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Before you buy a car at the dealership, make sure you’re working with the right car salesperson.
As a former car salesman and, later on, a car buyer for an automotive testing website, I know firsthand that finding a great car salesperson can drastically change your car-shopping experience. The right professional can save you time, money and, yes, even turn this normally grueling process into something enjoyable. Working with the wrong salesperson can be a costly mistake — literally — and land you in the wrong car with a money-sucking loan.
“Most people don’t realize they have control over which salesman they work with,” says Oren Weintraub, who negotiates and buys cars for his clients as president of Authority Auto in Tarzana, California. In fact, shoppers can “qualify” salespeople — a popular sales term — similar to the way they qualify you, by asking probing questions about you, your job and your budget.
You don’t have to stick with whichever salesperson latches onto you first, especially if you feel pressured, intimidated or misled. Be willing to make a switch if needed. But how do you know? Here’s what I look for — and look to avoid — when I first meet and test-drive a car salesperson.
A good car salesperson ...
Values your time. Before you go to the dealership, call ahead and tell the sales manager which car you want to test-drive. Ask for the name of the salesperson you’ll be working with and if they can pull the car out and have it ready for you to drive. If the salesperson and car are ready for your appointment, you’re off to a great start.
Listens to you. Choosing the right car is about you and your needs. So ask the salesperson a question you might already know the answer to. Do they let you finish talking without interrupting? Is the response accurate and on point? Does the salesperson wait to see if you have additional questions before moving on?
Knows their product. Picking the right car means researching countless choices — trim levels (base, sport, limited, etc.), engine sizes and option packages. Asking a comparative question is a good test: “How does the sport trim differ from the base model?” An informed salesperson will answer with specifics and even explain how the features work.
Follows up promptly. If the right car isn’t immediately available or you need to come back later to finalize the deal, take the salesperson’s card and get their cell number. Call or text the next day. If you don’t reach them, leave a message and expect a prompt response. Even on days off, salespeople usually return calls.
Doesn’t lie to you. You’ll have to use your intuition for this one. But you can also rely on other people’s judgment by getting referrals and checking Yelp and online reviews. You can even call to ask the receptionist — who sees everything that goes on — for the best salesperson on the lot.
A bad car salesperson ...
Sizes you up to gain an advantage. Salespeople are trained to “qualify” customers, or learn as much about them as possible to create leverage when negotiating. Seemingly innocent questions, such as where you work, may determine whether you’re treated as a monthly payment buyer. (Instead of negotiating your monthly car payment at the dealership, it’s better to focus on the total price of the car. The best way to do this is to get preapproved for a car loan before you go in.)
Uses language that traps you. Salespeople are trained to use your own answers to limit your ability to say no. For example, if you say the car is too expensive, their answer is, “OK, but besides the price, is there any other reason you won’t buy this car?” Don’t work with a salesperson who tries to manipulate you just to close a deal. Watch out for language that creates false urgency: “We had three people look at this car earlier today. It won’t be here if you leave now.”
Baits and switches. A salesperson's job is to get you in the door. Your call, email or text to ask about a particular car or deal is most likely to be met with a "Come on down and drive it." But if the car or deal evaporates when you arrive in person, you're dealing with the wrong salesperson.
Wastes your time. You’ve been on the lot browsing for five minutes and a nearby group of salespeople is talking and laughing without looking in your direction. Not a great start. You’re tempted to call one over to help you take a test drive. But a good car salesperson will make a timely, low-pressure offer of help.
Tries to check your credit before a test drive. Some salespeople say they’re required to run a credit report before you test-drive a car. This isn’t true. And it should be cause to avoid this salesperson and perhaps the dealership. “Never let them run your credit until you’re ready to buy a specific car,” Weintraub advises. However, asking to see your driver’s license before a test drive is a legitimate request.
Pressures you. This is what shoppers fear and abhor most, and it takes many forms. For example, at the dealership I worked at, we were trained to tell the customer, “Follow me!” and march them into the sales office before even taking them on a test drive. If they followed, it showed I could control them. If you experience any form of this manipulation or pressure that makes you uncomfortable, head for your car and don’t look back.
How to ask for a new salesperson
If your salesperson shows one of these red flags, or you simply don’t feel a rapport, it’s time to ask for the sales manager.
“It’s never a bad idea to get upper management involved,” Weintraub says. “You can just explain that you’re not clicking with your guy and ask for a more knowledgeable salesman.” (If they’re not willing to accommodate, you can always go to another dealership.)
Ultimately, you should have a basic level of trust and confidence in your salesperson since a considerable amount of money is at stake, Weintraub says. But, of course, you still need to stay alert. As the old saying goes, trust but verify.