Confessions of a Car Man



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,



Automotive Recruitment said...

There is an astute professional aspect to a sales manager offering a 'spiff'. Sometime if salespeople see a car on the lot for 30 days or more, they start to think negatively about the car, even though there may be nothing wrong with the car.

Customers pick up on the salesperson's negative attitude to the car, when they inquire about that car and the salesperson's negativity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy (the car doesn't sell).

A creative use of 'spiffs' makes the salesperson break his/her pattern of negative thinking toward a a particular car and creates a short-term, intense positive focus on the car.

So often a car that has not sold for 30 days or more sells when a spiff is offered, simply because the sales manager managed to get the salesperson to ignore the fact that the car hadn't sold previously and offer it enthusiastically to a customer whose needs it meets.

David Teves said...

Duh! We all know what a spiff is and what its for. You sound like a guy who hasn't spent a day on the line. David

Anonymous said...

Dude, have you still got that 99 Dodge Avenger? I might be interested!

David Teves said...

Alas, the Avenger is gone. But I do have a Sebring convertable with a leaky roof if you're interested.


Anonymous said...

Automotive Recruitments comments are helpful because most of us reading this are NOT salesmen so it's helpful to read what he says. I guess your response to him shows the typicaly salesmans mentality (rude, jump to conclussions).
There ya have it!

Anonymous said...

I hope that people who come across this are not common people who are potential customers. I consider myself a professional salesperson and thankfully I work for a professional dealership. All 'Spiffs' are clearly laid out in the pay plan and seldom changed. And I like it that way. Not all car salespeople are absent of professional standards, as seems to be suggested by this post. Last time I checked, prostitution is illegal and I would NEVER want to work for your kind of establishment. And I am nowhere near broke. My 2 cents.

Ivo Beutler said...

Usually, a car salesman gets paid through commissions calculated from the profit of a car sale. Another is from in-house bonuses and cash spiffs from the company. It is a dog eat dog world for sales people. If you sell more, you get paid big time. But if you are far behind selling anything, even a used car, then it most certainly is not for you. It is challenging but rewarding once you close a sale.

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