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How to Succeed and Fail at Car Sales

written by: •edited by: Tricia Goss•updated: 12/12/2016

Thinking about starting a new career selling cars? Learn from my experience to discover whether you will likely fall short or make it big in automobile sales.

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    How to Succeed -and Fail- at Car Sales Selling cars is not for everyone. A 2016 study by the National Auto Dealers Association shows a 67% turnover rate for sales consultants. That means that over a 12-month period, two-thirds of the nation's car salespeople quit or were fired.

    I was one of them. I have worked my whole life in the restaurant business while writing on the side. Jobs in the “front of the house" (waiters, bartenders, bussers and hosts) pay reasonably well, but have a low ceiling. Being promoted into management is a pay cut. Minimum wage plus tips is more than your supervisor makes. Your manager puts in a lot more hours than you do, with more stress and probably doesn't make more per year than you do.

    I felt it was time to move on, but the problem with switching careers is that you start on the bottom. My family can't afford to have me start on the lowest rung of the pay ladder. Where could I use my people and sales skills to earn a good wage at entry level?

    What about car sales? I had been writing about cars and I am a good learner. The average car salesperson makes the same or less than I was earning according to Glassdoor.com, but I am above average, right?

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    I Was Wrong

    I put my back into studying the product. I diligently followed up with customers. I tried to know every vehicle that came onto our lot. My managers recognized my work ethic, but I still was not making many sales.

    After four months at a luxury car brand making barely over minimum wage, I quit. I went to work for a larger family dealership that sold two mainstream brands and one luxury. I figured the increased traffic and larger inventory would help me.

    Also wrong. I quit that job after three months and got back into restaurants.

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    Why I Failed

    Now I can clearly see why I should have expected those results. I'm not really the right candidate for success in that field. Had you told me that last year, I am sure I wouldn't have believed you. To succeed in car sales, you need a few characteristics:

    • Low overhead. You need to be able to live cheaply while you grow into the business. Your pay might be sad for several months or a couple years. I had a mortgage and three kids to feed. I could not have skinny paychecks.
    • Youth. It will take years to grow as a salesperson. You should be in your 20s, not your 40s when you start. Your second decade in the business will be a good one, unless you are using a walker to get around the lot by then.
    • Sales instinct. I was good at upselling oysters and wine, but selling food and drink to hungry and thirsty people is easy. Selling cars to people is hard. You need to know when to shift from nice guy to hard closer. I was always stuck in nice guy mode. I'm a waiter.
    • Gift of Gab. This I had. You need to be able to talk to anyone, listen to them and read them. Hospitality people have this. Whoever you are, I need to get you talking, learn what makes you tick and figure out how to talk back with you. My background was good for this.

    If I entered this business 10 or 15 years earlier with a low cost of living, I could have made it. Three years is the sweet spot for car sales because that's about how often most people replace their vehicles. If you can survive that long and sell some vehicles, you will have return business. People you leased cars to, in particular, will need to make another purchase.

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    Why You Won't Fail

    As I said, be young with small bills if you are going to try this. Learn everything you can about the inventory on your lot. Know what separates the base model from the Limited. Know what used cars just came to your lot.

    Learn everything your employer gives you to learn. Do not, absolutely do not stop there. Your employer will probably barely train you. Whatever auto brand you work for, they will have certification tests. They'll expect you to know the machines. However, your dealership won't teach you anything about selling cars, most likely.

    You'll likely encounter the “Three Cs/Three Sees" method of learning, which are:

    1. See the cars
    2. See the customers
    3. See you later

    Amazingly, you probably won't be taught the sales process, from greeting to demo drive to finance office. You'll be expected to be born with that knowledge or learn as you go. It's awkward to be presenting paperwork to a possible buyer and not fully understand. Meanwhile your sales manager, who is too busy to teach you, is mad because you weren't born with the knowledge.

    You need to learn all by yourself. Watch videos at the National Independent Automotive Dealers Association site. As much as you'll want to spend your first days reeling in customers and making a sale, you will have to watch and follow. Learn from the successful sellers at your job. Interrogate the finance and sales managers. Don't let them push you into the pool without learning to swim.

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    Be a Shadow

    The best piece of advice I ever ignored was to partner up with a senior salesperson. I was in too big of a hurry to make sales and I thought I could do it myself. A guy I worked with spent his first three months learning from an experienced seller with knowledge in finance. Every time he had a customer, he brought him to his mentor and split the sale.

    This means he only earned half from every sale he made. But he watched how the other guy handled people, presented numbers and closed the deal.

    He cut himself loose after three months and was swiftly one of the top sellers there.

    So he learn to crawl, walk and then run.

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    Not for Most

    The first time I ever interviewed for a car sales job, I was told, “First, I'm going to talk you out of it." Too bad it was impossible. He knew it wasn't for me and he was right.

    It's probably not right for you either. If you fit the narrow guidelines I outlined, give it a shot. Keep grinding for the first three years. It will get easier.

    Imagine what it will feel like when you're making $100,000 a year and have people calling you to say, “My neighbor wants to buy a car. When should he come by to see you?"

    It will happen if you are persistent and have the knack to sell, unlike me.

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