The process of purchasing a vehicle has a lot of moving parts. You have to haggle with salespeople over the price, negotiate with banks and finance managers for a loan or lease, and try to strike a deal for your trade-in.
Mistakes will cost you, so preparation is important.
“The salesmen are very specifically trained to separate you from your money,” says Jeff Bartlett, deputy editor of auto content at Consumer Reports. “This is a skill they practice daily, whereas the average car buyer buys a car every five years or so. This isn’t a fair fight.”
One secret to getting what you want: “With anything in the transaction, you don’t have to take the deal they hand you,” says Chris Kukla, former senior vice president of the Center for Responsible Lending, a consumer advocacy group. “One of the best things you can do is walk away. That’s one of the most effective negotiating strategies you might have.”
Sales pros have their own strategies — some so common they have names, like “the porcupine close” and “the Ben Franklin.” Recognize these gambits and you stand a better chance of getting what you want.
Here are seven tactics car salesmen use that every buyer should know about.
1. Playing out the clock
Some car salesmen “use time as a tool,” says Bartlett. They’ll draw out the process until you’re tired and hungry, “which weakens you,” he says.
Your strategy: Set the pace by saying something like, “I’m here for a test drive. Tomorrow, I’ll come back and talk numbers,” advises Bartlett.
Shop around before you visit the showroom. When you do hit the dealership, don’t let yourself be taken hostage. Say: “Give us your best price …,” Bartlett says. Then, if the salesperson offers to go back and forth negotiating with his manager, tell him to knock himself out and text or email you the results.
2. Psychological profiling
“Car salespeople are very specifically trained in how to persuade people,” Bartlett says. “You’ll want to understand not only what you want, but your weak spots.”
Some will “play to psychological profiling to accelerate the sales process,” he says. “When they start asking questions, these are questions from a script that get them to where they’re trained to be.”
One question you might hear: “How much are you looking to spend per month?”
“It’s very important to keep that in your pocket,” Bartlett says. “If you announce that upfront, it may skew the process. It leaves you vulnerable.”
Your strategy: Break down the purchase process into stages and focus on only one at a time:
Choose the car you want.
Equip it with what you want.
Negotiate a price.
“Stay on your mission,” Bartlett says, and repeat this mantra: “Let’s focus on this. We’ll get to that later.”
3. The pressure of the ‘impending event’
You know what you want and have hammered out a price. Then, the salesman says that if you don’t buy the car today, you’ll miss the big sale or someone else is coming in to look at the car.
That’s a sales tactic known as “the impending event,” says Dan Seidman, CEO of a consulting and sales-training firm called Got Influence? and author of “The Ultimate Guide to Sales Training.”
“Pressure is put on the buyer to make a decision right now because circumstances will change, or the product won’t be available,” says Seidman.
Your strategy: Look the salesperson in the eye and say, “Are you telling me that if I come back tomorrow, you can’t sell me the car? Really? I bet another dealership would have it.”
“What you’re really telling them is, ‘Don’t play games with me,’” says Seidman.
4. The ‘porcupine close’
With this strategy, the seller “sticks” the potential buyer with a question. It could be, “If I could get you this monthly payment, would that be what it takes to get you to buy this car today?” Or, “If I can get this in midnight blue, would you be willing to buy this today?”
Your strategy: “The best way to bail from making a decision in the moment is to say, ‘I have to do more research. I have to talk to a few more dealerships,’” Seidman says. “All selling is about getting them to buy today. If a person walks out of the dealership, they’re not going to buy today.”
5. The ‘Ben Franklin close’
This one is a classic. Here’s how it works: The salesman draws a line down the middle of a piece of paper, listing reasons to buy the car on one side and reasons not to buy on the other side.
“In the sales world, we help them with the good reasons,” Seidman says. But the salesman will clam up and let you figure out the “don’t buy” reasons. This might stump you, resulting in an uncomfortable silence that says you can’t think of a reason not to buy the car.
Ben Franklin is said to have used this approach to make important decisions. It is “really kind of manipulative,” says Seidman.
Your strategy: The best way to defuse this tactic is to name it. Say, “That’s the Ben Franklin close,” Seidman says. “If you ever want an awkward moment with the salesperson, just name their close.”
6. The ‘alternate choice close’
This tactic is one of the most popular, Seidman says. You’re offered a choice of two things, such as: “Would you prefer that model in blue or red?”
Good car salesmen never ask yes or no questions because they don’t want to give consumers a chance to say “no,” Seidman says.
The salesman’s secret: Both choices are available. “In the car business, you sell what’s on the lot,” Seidman says. “A smart consumer might say, ‘I want to look at everything you have.’”
Your strategy: Take a lesson from the political arena and don’t answer the question you’re asked. Deflect the question by responding with something on a different topic.
If a salesperson tries to box you in with “the alternate choice close,” don’t take the bait. “You’re relaxed, you’re leisurely, you’re not ready to make a decision,” Seidman says.
7. The trip to the back office
The finance manager is one of the most skilled people at the dealership, says Bartlett. “He’ll have you pile on a bunch of extras that you don’t need.”
The approach takes shape this way: “Well, you’re spending a lot of money on the car. You’d better get the tire protection,” Bartlett says.
Or you might be encouraged to buy interior stain protection, anti-theft devices, rustproofing and an extended warranty.
Your strategy: Know what you want and need before going to the dealership, and stick to your mission.