what they can afford
    2. how they are related
    3. whether they are serious about the purchase or just filling in an hour or two.
  2. Pay attention.
  3. Watch.
  4. Listen
  5. Pay attention.
  6. Watch.
  7. Listen.

Not so hard, really.


  1. Patrick
    Posted December 17, 2010 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    How to buy a new car, for beginners:
    1) Work out what you want, critically:
    – space
    – seats
    – power
    – comfort
    – height
    – price
    – economy if that’s your thing
    2) compile a list of possible cars
    3) skip the French cars
    4) choose car.

    Can you pick where you went wrong? And I’m a francophile!

  2. Posted December 17, 2010 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    Patrick, you might well be right. But I was quite amazed at how the salespeople generally didn’t listen – we had done all the things in your No 1, and no-one has ever accused either of us of not being clear (and even forceful) about our preferences.

  3. kvd
    Posted December 17, 2010 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Thoughtful post WK. Takes me back years to when I cared about what I drove. Like Patrick I won’t comment on how to sell, but this is my take on buying:

    – it must be new or very newish
    – it must come from a dealer of long standing
    – it must be white
    – it must be sold if I ever have to lift the bonnet

    Don’t know, or care if I have got value, but I have got from A to B without undue worries for many years.

    (The white bit comes from not being interested in washing the car; fortunately around here it’s a badge of honour, but my reason is pure laziness. The bonnet bit is true: I have truly not seen the engine compartment of the last four cars I purchased – except for that final fatal need)

  4. Posted December 17, 2010 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    1. On honesty of car salespersons:
    Q: What’s the difference between a used car seller and a software services seller?
    A. Car sellers know when they are lying.

    2. [email protected] – white is definitely the go (I wrote risk analysis software back in the dark ages, including fleet analysis – and white, followed by yellow, far above any other color, then red, with metallic sheen of any color last, reflects likelyhood of accident.)

    3. As someone who is unfit to drive, here is the way I choose cars:
    a. Is it bright yellow?
    b. Is it empty apart from the driver?
    c. Is the light on the roof turned on?
    d. Does it pull over when I raise my hand?

  5. kvd
    Posted December 17, 2010 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Dave, I am aware of the white/yellow stats – but seriously, a dirty white car looks clean compared to a dirty red or dark blue one – so that’s my reason.

    I should have mentioned that not the last, but the two previous cars were purchased by my wife, with me just tagging along. I had to physically indicate to salesmen both times, at three different big name dealers, that she was doing the dealing. Their eyes and pitch kept wandering purposefully back to me. The guy who finally “got it” got it.

    Taxi! I’m so slow!

  6. Posted December 17, 2010 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    How to buy a car:

    Be dragged into the car lot while you are supposed to be having some relaxing downtime and are not, repeat NOT, repeat NOT, in the market for a car at that particular time.
    Grind teeth and stare into middle distance while spouse enthusiastically chooses car. Follow salesperson into dinky little fibro office.
    Say you aren’t there to buy a car. No way are you going to buy it.
    Salesperson lowers price.
    Say there is no way you are buying a car.
    At all.
    Salesperson lowers price again. Rinse, repeat until the salesperson has lowered the price to one so ridiculous that you would be silly not to.

    That’s how I got my current, ugly station wagon which I love so much I don’t want to let it go, ever. No, not in the market for a car… no way… nup…

  7. Posted December 17, 2010 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    My late sister-in-law’s name was Gay. As in, that was her actual name (on the birth certificate and all). Then the word was appropriated. You have no idea of the familial chaos that ensued.

  8. Posted December 17, 2010 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    I am curious as to why you would buy a brand new car as opposed to a discounted near new?

  9. Posted December 17, 2010 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    Having run fleets – white is the go – better resale value.

  10. Posted December 17, 2010 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    oops – i see your’e not buying but leasing – can’t lease not new?

    Novated lease or ?

  11. Posted December 17, 2010 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    I really wish I’d been able to find the video clip from the original Queer As Folk where Stuart test-drives a jeep straight through the showroom window after the salesman has explained that the model has a high resale value ‘due to being popular with poofs who die of AIDS’ after a couple of years ownership.

  12. Mel
    Posted December 17, 2010 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of cars, I ran down my fourth roo while heading into town to pick up a pizza last night. Kangaroos are real dumb animals, even rabbits usually have sufficient sense to get off the flippin’ road.

  13. JC
    Posted December 18, 2010 at 12:37 am | Permalink

    Selling or buying a car sounds easy compared to someone trying to exchange his gold for silver.

    I read this comment on an American trading blog earlier.


    eapotdome says:
    December 17, 2010 at 1:36 am

    I traded my a majority of my physical gold for physical silver tonight via craig’s list.

    It was a very surreal experience. Both parties came armed to the meeting. It felt like a drug deal.

    Prior to meetup we agreed on a 47:1 ratio.

    Obviously at least one party got out alive.

  14. Posted December 18, 2010 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    fxh – not sure what novated lease means – this world is a mystery to me. But it has to be new. We keep the car for five years and at the end have the option to buy it at discounted value or to lease another new one. Oddly, the amount that we will have to pay fortnightly for this one is less than what we were paying for the existing one, even though the initial cost is about the same. And both are considerably less than any kind of bank loan for the same amount, and the lease covers repairs and fuel.

    As I say, this world is a mystery to me.

