Confessions of a car salesman

How can you make sure you get the best deal on your next car? With showrooms now open again, our inside man fills you in on the tips and techniques to use, and recalls some horror stories...

Confessions of a car salesman

Confessions of a car salesman

If you want to know how to get a great deal on a car, you can do a lot worse than speak to someone who’s used to sitting on the other side of the dealership desk. So, we did exactly that.

Our tame salesman's answers to reader questions both educate and entertain, but because he was speaking in a personal capacity, we are respecting his wish to remain anonymous.

Once you’ve absorbed his advice, make sure you check out the latest deals available through our New Car Buying service. You're guaranteed to get at least our Target Price discount if you buy through us, without the hassle of haggling.

*Pictures used are for illustrative purposes only

The sales process

Which dealers tell the truth on fuel economy?

Q: What is the best way to approach a sales person and do the deal?

A: Be up front and honest with your intentions and what you want; none of that "what's your best price?" silliness. My best price at the moment is what it's up for. However, tell me what you want to pay for it and I'll see what I can do.

The sales process

Handing over keys

Q: I’ve had dealers say to me, "I’m not making any money on this". Why would they sell a car for no profit?

A: We sold a car recently for a net £1000 loss, but it was the one unit we needed to hit a quarter target worth many multiples of that to us. Dealers all around the country will have been doing the same, squeezing last minute deals, pre-registering and losing thousands on individual deals, because it's all part of a bigger scheme.

The sales process

Dealership featuring Mercedes E-Class

Q: If it's nearing the end of the month and you're nowhere near your sales target, do you hold back some sales to give yourself a head start for the following month?

A: We are individually targeted quarterly for both new and used deliveries, so if I'm not going to hit either of my targets, yes, I'll do my best to hold as many back as possible until the next quarter.

The sales process

Person haggling over car price

Q: How do I get the best price on my part-exchange?

A: Don't go straight in discussing 'best price'. This just winds a sales person up. Let them do their bit and value your car. And when they ask you what you want for it, don't say the normal dumb answer: "as much as possible". Take the service history, receipts, etc with you so you can use them to show its provenance.

Have a cost to change that you're happy with and tell them this, rather than concentrating on the part-exchange price. They can then work the deal to see if it's doable.

If it is? Great. If not, offer to give them your phone number, if they haven't already asked for it, and then leave. If you're only a little away on price from a deal, just keep calm and let them think they’ve lost you. And then wait for the phone call. Obviously this carries risks, as in you may not get the car, but it’s often a gamble that pays off.

The sales process

Ford Fiesta ST Performance front three quarters

Q: To what extent does a car's colour affect its trade-in value?

A: Depends. You would probably try and hit it a few hundred quid on something like an Audi A3, but bearing in mind you still want to do the business and not annoy the customer. On something like a sporty Ford Fiesta, Peugeot 208 or similar, a garish colour can actually be a good thing.

The sales process

ABS warning light

Q: What happens when someone tries to trade-in a car with a serious issue?

A: As a sales person, you should always ask the customer if there are any known faults with a trade-in; even if they lie, you can usually tell from their reaction if the car needs a full workshop appraisal, or if the usual car park walkaround and engine start-up (to see if any warning lights are apparent) will suffice.

If a fault is identified, we work out the cost of rectifying the fault so it can be deducted from the car’s trade value. But if it’s missed because the sales person decided a kick of the tyres was enough, they can look forward to paying for the fault, either entirely or up to a max of £500-1000.

Questions of cash

What is GAP insurance and should you buy it?

Q: If you sell a new car with average options, how much money does the dealership make and how much commission do you make?

A: Options have little to no bearing on the sales commission. The add-on products (GAP insurance, paint protection, etc) are what earn the good money.

Q: How much is ‘good money’?

A: Commission schemes are obviously geared towards those who 'do the numbers', but if you sell a profitable car with a number of add-ons you can reasonably expect to earn £300-500.

Questions of cash

Honda factory Swindon

Q: You've mentioned that manufacturers offer dealers big incentives for hitting their sales targets. It makes you wonder, how much do the cars cost to build? 

A: A ballpark figure would be 45% of the pre-tax list price.

