Confessions of a Car Salesman
Of all the professions that entail hawking products, those who sell cars have earned a particularly poor reputation for deceiving customers with slick tricks and tactics. Unfortunately, industry experts attest that this perception is rooted in reality, with dealerships fudging the truth about everything from vehicles’ accident histories to customers’ credit scores. In some particularly egregious cases, consumer protection watchdogs crack down on dealers that consistently defraud their buyers. But most dishonest car salespeople continue their schemes without consequences, hoping consumers won’t catch on.
In this project, we set out to get the inside scoop on the methods that car salespeople use to convince their customers. To do so, we surveyed 223 current and former auto sales professionals, gauging just how dishonest they get to close a deal. Moreover, our data reveal how these salespeople size up customers, assessing their ignorance and income. If you fear getting taken for a ride next time you’re in the market to buy, you won’t want to miss what we uncovered.
Deceit at the Dealership?
If you had any doubts that car salespeople are frequently dishonest, our data should dispel them. Among car salesmen, nearly three-quarters admitted to lying to customers. Deception among saleswomen was only slightly less common: Nearly two-thirds said they told untruths to potential buyers. Of course, one might forgive the occasional fib, but our findings suggest many employ dishonest tactics as a matter of habit. More than a fifth of car salespeople admitting to deceiving more than half of their sales, indicating that their livelihoods depend on lies. Additionally, this tendency doesn’t necessarily fade with age: Baby boomer salespeople lied nearly as much as millennials and even more than Gen Xers.
To be fair, these statistics likely stem from the nature of the industry. The stakes of a single sale are high, and the opportunities for skullduggery are endless. As consumer advocates note, dealerships have a host of misleading tactics to choose from, from fudging forms to “forgetting” to mention certain fees. Yet, some experts say these tactics may one day contribute to the decline of dealerships across the country. When salespeople practice customer deception rather than customer service, there’s plenty of incentive to buy your car online instead.
According to our respondents, certain kinds of potential customers are particularly desirable. One might guess that salespeople prefer to work with women. Some studies suggests that female shoppers are regularly presented with higher prices than their male counterparts. Yet, our findings suggest that married men are actually the preferred customer demographic for those who sell cars. If they hold a manager or mid-level position at work, all the better.
The desirability of these characteristics may relate to the economic privilege they imply. On average, white men earn more than any other demographic, and married men earn more than single men. But when we asked salespeople why they preferred this profile, they cited slightly different reasons. Twenty-nine percent reported that this group was easiest to close, and the same percentage said it was more pleasant doing business with them. Then again, these reasons might reflect financial realities as well: When you have more money to spend, you may be more likely to agree to a deal – and stay pleasant while you’re at it.
Selling to the Opposite Sex?
One might imagine that the preference for male customers reflects the composition of the industry itself. Just 19 percent of dealership employees are women, so it’s no surprise that a male-dominated industry would feel most comfortable serving men. Indeed, when we surveyed saleswomen specifically, 37 percent preferred female customers, and 46 percent expressed no gender preference. In purely financial terms, there are good reasons one might prefer female buyers. Studies have shown that women tend to pay more than men for the same vehicles, a trend that experts attribute to differences in negotiation styles.
Thirty-six percent of salesmen and 40 percent of saleswomen felt that married individuals made the best customers, although female respondents were equally likely to say relationship status didn’t matter. Yet, the greatest agreement concerned the career standing of ideal customers. Salespeople were most likely to prefer selling to mid-level employees rather than senior managers or executives. Corporate leaders might be higher earners, but that doesn’t mean they’ll spend loosely on luxury vehicles. Among those who earn more than $200,000 a year, the most popular rides are made by Ford, Jeep, and Honda.
Susceptible to Schemes
Car salespeople may lie with concerning regularity, but that doesn’t mean that they regard most consumers as easily duped. In fact, 23 percent of salespeople said they never take advantage of their clients. Experts note that certain traits do correlate with susceptibility to scammers, but some of our respondents felt nearly everyone was vulnerable to underhanded tactics. Twenty-five percent of salespeople said they take advantage of their clients more than half of the time.
In describing those who could be easily taken advantage of, salespeople used the term “young” most often. Millennials have suffered mightily at the hands of scammers in other domains as well, falling for counterfeit check ploys and other digital tricks. Salespeople also said “single” people were especially vulnerable, perhaps because they can’t consult with a partner to discern a bad deal. Conversely, there seemed to be no consensus about which gender was easier to deceive: “Woman” and “man” were our third- and fourth-ranked terms respectively.