  15. Henry2
    Posted December 18, 2010 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    Gday all,

    We have been separated for nearly 2 years now. We dont advertise the fact and so there are still people in our small down that dont know our business, they dont have to.
    If in the course of my daily business I come up against someone who doesnt know the state of our marriage or presumes that we are still married and should know the facts, I take a few moments to explain.
    I don’t put on a tanty and walk out.



  16. Posted December 18, 2010 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Henry, I’m not sure if you meant we should have talked to the salesman, explained to him that we are a couple. Well, really, it’s none of his business; we could have been sisters. Point was, it was a joint purchase and he was ignoring me. It’s salespeople’s job to be respectful of people, and it’s certainly not our job to ‘educate’ them about our relationship. We get a bit sick of educating people, to be frank.

    We didn’t have a tanty; we were polite, but we just didn’t go back.

  17. Posted December 18, 2010 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    Game theory. The problem with car salespersons is that a car is an expensive item involving a one-off interaction. They do not have a relationship with you, than only have one with the transaction. Real estate has the same problem.

    Used car salespeople have a worse reputation because the product they are selling is a lot more potentially variable in quality than a new car. Hence the much weaker warranties.

    A motor-head friend says the trick is ‘buy at 5, sell at 10’. I.e. buy a five year old car, sell it after 10. My current car — a Commodore station wagon — was 11 years old when I bought it: clearly I do not keep to his principle 🙂

    I like it a lot, as it happens. I also bought it from a yard whose technique is try to build up continuing customers.

    It is the fourth car I have owned: I have been the last owner of the car each time. My first car was a Gemini I wiped out in the traditional Australian way — failing to take a corner on a gravel road. My second car, a Subaru sedan, I drove into the ground: I got a several 100,000 kms out of it, so that seems fair enough. My third car, a Falcon sedan, was wiped out when the 4wd behind me decided that stopping for a red light was not what he expected me to do. (No, I did not brake suddenly.)

    Despite learning to drive in Canberra — the kangaroo capital — I have only hit a kangaroo only once: on the outskirts of Ballarat. In Canberra, on the kanga-risk roads, I drove as if they had an extra lane on each side — the kangaroo lane. It seemed to work. Alternatively, I was just lucky.

  18. Posted December 19, 2010 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] My cars, in order of ownership, were lime green, white, dark green and white.

    Bugger about the nuts, glad it was not worse.

    Going off clothing is a cognitive short cut that allows economising on effort. We all do it. Whether sales folk should do it as much as they do is another question 🙂

  19. Posted December 19, 2010 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    LE, that’s shocking about the nuts, but if only I had known, I could have gone as your vicar for the missing sessions, possibly for free! (In the end, I baulked at a combination of $650 and rising early the day after the chambers Xmas party.) Did you get to the Swadling/restitutiony session, or was that the very one you missed?

  20. desipis
    Posted December 20, 2010 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I’ll probably have to get a new car sooner or later. My current car is a ’92 corolla hatch that just seems to keep on going but I’ll get a new one if it starts to play up. A leaky roof and a radio that resets it tuning all the time doesn’t seem to be bothersome enough to justify dropping ~20k on a new car.

    I’d like to hold on long enough to get an all electric one though, as they appear to be getting close to being feasible (haven’t seen any for sale in Australia yet). And given I’ve just accepted a uni offer for next year, I might need my savings for other things for the next few years.

    I find it interesting the reception one gets when buying Christmas presents; trying to pretend you know what you’re looking at when in stores that you don’t normally visit. Then you realise you’ve failed in your deception when you get ‘is this a gift?” expressed as a statement.

  21. Posted December 21, 2010 at 2:33 am | Permalink

    *headdesk* {mutters} Probably thought walnuts come from walls…

  22. Posted December 21, 2010 at 4:38 am | Permalink

    Novation is a process whereby one person steps into the shoes of another and takes on their obligations (lease, loan repayment, whatever). It’s a Roman law concept that’s been adopted into common law.

    The analogous concept in insurance law (developed in both common law and Roman law) is subrogation. This latter is why insurance companies can sue in ‘your’ name.

  23. Posted December 21, 2010 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    Not sure how that relates to our car lease, but yes, its proper title is a novated lease. Maybe the company buys the cars and we lease from them?

    And while we’re doing legal chatter, I need to have a proud mother moment. My son Mat, who has come late to the study of the law (aged 34) is in his third year at Birkbeck College in London. Not only was he granted a fee scholarship this week because of the high marks in his second year, he won a publisher’s cash prize because he scored highest in criminal law, the subject he disliked the most. And he’s president of the law student society this year. And he supports himself with editing work.


  24. Posted December 21, 2010 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    [email protected]

    I wish I could have done more, but when I left he said it was very nice chatting to me, and that it had made sitting on the bench much more pleasant, so I suppose companionship was enough.

    You probably did more than the poor guy could have experienced in a long time – felt and acted like a human being should, made him feel like a human being.

    I’m unsurpised you acted that way, unsurprised nobody else did.

  25. Posted December 21, 2010 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Hah, DEM – I think you and Eaglet No. 1 are kindred spirits – she made a similar comment! (i.e. “Did they think walnuts grew in walls?”)

    In which case you are in serious trouble there…

    All kudos to Mark, WK. Who does he edit for?

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by John Hacking and Legal Eagle, Mary-Helen Ward. Mary-Helen Ward said: Just blogged about our car-buying experiences at Skeptic Lawyer: […]

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