Questions of cash

Jaguar dealership

Q: If a customer asks what kind of figures work best for you, rather than asking for a straight discount, do you feel more amenable to giving them a better deal?

A: Sort of, yes. I always feel inclined to help out on price as much as I can, if the people have been a genuine pleasure to deal with. It has been known for me to actually volunteer a little discount here and there, even when the customer hasn't asked for it and was quite prepared to pay the screen price. I genuinely don't mind losing a few quid from the deal for pleasant people.

Questions of cash

Approved used Audis

Q: Do you ever negotiate on prices of used cars, or are they totally fixed? I've found traders far more reluctant to haggle than private sellers.

A: On a £4000 car, for example, you would hope to start out with around £1300 gross margin. Minus the reconditioning cost, servicing, MOT, valeting, tyres, etc, then deduct VAT margin and warranty costs. Average profit per unit runs at £415 where I work, sometimes more, sometimes a lot less, even a loss occasionally.

Questions of cash

QUESTIONS OF CASH

Q: Do you still get many buyers paying in actual physical cash rather than just with a debit card or cheque?

A: I try to avoid cash as much as possible; we take a deposit of a couple of hundred quid and bank transfer for the balance. Cash is just a nuisance, because it's very easy to get distracted from counting it properly. I've had sleepless nights worrying about it.

Used cars

Used car auctions - your complete guide

Q: Are you more likely to accept a lower offer the longer you’ve had a used car in stock? And is it really "going to the auction this weekend if you don't buy it"?

A: Unfortunately, the longer a car has been in stock, the more likely it is that it has probably been reduced heavily in price already, therefore leaving little more or no more available room for negotiation.

Most dealers will not send over-aged stock to auction, because the preparation costs have probably already been spent on it. Everything sells in the end.

Used cars

Service book

Q: Have you ever stamped-up a blank service book or parked dented cars near a wall so the customer doesn’t notice?

A: The service book? No, never – that's bad practice. But I think any honest salesman will admit to strategically parking a car to hide less than perfect repairs and the like. This normally happens after a car has been valeted, when defects tend to stand out more, particularly if the customer purchased the car pre-valet.

Used cars

Honda paint shop

Q: Is there a requirement for a dealer to mention a respray prior to sale?

A: At present, there's no requirement to mention a respray or repair, but you can't lie about it if you're asked. If a car was in such a condition that it needed a full respray, we wouldn't have retailed it. In the slightly unimaginable circumstance that it slipped through in that condition, we would take it back without question.

Used cars

Car dealership

Q: Does the positioning of cars in the dealership mean anything – for example, are the cars closest to the entrance the ones the dealership most wants rid of? Or are there any other warning signs to look out for?

A: If the dealer knows the car is a lemon, they’ll trade it out ASAP. There are so many consumer rights laws that it’s not worth the hassle. Generally, if a car is cheap, it’s because it has been in stock for too long and they need it gone before it falls outside the terms of the stocking loan.

Used cars

Man checking engine

Q: What should I look for in a used car?

A: I look at every car I buy the same way. It's not rocket science; you just need to be methodical.

My method is to start on the driver’s door and walk backwards around the car, going panel by panel and top to bottom doing each wheel face – but not tyre – on the way.

After that, it’s under the bonnet, engine off. Fluids, mounts, drips, leaks, visible belts, VIN plate (checked against HPI).

Then inside: boot, spare, tools, floorpan (good indicator of leaks, rust and damage), parcel shelf and hinges (can be damned expensive to fix). Back seat, under seat, hinges, check straps (good for sign of over spray/mechanical marks) driver’s seat and book pack.

Now turn the engine on: listen for rattles and check the wipers, lights, sat nav, heater and radio.

Next, drive forwards and backwards, testing the clutch, brakes and steering, and seeing if there's a smell.

Finally, park it up with the steering hard over and check the tyres.

Used cars

Intelligent tyres

Q: Are budget tyres at a main dealer and on an approved car a warning sign?

A: It depends on the car. I’ve made sure the correct Continental MO tyres have been put on Mercedes-AMGs and Michelin Pilot Super Sports on BMW M135is, but others have had less well known brands.

