9 Horrible Car Sales Techniques and How to Replace Them

The job of the classic car salesman is bound to vanish and, if you ask consumers, with it some of the most annoying selling techniques out there. There is lots to learn from what went wrong here.

According to McKinsey, the average number of times a consumer visits a car dealer before buying a car has dropped from 5 to 1.6. No surprise, if you ask The Economist, which quoted surveys indicating that consumers find these visits “boring, confrontational and bureaucratic.”

Apparently, the Honest John way of selling is no longer called for. Today’s buyers much rather collect information online and go to dealerships only for test rides and picking up the car.

Here are 9 of the most infamous car sales techniques and how to replace them with something more modern, customer-friendly and effective.

1
Intentional information asymmetry

Most scammy sales tactics are possible in the first place because the seller holds a monopoly on information about the product. Their consumers, when at a systematic information disadvantage, have no choice but to trust the vendor.

Because the proverbial selling of “lemons” offers particularly high profit margins, intentional information asymmetry is a lucrative sales angle in any industry.

It ranges from the cover up of minor product flaws up to planned obsolescence, the most blatant manifestation of information asymmetry, in which products are designed to fail prematurely. If you ever wondered why your expensive smartphone suddenly takes forever to open a text, this might be the reason.

Information asymmetry has some serious downsides: it only works if you don’t intend to sell to anyone twice, and it creates general mistrust towards your brand as word gets around.

In his paper Reputation and Feedback Systems in Online Platform Markets, Steven Tadelis even identifies information imbalance as the root cause of friction and mistrust in online sales. According to him, it impairs trust most strongly when it appears to be actively upheld or exploited by the advantageous party. Eventually, it creates a stigma, the suspicion of which is enough to hurt sales.


What to do instead

The role of reputation and feedback systems is to promote trust and trustworthiness in online marketplaces so as to reduce frictions caused by asymmetric information, and in turn increase the efficiency of these markets.

Steve Tadelis, UC Berkeley

2
The hard sell

Unlike above approach, the classic hard sell is transparent but then, it’s also extremely confrontational. It usually follows a fixed script, disregarding the prospect’s needs and views.

For example, a car salesman would first lecture on the long-term benefits of a particular ride and then pressure the prospect by creating a sense of urgency – a special gift that’s only available today; another prospect interested to buy the car right away; limited item numbers or discounts.

As a rule of thumb, the hard sell makes four out of five people angry, and gets the fifth to buy something he didn’t want. That's not what you’d call sustainable business.


What to do instead

  • Take the tenacity that’s at the center of any hard sell and redirect it at actual points of interest that your buyer highlights during the sales talk
  • Follow up on questions and nonverbal cues that suggest they want to know more

3
Attaching useless add-ons

Car dealers are known to add rather unnecessary but very profitable features like roof racks (“might come in handy if you take up surfing!”) or VIN etching, an expensive window carving with little to no benefit.

Security features like the latter are particularly popular for this technique as they target the consumer’s inherent loss aversion. The seller often exploits this through a hard sell – e.g. by playing into the prospects' responsibility of protecting their family.

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Alternatively, the add-ons are falsely labeled as part of the standard setup or first show up in the fine print of the receipt, after the purchase is made.


What to do instead

4
Bait and switch

This technique starts with advertising a crazy good price for a certain car that is not actually available in the store. Once a potential buyer comes to see the ride, she is told that it’s sold out. With the prospect now in reach, the salesman can offer her similar, higher-priced cars.

When using the bait and switch technique, sellers abuse the commitment bias, our tendency to stick to doing something once we have decided to do it. This can make us go along even if the expected outcome has changed for the worse.

This practice is punishable by law unless sellers exonerate themselves through slick wording or clear disclaimers, as described in The Balance. But even if you’re on legally sound territory, you’re still manipulating consumers to do something they would have never done when given full access to information.


What to do instead

5
Teaser pricing

This technique technically is a bait and switch scheme as well: a product is advertised through a very compelling, ultimately misleading price to lure consumers into the funnel.

