Confessions of a Car Man


Pacific Stereo

Please note, the following blog entry has nothing to do with the chain of car stereo stores called Pacific Stereo. It is about another Pacific Stereo that existed a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...

In October of 1972 I had been selling cars at Hayward Ford for two years, and it was getting to me. Even though I've told great stories about those days, working at that high-powered dealership was a high-stress, gut-wrenching experience. Combined with a deteriorating relationship with my long-time girlfriend, I was starting to freak out. I needed out.

I had always had a love affair with music and “hi-fi equipment” as it was called back in the day. One day I sold a car to a lady who worked for a chain of now defunct stereo stores called Pacific Stereo. She gave me an introduction to the company, and I quit Hayward Ford to pursue what I thought would be a dream job. As it turned out, nothing could be further from the truth!

You know, you don’t have to love cars or know a lot about their insides to sell them. The truth is that sometimes knowing too much can work against you. Now I’m not talking about product information and stuff like that; I’m talking about a “gear head” who decides in would be great to sell Mustangs for a living, but can’t bear the thought of selling a Taurus. It’s a recipe for disaster.

When you sell cars you should at least believe a little in your product—even if it’s a Dodge, but the doing the job requires a certain amount of detachment. If you just love, love, love new Toyotas, it shouldn’t deter you from trying to switch your customer to the used Kia out on the lot. Chances are you’ll make more money, and in the final result isn't money what it’s all about?

Back to Pacific Stereo. First of all it was an extremely weird place to work. Did you ever notice that record store clerks (remember them?) and stereo salesmen somehow think they’re in show business? They think that because their jobs are linked to music and music is linked to rock stars that somehow they’re rock stars too! For me, an insecure, slightly paranoid Portuguese kid from San Leandro, it was like being surrounded by those jocks who hated you in High School. Though I met a couple of decent guys working at Pacific Stereo, the majority of my fellow employees were, how should I put it,arrogant assholes! And if you don’t believe me, watch the movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”. There is a character in it that is a salesman for--Pacific Stereo!

I soon discovered that selling what you love for a living is a bad idea. The reality of survival at Pacific Stereo was pitching components that had the most profit in it even if that piece of equipment that was crap. Like the gear-head that finds he has to sell used Neons to survive, I flat-ass couldn’t do it!

Another problem I had was the pace of the sale. Selling a car, if done properly, is a relatively slow, methodical process. Selling stereo equipment was what I would call a stopwatch sale. It was all about how quickly you could do it, a pace to which I just couldn’t adjust.

All in all I was a lousy stereo salesman, a disgrace to Pacific Stereo. To make matters worse my relationship with my girlfriend ended ugly, and I was a mental mess. When the time came to fire me, the manager of the store brought me to his office and told me that the company was getting rid of what he called “dead wood”, and apparently that what was I was! Is that terrible way to fire someone or what?

The experiment had lasted about nine months. My stereo selling days were over and I was forced with concept of either moving back with my parents and going back to school or selling cars again.

I chose cars.

Talk to you later,


The Perfect Storm

Ideas for blog posts come to me in weird ways. Yesterday, my wife and I were traveling the sixty miles to see our daughter, Laura, her husband, Tom, and our granddaughter Brooke. While driving east through the long valley road that separates our home in the Sacramento Delta from the town of Plymouth in the Sierra foothills, vibrant green from the winter rain and spotted with beautiful Live Oaks, I started thinking about the car business.

Sick, huh?

The day before, Saturday, my boss John and I were real busy. Sold three cars which for a little pot lot with only two employees is pretty good. At one time we were so busy John actually freaked out a little. I felt great. I can multi-task better than a mother with triplets. It got me thinking about other Saturdays over the years, those special days where all the cosmic forces seem to come together to create a car business version of the perfect storm.

It can start at any time. Hopefully there is the respectful calm before the storm so the salesmen can load up with caffeine and bullshit to prepare themselves for the day that lay ahead. Then it begins. Up after up after up. Everything is smooth at first. The salesmen line up to take their chances on The Others, some reasonable, some apparently from Hell. But on these special days it goes beyond that, a controlled chaos that begins suddenly and can last the afternoon and into the night.

The managers, ever vigilant at first, become busy shifting through the write-ups, separating the credit criminals from the credit worthy, the buyers from the crazy people. At some point the salesmen out on the line are all but forgotten. They are left own their own to do what they want. This is where the fun begins: a lot full of customers, no one looking over your shoulder, the up list all but forgotten, your chance to do some serious cherry picking.

