Confessions of a Car Man


Make Those People Glad They Met You

A wise man once told me two things: “The way you can tell if a customer is lying to you is to read his lips. If they’re moving, they’re lying.” And the second thing was, “Make those people glad they met you.”

The first saying is a universal truth. I realize they’re not always lying, but you have to be on guard all the time because even the nicest of customers can be sneaky little bastards if given the chance.

The second saying, however, has served me well over the years. I’m a natural born talker, but not a natural born salesman. Off the field I’m pretty introverted especially so when I was younger. I lack the natural killer instinct that many good Car Men has. A guy I knew named Bill Cola once said that I have no larceny in my heart. That was the most perceptive thing anyone has ever said about me.

I seem to be incapable of lying to a customer. I’m honest to a fault—although I’m pretty adept at leaving some things out. I’m sure that over the years this has cost me a lot of money, but I just can’t help it. It has to do with my upbringing, I suppose. I had humble, honest, parents, and they passed that onto me (or at least the honest part). Good for my chances in the hereafter, but not a practical trait if you hawk cars and trucks for a living.

On the other hand, my inability to be a kink has served me well. I can honestly say I can close deals that others can’t because I can effectively communicate with most customers—assuming they’re not crazy which can be a big assumption. I discovered long ago that the reason a lot of customers are so nervous is that they are ignorant of what’s going on during the sales process.

As Car Men we go through the steps of selling a car every day. It becomes second hand. A green pea may be nervous when going in for a bump, but a Car Man has done it so many times, overcome so many objections, that it’ second hand for him. The thing we often forget is that the customer only goes through the process every few years, and it scares the hell out of him.

One example: While doing your write-up briefly explain to the customer what you’re going to be doing for them. Let’s face it; what we do is not brain surgery. Explaining to the customer that you’re going to take the deal to the desk where they will check their credit, appraise their trade, and determine what they can do for them is not giving away state secrets. It makes that goofball sitting across from you more at ease, and it makes it easier for you to present you ridiculous pencil from the desk.

Damn this sounds a lot like sales training, something I promised myself I’d never do when I started out writing this blog. But I feel it’s important because you do not have to be the loudest or the strongest to be an effective Car Man. You have to be yourself and use the tools that were born with to help you close the sale.

So what does “make those people gland they met you” mean? The customer comes on the lot expecting you to behave in a certain way. They may be thirty years older than you, but in their hearts you scare the crap out of them.” So unless you’re one of those gifted ones, so talented and sure of your abilities that you can close just about everyone (as most green peas perceive themselves!), use what you have so that the customer sees you as a fellow human being and not a fire breathing ogre with one eye.

Even if in your heart that’s exactly what you wish you were.

Talk to you later,


Eye Contact

Eye contact is one of the things they tell you about when you’re learning to be a salesman. As they say, “The eyes are the windows of the soul”, so it’s important to look into the eyes of your prospect to see if they give off any information you can use against them. Scratch that. I meant to say so you can help them.

But sometimes a customer refuses to look you in the eye, and most of the time it’s not a good sign that you’re going to sell a car. If after applying all your Car Man wiles on them and determine you don’t have a deal, I highly recommend that you take this opportunity to mess with is the guy (or gal). I mean you’re not going to make any money anyway so you might as well have a little fun. Right?

The most extreme example of no eye contact is the guy who not only will not look at you; he turns his back to you while he’s speaking. Not only is this guy hard to hear, he’s damn rude. Oh, he tries to pretend he’s looking the lot over as you talk, but if you do a little experimenting you will quickly discover he’s not doing anything as logical as that. If you start to move toward the front of him, he will rotate away from you. It’s kind of like the moon orbiting around the earth always showing the same side, but in the customer’s case it’s the back of his head or the side of his face! It’s fascinating in a piss-you-off sort of way.

When faced with this type of customer try this: start maneuvering yourself to face him and when he moves away, just continue the rotation. In the most extreme cases, it can look comical. There you are trying to align yourself in front of him, and there he is spinning faster and faster to avoid any possibility of eye contact. As I was doing this once I caught sight of a couple of guys in the showroom watching me. They were laughing their asses off. And the weird part is that the customer rarely catches on that you’re screwing with him.

This situation doesn’t happen very often, damn it. Most of the time, eye contact fearing customers will simply look off to the side trying to avoid any contact with your evil, hypnotic, car salesman peepers. A fun thing to do with these people is if they are looking off to your left, for example, you look off to their right. Then you have two people taking to each other but not looking at each other. Eventually the customer will realize what’s going on and it tends to really freak him out. Great fun!

Once I had a goof who kept looking down towards my shoes as I pitched him on a new ’78 Datsun B210. As it happens I was standing next to a long planter box. When my irritation point overcame my need to sell a car I sat down suddenly on the edge planter, my eyes finally locking on his. He jumped back as if I had goosed him and bolted off the lot!

I guess he couldn’t take a joke.

Talk to you later,



One of the most hallowed institutions of the car business is the spiff. A spiff is a bonus, usually paid in cash, given out to a salesman for doing something special. Since Car Men are broke most of the time, especially if they are married, a spiff can be a very effective tool for getting a job done.

