Tonight I spent two hours in a car dealership, representing my organization at a fundraising event the dealership was hosting. I arrived ready to talk to the public about what we do, the great programs we offer to women 18 and older. The problem was, nobody came. So, instead, I spent two hours trying to navigate the really strange world of car salesmen.
I immediately felt uncomfortable.
I spied a pretty regular-looking guy and started a conversation with him. Within two minutes, aggressive sales guy inserted himself into the conversation. The other boys mocked him for his lame pickup line (something about us both being in good shape). He made a weird, semi-insulting remark towards me then said, “that’s what I do, I pour the salt in the wound and then I make it better.” It sounded like it was right out of the PUA (pick up artist) playbook; it was revolting.
I reminded him that I work for a women’s organization, and that probably wasn’t the best tactic with me. He responded with a sideways insult about my sense of humour. A short while later he called me over to show me all the health food he had in his office space, including a giant jug of protein powder.
Time check: only twenty minutes into my two hour shift. Oh my god.
A young-looking guy stepped into the conversation, ‘apologizing’ for the first guy’s behaviour. I felt like a deer in a meadow, slowly being surrounded by hyenas closing in on me. Eventually, however, I managed to get him into a deeper conversation which turned out to be very enlightening.
Firstly, I didn’t know that car salesmen are solely commission-based, no base pay. This means they will say and do just about anything for the sale. He freely admits they don’t have a customer’s best interests at heart, they just want the sale. The average car has $1000-2000 profit to be made on it, so you can imagine how many they need to sell to make a decent living.
This young guy turned out to be the manager, at age 26. He said he had been scouted by a dealership straight from business school because he had the highest GPA in his class. He spoke with the cocky arrogance of someone who got too much money too quickly.
His whole job is to stand and watch his team working. If it looks like they’re going to lose the sale, he’ll intervene. If a customer is waffling about price, he’ll walk in and offer the deal, but it’s only good for that day. I asked him what he would do if someone came back the next day and told him they would buy the car elsewhere if he didn’t honour the price from the day before. He said he once let a person walk out over thirty cents, because he doesn’t want people like them (hagglers) in his dealership, they’ll just bring more people like them.
We had talked earlier about whether we love what we do. I told him I love my job, and that when I had been in corporate, I’d felt a piece of my soul die every day. He said he feels a piece of his soul die every day, but it doesn’t bother him.
He talked about the poverty he grew up in as a child, and how that is what drives him to care about nothing more than money. “I chase the dollar,” he said. “Money is what puts food on my table, nothing will ever be more important to me than money.” And he admitted it’s never enough, he’ll always want more.
He talked about how he’ll soon be relocating to a different town to help start up another dealership. He said he doesn’t have anybody to worry about so he’s free to move as much as he wants. He pointed to the ring on his ring finger. “I just wear this because it makes you trust me more.”
I was starting to feel a little sick. I joked that I was going to have nightmares tonight after being at this dealership. He said, “Because of the other guy right? I’m trying to make it better for you.” I responded it was because of the collective experience, but he didn’t understand.
Our conversation quickly ended as he was pulled away to a sales call and immediately protein guy returned. He had been observing me with the other guys and was starting to catch on that being aggressive with me was not the way to go. He tried a softer approach.
He talked about how some people put so much importance on the status symbols for their sense of self-worth, their identity. I asked him what kind of car he drives. He replied, “An old beater.” Status symbols don’t matter to him, he said. What matters is being smart with his money – saving, investing, not splurging.
I asked if he’d grown up in a family that was good with money, suspecting that likely his childhood was probably not all that different from his manager’s. Sure enough, he said both parents had been terrible with money. It makes sense, then, that money is so important to him too. We want what we don’t get as children.
It helped to begin to understand why these men were the way they were. They say we fear what we don’t understand and I have to say, through the two hours in that car dealership, I constantly caught myself holding my breath. It didn’t feel safe. I felt surrounded by deception, and the many tactics the car salesmen shared with me confirmed that’s what their gig is all about.
“You’re thinking about a white car, I’ll tell you they’re saying white is the hottest trend in cars this year. Who’s to say it’s not? If I say it to you, you say it someone else, maybe that makes it so. It’s all about perception.”
All I can say is, I’m going to start taking really good care of my car so that I don’t need to buy a car again for a very, very long time.