As we drove toward the toward Plymouth with dark spring rain clouds above us, I wasn’t thinking about the actual act of finding the buyer in a sea of strokers, I was thinking about the feeling, a feeling hard to describe if you haven’t experienced it. It's the car business at its best, exciting and vital. In that moment you’d rather be there doing this than anything else. Your outside life, your joys and troubles, are all but forgotten as you use your experience and skills to find a buyer and make a living for you and your family.

Does this sound corny or even crazy? Maybe so. I don’t think that The Others could ever relate to this. You have to be a Car Man to understand. These crazy Saturdays don’t happen often—especially these days, but when they do it’s a wonderful thing. And when the day ends you are left in the company of your friends and allies, exhausted, exhilarated—and ready for more.

Talk to you later,


The Three Things That Piss Me Off

As a car salesman there are three things that piss me off. First, it’s two managers talking to me at the same time. When I take a deal to the desk I want one competent man telling me what to do. A second manager, listening in on the first manager’s advice, will invariably tell you something different from the first manager. Whenever I am confronted with this situation I usually say something like, “I’m going to go get a drink of water. While I’m gone you two think of a game plan, and when I get back I want one of you to tell me what it is.”

The second thing that pisses me off is a customer that won’t go on the prescribed demo ride. You go out the driveway and you tell the guy to turn right and he turns left, generally a recipe for disaster. If the goof won’t go on your demo route, that usually means he is not someone easily controllable which means he’s probably going to be nothing but problems later on. It’s a good thing I’m not usually armed when I go on a test drive because there would be blood on the windshield!

The third thing that pisses me off is a guy wearing a L.A. Dodgers baseball hat. As a life long San Francisco Giant fan I can’t stand being in the presence of a Dodger fan. This situation presented itself just the other day. Generally I almost always have my Giants cap on, but on this day it was sitting on the desk when I went out to wait on this fat fuck. It wasn’t until it was too late that I spotted the hated Dodger blue sitting on his head like a dead squirrel.

For those of you who may not know, the Giants and Dodgers have been rivals for about a hundred years. It goes back to the days when the Giants were in New York and the Dodgers were in Brooklyn. When they moved to the West Coast in 1958 the rivalry continued. I was eight when the giants landed in San Francisco, and my hatred for the Dodgers was soon embedded in me like a malignant tumor.

I turned back to my boss. It was really his up, but he was heading out for lunch with his wife. I held up my hands and stopped his car. “Are you really going to make me wait on this guy? I asked.

“Yes,” he replied with a grin on his face.

“I can’t be responsible for the results,” I said.

First thing I did was retreat to my office where I grabbed my Giants hat like it was an AK47. I approached the guy cautiously. Dodger fans are sneaky little bastards; you never know what they will do when cornered. I decided to be diplomatic. “Hi,” I said. My eyes were glued to the white L.A. on blue. I just couldn’t help myself. He spotted my hat. We faced each other like gunslingers starring each other down on a dusty western street.

The first thing out of this asshole’s mouth was something negative. “I’m looking for a used Honda,” he said.

“Hey, buddy, let’s keep the conversation on cars not baseball,” I said. “You don’t like me and I sure as hell don’t like you so let’s keep it on a professional level.”

“All I said was that I wanted a use Honda,” he said idiotically.

“That’s it! Get your Dodger cap wearing ass off my lot!”

If you can believe it he looked at me like I was nuts. I mean he started it! I tried to treat him like a… a…

You know, maybe I shouldn’t have brought this up.

Talk to you later,


When A Spiff Is Not A Spiff

I get a lot of hits on this blog from dealership managers looking for new and creative spiff ideas for their salesmen. I sometimes scratch my head at the lack of imagination that is out there, but I appreciate the interest. If you Google “spiffs” my post on the subject is near the top of the list!

I was thinking about other ideas for spiffs and it dawned on me that I have yet to comment on the practice of using a spiff to scam car salesmen out of an honest commission. Here’s the way it works: The dealer puts an extremely high pack on his cars, so high that you are almost guaranteed a mini-commission no matter how hard you work for a gross.

Just to clarify, a pack is an amount of money, usually a percentage of the invoice on a new car or total cost of a used car after reconditioning, that is added on before the salesman gets his cut of the sale gross. The normal pack on a new car is usually between 1 to 3 percent of the car’s invoice. The pack on a used car can vary wildly. It’s sometimes fair, it’s sometimes a blatant way of stealing money from the salesman. I might write something just on that someday!