What’s different in this sub-technique is that the advertised product is in fact available, just not in the form buyers are intended to believe. Once they hit the store or site, they are presented with an inferior no-frills version that lacks major features not visible in the add, like parking assist or, some years ago, AC.

In car dealer lingo, this bare-bone product is a “trim level”, meaning it’s stripped of significant features. To get these rather inevitable features, the prospect has to fork out some more.


What to do instead

  • Tease with good prices for products stripped down to their essentials, not deprived of them
  • Follow a ‘what you see is what you get’ approach
  • Lay out baits that add benefit themselves so the switch makes the product more desirable, not undesirable. For a software product, the bait could be a free, limited trial phase like we do at Userlike
  • Offer discount rates on repeat buys or long-running contracts (in subscription models), so you don’t have to touch product features at all

6
Low-balling

Another technique sharing some characteristics with bait and switch, the low-ball is exclusively used in single transactions.

In an attempt to get the prospect to make an internal commitment to buy, the dealer offers her an unbeatable price for a car and tells her to think it through and compare prices with competitors.

The offer is so good that the prospect won’t find anything close to it, making sure she returns – to find that the terms have changed for the worse. The reasons quoted thereafter are usually random and beyond control, like the store manager not allowing the full discount.

While the low-ball is an absolute turn-off for moderately motivated prospects, it also raises suspicions among determined buyers.


What to do instead

  • Sell based on value and educate your customers about your product
  • Follow a ‘what you see is what you get’ approach
  • Display real prices and explain them with sound reasoning. If a product can’t be sold to someone for what it’s worth likely is no the right product for that particular prospect
  • Follow Buffer, which leads the way in explaining where money for their software goes

7
Great price, terrible terms

This trick is commonly used in car leases but also popular in online subscription models of any industry. Essentially, it's hiding vital information in fine print or in confusing pricing models. There are good reasons not to expose yourself completely on your pricing page, but I am talking about deliberate deception here.

Photo of iiNet billboard with pricing infringement.
Terrible terms: The Australian authorities fined iiNet for this billboard.

An example: For a year-long car lease, the dealer advertises the rate as $200 per month. The fine print, however, says that this only applies to the first three months, after which the rate rises to $229. In a related scheme, the price is stable but features are highly limited, for instance mileage with a rental car.


What to do instead

  • Create pricing models and pages that are not deliberately misleading
  • Highlight your best basic offers and simplify your terms for the purpose of clarity, not for that of deception
  • Offer conversational contact options for more complex pricing models and special requests instead of trying to cover every scenario conceivable

8
Vague testimonials

Whenever you hear or read sentences like “The perfect car for families!” or “The most user-friendly product!” – to the ears of a stressed consumer faced with an abundance of options, such broad statements are music.

But be alert. Car dealers and retailers in general love to use vague testimonials that seem to answer all questions but are impossible to pin down.

What’s worse, once disappointment hits and the vague promises are under scrutiny by the customer, the sketchy information suddenly also serves as a refuge for the seller: “I didn’t say the car was perfect for your family, now did I?”


What to do instead

  • Describe actual features and their applications one by one
  • Cover each base individually instead of blasting out shallow praise. Just like any good theory, any good testimonial has to be falsifiable
  • If you break down complex products into broader categories, name the features that suit each category particularly well

9
Faking a vivid environment

Following the principle that “action creates reaction”, car dealers have their salespeople randomly move cars around on their lot to create the impression of a place that’s buzzing. The webshop equivalent would be this (fantastic) funfair-themed mess.


What to do instead

  • Create a neat website (like these), with which visitors can interact purposefully
  • To appear present, be present with real-time support channels like live chat
  • Showcase existing customers and how they use the product
  • Keep your website content up-to-date

For the stereotypical, old-style car salesman, the information age is a nightmare. It’s empowering customers to buy more cautiously and urging sellers to trade their goods based on solid facts.

The modern successful salesperson persuades instead of deceives. Align your tactics with the truth, and you'll avoid the pitfalls of the archetypical car salesman.