Price and Principles
Our data suggest that salespeople trying to move bargain inventory are particularly likely to play it fast and loose with the facts. Among salespeople who sold cars for $5,000 or less, 90 percent said they lied to their customers. Fibbing was also quite common at the other end of the price continuum, however: Sixty-nine percent of respondents selling cars for $30,001 or more lied to potential buyers. Moreover, it seems used car salespeople get an unfairly bad rap because respondents who sold exclusively new cars were actually the most likely to lie. The price range in which lying was least common was $20,001 to $30,000, a span that includes the average price of a new compact car or SUV.
Of course, the opportunities for deception differ with various vehicles. When selling cars worth $5,000 or less, salespeople were the most likely to tell untruths pertaining to maintenance history. Customer worries in this area have prompted the rise of the “certified pre-owned” designation, which typically denotes warranty protections against unexpected problems – and a heftier price tag than the average used car. For cars worth $30,001 or more, salespeople were the most likely to lie about accident history. Although vehicle history reports are designed to prevent this kind of duplicity, accidents can be left out if a body shop decides not to document its work for the recording companies.
Overall, car salespeople were the most likely to lie about the maintenance performed on vehicles in the past. Nearly as many admitted to lying about the potential for negotiating the price, telling customers they had no flexibility to charge less. Some particularly bold maneuvers were also disturbingly common: Thirty percent of salespeople admitted to altering a vehicle’s odometer. This finding resonates with NHTSA data on this rampant form of fraud: Every year, roughly 450,000 vehicles are sold with doctored mileage counts.
Naturally, salespeople tended to avoid lies that customers could easily disprove. Just 12 percent of respondents said they tried to deceive someone about the fuel efficiency, perhaps because the windows of new cars must be clearly labeled with miles-per-gallon statistics. Similarly, only 16 percent had the gall to lie about a car’s feature set, a lie that could easily be revealed through a basic internet search. Fourteen percent of salespeople lied about their customers’ credit reports, ostensibly to drive a harder bargain in financing discussions.
Salespeople have good reason to steer clear of those unqualified to buy. While payment structures can be complicated, their incomes are mainly commission-based. In deciding that a potential customer probably couldn’t afford to buy a car, 52 percent said looking too young was a major tipoff. Another 49 percent said someone’s way of speaking could indicate a lack of funds. That judgment could relate to yet another top screening factor: how educated the would-be buyer seemed.
Some assessments concerned a person’s current ride. Thirty-six percent said they could tell if someone could afford a new vehicle by judging the condition of the car they arrived in. Similarly, 30 percent said they dismissed some shoppers based on the brand of their current vehicle. Some industry insiders claim to make even more precise judgments to gauge the odds of a successful sale. If a customer arrives low on gas, for example, there’s a good chance they’re motivated to trade in their car and buy a new one.
Protecting Your Purchase
Our results indicate that car salespeople justify their profession’s notoriety, lying with striking regularity. But if this deceit seems consistent with public distrust of car salespeople, our findings of their preferred targets are certainly surprising. Moreover, the sheer range of their duplicity is unnerving: From dealer fees to fuel efficiency, virtually any subject can be massaged. We don’t mean to impugn all car salespeople unfairly by painting with too broad a brush. But for consumers, our data are undeniable. When buying a new car, keep your wits about you – and do plenty of your own research.
Because buying a car is no small expense, you’ll need to obtain insurance coverage that truly protects your investment. Just as with purchasing your vehicle, you’ll need to assess your options before accepting any offer. CheapCarInsurance.net provides personalized quotes from a wide array of companies, so you’ll never have to rely on a single source. Our information empowers you to make the best decision – so you can skip the sales tactics and purchase the right coverage with confidence.
We surveyed 223 people in the U.S. who are currently or have been car salespeople. Sixty-five percent of our respondents identified as men, and 35 percent identified as women. Twenty-four percent of respondents exclusively sold new cars, 28 percent exclusively sold used cars, and 48 percent said they sold both new and used cars.
Participants who indicated they were not or had never been a car salesperson were excluded from the study. In addition, if respondents demonstrated that they were clearly not paying attention (failed an attention-check question or if they were clearly not entering accurate data), they were excluded from the final analysis.
In this survey, we relied on respondents to honestly answer our questions, also known as self-reported data. There are known issues with self-reported data, such as selective memory, telescoping, attribution, and exaggeration. Future studies should be done on the topic of car sales to explore further the conclusions made in this project.
Fair Use Statement
With apologies to all the car salespeople out there, we hope this content will reach the widest audience possible. So if you’d like to share our work for noncommercial purposes, you’ve got the green light from us. Just link back to this page when you do to credit our team for our research.