Updated: Sep 16
Let's get Sirius. This year's Dog Days of Summer have been barking up a storm. (If you don't get th
e reference, it's here) This year, just
about everyone reading this is feeling the heat. How's it going, besides H-O-T hot? I spent the last week of July and first week of August driving back and forth, to and from several inland used car dealerships. Most people head to the beach to get away from the cities I was driving to: El Cajon, Lakeside, Mission Valley. I wish my purpose was research for this series on Negotiations, but no: My son Sky needed wheels.
Is there a more classic negotiation scenario than buying/selling a used car? Nearly every book, seminar, or class on negotiations offers at least one case scenario, and whole books have been written for both buyers and sellers. Many warn you to read their book or or risk being scammed (as a buyer or as a seller). It's enough to turn off even a no-longer reluctant negotiator. But as I said, Sky needed wheels, and this was one more task for me to manage. So while daily trips into 100°F+ (38°C+) in-the-shade nearly melted the soles off my Vibram® FiveFingers, our heads remained cool throughout the process.
Notes from the Field, Summer of 2023
The French have a saying, "plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose" ("the more things change, the more they stay the same"), meaning that even though on the outside we may see major changes, the fundamentals remain in place. As Sky and I keenly observed, this goes double for used car buying and selling.
The biggest change in the used care industry over the past few decades is transparency. Both buyers and sellers can choose from a wide array of resources that give a solid idea of how much a given model with a certain mileage and options should cost. But that doesn't take away the scammer concerns, especially when dealers post signs such as, "If someone uses a language other than English during discussions, an interpreter must be present," and "NOTICE: There is no cooling off period in California." (That's not a reference to the summer heat, but to certain U.S. states where buyers can take a few days to reconsider their purchase and get their money back.)
And as much transparency as the evolving internet provides, human fundamental characteristics were also on full, transparent display during these Dog Days. Here were just a few:
1) Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde: The first salesman we met, Ethan, displayed all the initial signs of a good salesman–energetic, eager to listen to what we wanted, and to be helpful as we shared our initial thoughts and feelings about getting Sky his first car. He accompanied us on a test-drive of one that was higher-priced than we had budgeted for, and while we liked the drive, we thanked him and said we would continue looking. Unlike any of the next two places, Ethan got back to us a day later with a car that had just come in–also above budget–and he invited us to check it out. So we drove back to El Cajon and again, we liked the ride but the car was a bit out of our range, and Ethan Jeckyll, while friendly, held firm on the price. A third call by Ethan, and thus our third visit, introduced us to this first salesman's evil side I'll call Ethan Hyde.
As soon as we arrived, Ethan Hyde scowled and said, "So, are we going to do business today, or what? I mean, I'm getting tired of finding cars for you and you just not taking them. You could test drive cars for the next month or more. I'm not doing this for fun." I looked at Sky, then back to Ethan Hyde. "Maybe we should just leave." Pause for a beat. Then Ethan Hyde said, "Well you're already here, you might as well take it for a test drive. But only if you're going to buy it. I was expecting you sooner. I should already by off work by now." Sorry, Ethan Hyde, no sale. But we did give you something else: An online 1-star review.
2) Composite among the next few salesmen (we didn't come across even one woman in our car search): Eager beavers, wanting to share either their expertise about cars, or their experience in the business, mostly aiming to tell you how/why they are NOT like other car salesmen. One guy went down a list of what others will do to try to scam you. He also told us, "No one drives under 80 mph on the freeway." (I guess he's never seen me or any of the other people I routinely share the freeways with.)
This not only turned us off to him and his dealership, but had us wondering about the whole process. Still, we pressed on, extra water bottles always at the ready. Most salesmen were not even as good listeners as Ethan Jekyll/Hyde. They all had goals for themselves though!
3) Family Men: The last place attracted us because we found on the internet that they had 4 or 5 cars that fit all our criteria. When we first approached their address, it was a bit hard to find--no billboard signs–and we found no space to park in their small-ish lot. We parked across the street in front of a Wendy's. Upon entering, Fabi greeted us with a simple, "Hello," and even before we shared what we were looking for, he commented on my t-shirt (Tokyo Hard Rock Cafe), asking if I had ever been there. Then he moved on to Skylar and asked if he was fluent in Japanese. In other words, Fabi was establishing rapport, the key to all good business relationships (see February 2023, The Core of Rapport: Why Small Talk = Big Business).
We mentioned to Fabi that we were looking for a Toyota Camry with less than 100,000 miles and for under $15,000, and that we saw on the internet they listed 3 or 4. "Let me see," as he pulled out his paper, a spreadsheet with his whole inventory, including makes and models, VIN numbers, and asking prices). "We actually have 5. Take a look around. I am not going to bother you at all. If you want to drive any of them, just tell me, and I'll give you the key. Take it where you want. I'll just need a copy of the driver's license of who's going to be doing the test drive."
True to his word, Fabi must have been the most laid-back, "chill" salesman I've ever seen. Sky found a dusty green Camry, test-drove it, and really liked it.
Over the next two days, we had the car checked by a mechanic and made one extra trip since I'd kept their key in my pocket by mistake. Doh! Interestingly, we never saw Fabi again, and in fact, we kept seeing different people each time we went in, which at first caused some concern. At one point I said, "Please make sure Fabi gets credit for the sale." "Oh, we don't care about who gets credit" came the swift reply. I learned why. On the final day, as we were picking up the car and pink slip, the son of the dealer's owner explained, "We get a bonus any month we hit the sales target--based on number of cars--as a dealership. It often happens that one of us starts a discussion and by the time a customer is ready to buy, someone else is handling the paperwork. Also, though they don't haggle, they did take $250 off their asking price when I asked for a cash discount. And after a second mechanic (our choice) had it checked out, the car was ready for us, washed and shined up.
Turns out that all the people in the dealership are either related or are long-time friends. So it really is a "family business," and in the same location for 32 years. And the "family" element extends to the many customers who we were told have come back multiple times, with kids or even grandkids to buy a car. Who can say if every one of their anecdotes is true, but as we were watching the Women's World Cup, Tony, the son of the owner, wondered if we liked soccer because, if so, he said, he wanted to invite us to join their group that plays on the weekends. "You can find us on Whats App." In that moment, I truly felt he wanted a relationship more than, or at least as much as, the sale. Who would want an unhappy customer cussing him out on the soccer pitch, and in front of their friends?
When visiting with this particular dealership (they'd be happy for me to say their name, so I will: Prime Auto Imports in Mission Valley), my son and I noticed that all the members of the dealership team had their own way of interacting, and all of them seemed to care about us first as people, as customers who the dealership wanted to be pleased with what they sold us.
Every negotiation carries risk, and at the time of the first draft of this article, we're only a day into the purchase. We'll see if it all goes well. So far, so good. I told Tony about the contrast between his dealership and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, and that Sky had given them a 1-star review. Tony then asked if, after Sky drives the car up to school in another month and a half, would we be willing to write a Yelp or other internet-based review. I told him, "Of course, and I'll do more, I'll write about you guys to promote you as best I can." The son replied, "Oh, man. I should have sold you a good quality car!
You can say that kind of thing once you've established rapport, put curiosity above ego, and built a level of trust with your counterparts, as each of the gentlemen we encountered a Prime Auto Parts did. And they haven't even read any of this series--yet!