If you buy a car for £5000 and sell it for £6000, according to HMRC, you've made £1000. So, that’s what you will pay VAT on. Now, if it costs you £250 to prepare it for sale and £500 for branded tyres, you've only made £250 profit. However, the tax man will still take £166 in VAT, so your profit is less than £90. If your budget tyres cost £200, you've made an extra £300.

Used cars

Odometer

Q: Are people in the trade still clocking cars?

A: It certainly still goes on, but I’m 99% certain that it doesn’t happen at main dealers anymore. The standard of record-keeping now required would make it almost impossible to get away with. In addition, most customers have online access to reams of data that make clocking very hard to hide. Online MOT, dealer-held service records, Cazana, HPI – it’s fairly easy to check.

Used cars

Nissan Leaf rental car

Q: There are lots of low mileage cars that are less than a year old on sale. Where do they come from and what have they been used for?

A: We have a variety of sources:

  • Demonstrators – all sold at six months, normally with a few thousand miles.

  • Courtesy cars – sold six-12 months, 6000-9000 miles.

  • Ex-manufacturer management – used by territory managers and head office staff. Normally six-nine months old, mileages vary.

  • Ex-daily rental – much maligned, but often a great source of cars. We only buy the best graded vehicles with very low mileages.

  • Bodyshop courtesy cars – we supply cars to a large body repairer. Most come back immaculate with 3000-4000 miles. Some are wrecked.

  • Preferential purchase schemes – our manufacturer does some astonishing discounts for certain professions. We have a few customers who change cars every six months for very little cost.

  • Pre-reg hangovers – there are always some cars from a pre-registration deal that stick. Often found as courtesy cars or management vehicles.

The worst incidents

Crashed Skoda Octavia vRS

Q: How often do scary test drives occur?

A: You really do risk your life with some people. I would say on one in five test drives you have a moment where you could have had an accident and one in 10 will be actually scary.

To be fair, though, it’s not just the customers. I remember a colleague taking a customer out in a Subaru Impreza STi. Half way through, he uttered the immortal line, “let me show you what this thing can do" and promptly parked it in a duck pond on its roof.

The worst incidents

29: Get it rust-proofed

Q: What's the worst deal you've ever had with a part-exchange?

A: Too many to name just one. There was a Vauxhall Corsa with oil pump failure, not obvious on initial start-up. A BMW automatic, which spat its gearbox out two weeks after receipt; turned out the drain plug had recently been chiselled off and was full of brand new ATF [Automatic Transmission Fluid]. A Mazda with a totally rotten subframe to the point that it was just dust, but with 10 months of MOT remaining. I could go on...

The worst incidents

Used car lemons

Q: Have you or a colleague ever knowingly sold a car with a hidden fault?

A: A total lemon of a car, no. A nine-year-old, £2500 car with a busted air conditioning condenser or an electric mirror that won't adjust all four ways? Yes.

The worst incidents

Crashed Volvo S80

Q: What's the shortest time between a customer buying a car and writing it off?

A: A customer collected a brand new car. He left the forecourt, turned right and then straight into the first lamppost on the nearside. A wasp had flown into the open driver’s window and stung him in the face.

The worst incidents

Registration document (V5C)

Q: Have you ever point-blank refused to sell a car to a customer?

A: Yes, and it happens more often than you would think. Some customers are just not going to be worth the business. It’s a sort of sixth sense and any salespeople will probably say the same. People who pick all kinds of stupid faults on a £2500 car, pointing out every little ding and cosmetic mark, insist on the cambelt being replaced even though it had one 12 months ago and inspect the service history and V5 and MOT history in microscopic detail.

These types you just know are never going to be happy or easy to deal with. At the first sign of a bulb blowing on their new purchase, they will be shouting CRA [Consumer Rights Act] and SOGA [Sale of Goods Act] at you and demanding that their warranty is unlimited and forever.

The worst incidents

Cleaning the used Audi A3 (13-present) long term test car

Q: What the silliest mistake customers make?

A: People who are looking to part-exchange their current car often fail to give it even the tiniest amount of love. I took a Citroën in recently, and it couldn't have seen a vacuum cleaner in five years. The interior was a biohazard, I couldn’t tell if it had alloys or wheel trims, and there was mud and bird muck all over it.

I gave the customer £900 for it, but had it been presented better, I would have quite happily paid a few hundred more. At least give your car a cursory clean.

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