So in this situation the salesman gets a mini-commission. Then under the guise of a spiff you are given an incentive to earn additional money. For example, if you sell five cars, you get a bonus, ten cars another bonus. Instead of giving you an honest commission up front, something that is fixed and you can count on; the salesman has to jump through hoops to get the money that should have been yours to begin with! There are many variations of this, but you get the idea.

Any salesman that works at a dealership where the spiffs are more than the commissions should run like hell. They are taking advantage of you and your talent. It’s a win-win situation for them. If you have to work harder to earn your rent, they win. If you fail, they win too because they can keep the money that should have been yours to begin with!

Dealers, pay your salesmen honestly and up front! If you want to put on a contest or a weekend spiff let that be in addition to his commission. In the long run the salesmen will be happier and a happy salesman is one who will hang around and not jump ship at the first opportunity.

And while I’m on this subject, I happen to know the greatest sales spiff of them all: a fun place to work. The car business is tough, and these days it’s more than tough. This is the time that separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls. The greatest spiff of all is to go to work knowing that you are entering a supportive environment where at least you have a fighting chance to earn a living.

Now don’t get me wrong. All Car Men need rules. Our heads aren’t screwed on that tight to begin with and without supervision we tend to wander off, usually to a bar. We definitely need to be managed. So have rules, expect the best from your salesmen, but show them the respect they deserve and try to make the process of selling cars enjoyable and profitable for all!

Talk to you later,


Playhouse 90

“Playhouse 90” was a popular television show that aired from 1956 through 1961. Each week, the show would present a live ninety-minute drama. During its time on the air it was very popular; so popular that some Car Man somewhere picked up the name of the show and applied it to the car business.

A Playhouse 90 is a term used when one or more Car Men invent a brief, fictional presentation to a customer to help make a deal. A few months back I wrote about Al Gracier “firing” me in front of a customer in order to get a bump. That was a classic Playhouse 90; probably the most elaborate and well-acted one I have participated in during my career—even though at the time I had no idea what was going on!

The most common use of a Playhouse 90 is the hit figure. I won’t go into what this entails because I don’t believe in giving ammunition to The Others. Let’s just say it’s a simple, effective way of finding out what a reluctant customer wants for his trade-in. It’s one of the tools that any experienced Car Man has in his verbal arsenal to help make a deal go smoothly.

Now I know what The Others are thinking. Lies! Car salesman lies! Well, it’s not that simple. To be blunt, most customers are sneaky little bastards. We always say that the best way to tell if a customer is lying is to look at his lips. If they’re moving, he’s lying. Car Men don’t lie or deceive intentionally, but sometimes we have to take extreme measures to get to the truth.

In the old days car salesmen were never allowed to give a figure to a customer who was going to shop them that could actually buy the car. To do so meant you’d never see your prospect again. Everybody low-balled customers. So after they had gone around and collected lies from every Car Man in town, they would come back to you and you had to find the most painless way to bust them. Enter the Playhouse 90.

I once mentioned Tony B., a salesman at Hayward Ford, who could cry on cue, lower his head in shame and admit with the same sorrow he might use for giving a confession about robbing a bank that he had lied to the customer because he needed so deal badly in order to support his family. This classic Playhouse 90 was like one of those one-man shows on Broadway about Mark Twain or Abraham Lincoln, perfect in its execution and effect. With it, Tony had a deal. Without it, I promise you he wouldn't have a deal.

As I said I’m not here to give away our secrets, but I’ll tell you about one effective Playhouse 90. You have a customer in your office and you're trying to get him to commit to buy a used car. A friend of yours might stick his head in the office and simply ask, “David is that Camry you demoed sold? I have a customer who wants to look at it.” Just that one sentence can push a looker to a buyer, because he sure as hell doesn’t want to lose that Camry!

Many times telling a customer the exact truth about a situation is not practical. Sometimes the truth is just too complicated for a non-car person to understand. A brief Playhouse 90 tailored for the situation is more efficient at getting the job done.

Now you would think a person with as active an imagination as me would be great at Playhouse 90’s, and you would be right at that assumption. But I know that the truth is always the best way to go whenever possible, and doing a playhouse, as it is sometimes called, should be done sparingly--and it’s diffidently not something for amateurs.

So the next time you buy a car and think you have all the tools needed to screw a car salesman keep in mind that things are not always as they seem. You only buy a car every few years; we do it every damn day. We’re the masters of illusion and against an experienced Car Man you don’t stand a chance.

God I loved saying that!

Talk to you later,