The most common spiff is a write-up spiff. Write-up spiffs are a very popular weekend tradition. Cash is given as a way of motivating a salesman to write up people they would normally broom off the lot, like that wall-eyed guy drooling over the used Corvette. A write-up spiff can be $5 to $20 or even higher if the sales manager wants to target certain hard to sell items—such as an ugly redwood camper, for instance.

A spiff might also be offered for selling the oldest unit on the used car lot, like that 99 Dodge Avenger that has been leaning against the light pole in the back line for the last six months. Spiffs are also used to promote the sale of low commission new cars that Car Men usually avoid like the plague.

Spiffs are often referred to as “walking around money”. It's a little extra cash that the wife does not have to know about that can be blown on something frivolous. Bars are often the final destination of a spiff. There they can quench the thirst of a tired Car Man and help lubricate war stories told around a rousing game of liar’s dice.

Spiffs can also be a way for a manger to show his creativity. Sometimes cash of varying amounts are stuffed in envelopes and taped along the top of the write-up board. The money you win depends on your luck at choosing the right one. I have also seen cash stuffed in balloons mounted on a wooden board. Your skill at throwing a dart decides your reward.

My brother, Danny, employed one of the most creative spiffs I have ever come across. During a morning sales meeting he would go around to each salesman and tear a $100 bill in half in front of them. He would give you one half and tell you that in order to get the other half you have to sell two cars that weekend.

The maddening thing about the spiff was if you failed to sell the two cars, he would not ask for your half of the hundred back! In the old days we were closed on Sundays so you might have that torn bill skulking around in your wallet driving you nuts for a couple of days! Even on Tuesday he might not say a word about it. It would drive you so crazy that eventually you would go to the sales office and demand, “What gives? You want it back or what?”

Danny then did something very interesting. He would make a side deal with you. Usually it was something like if you sell two more cars by the end of the week you could have his half. He was a devious little bastard, God love him! He knew how to prey on your greed to get the results he wanted: sell more cars.

Danny once offered $100 to a salesman named John Cavanagh if he sold a car on a Saturday with half his mustache shaved off. John took him up on the offer, went into the men’s room and shaved. John sold a new car that day, but when he headed triumphantly to the sales office to collect his hundred, Danny pointed out that the vehicle had not been serviced yet. John could still get the spiff, but he would have to walk around with only half a mustache until the car was delivered on Monday. John did it!

Spiffs can sometimes be a lot of money, $500 or more in some instances, but many times large spiffs can be more for show than for actual payout. I know most Car Men would agree with me in saying that the higher the spiff, the lower the odds of getting it. In these cases the rules of the game are always stacked heavily in favor of the house. Managers think they are being really clever when they suggest things like, “Deliver five cars over the weekend and you get a grand!” They almost never have to pay out, and if you get too close to making it all of a sudden that last deal is a check out!

Then there was the famous baseball spiff concocted in the late 1970s by my old friend and general manager, Freddie Martin Jr. Fred was (and still is) a prince of a man. He did not set out to kink anyone, but he became famous for inventing a sales contest that was so complicated no one except him had a clue as to how it worked!

The contest, which was loosely based on a baseball game, lasted a month. At every sales meeting Fred would dutifully update us as to our progress. We would stare at the sales board dumbfounded. Even when money was paid out no one really knew how they got it! It was talked about for years. Whenever any manager came up with a complicated idea to motivate the troops, we would all say, “Here comes that baseball spiff again!”

One of the most enjoyable of all spiffs was a dice roll. In the old days dice rolls were offered for a lot of things, most commonly for items added to a sales contract. If you sold “LAHA” (life, accident and health insurance) it was always good for a couple of rolls. We also received dice rolls for the interest rate: the higher the rate, the more the rolls.

You would accumulate your dice rolls during the course of a week. The pay out was usually on a Saturday morning. After the sales meeting the game would begin. The guys would gather around for the rolls—a buck a point. There was a lot of bragging over what was to come. Everyone would laugh, cheer, or boo depending upon how you rolled. These sessions were a lot of fun and could go on for quite a while.

Danny was famous for making side bets. Double or nothing was his favorite, but there was no repeat of the half a hundred-dollar bill spiff. If you lost, you lost, just like in Vegas. Of all the spiffs they were my favorite even though they were usually not for much money.

Occasionally a spiff came in the form of a woman. I remember Al Gracier bringing in a beautiful young lady in a fur coat one Friday morning at Elmhurst Ford. After explaining the spiff, which as a twenty-three-year-old kid the details were the last thing on my mind at that moment, he presented the girl who opened her coat to reveal a nearly naked body. Not bad motivation for a Friday morning!

At one particularly rowdy steak and bean feed, the winning crew captain was given a bikini-clad hooker who was presented along with a string of prophylactics and a key to a motel room. The salesman (whose name I will not mention even though this happened almost forty years ago) looked at the hooker, eyes wide, and exclaimed, “I want to open my gift now!”

Now that was a spiff!

Talk to you later,