Managing Expectations, or, How to Make a Car Salesman Sweat

Once upon a time, I was in the market for a new car.  My 1995 Ford Taurus that got me out to LA (but not without an epic breakdown to the tune of $911.52 in Flagstaff, Arizona at noon on a Sunday) was in pretty bad shape — I hadn’t dared to get on the freeway since right after I got to LA, and I wouldn’t go into a parking garage for fear of rolling backwards on a ramp and smashing up somebody else’s car.  I had bought her in 2001 — on September 12, to be exact; I remember watching CNN reporting live from New York while I waited for the paperwork — and it was time for something more reliable.  I had never owned a new car before, and my original plan was to buy a pre-owned one, especially on the budget I had to work with.  But after months of research and a few test-drives, I realized I’d rather be able to relax for a few years instead of being ambushed with SOOPRISE $800 REPAIRS six months in.  So the question remained… what kind of car should I buy?

I had test-driven the Mazda3 and Toyota’s then-brand-new Yaris but wasn’t entirely sold on either.  My one experience test-driving a VW Beetle hadn’t been so great, but I had scheduled another test-drive at another dealership so I went ahead with it just to see what happened.  This experience was much better… the salesperson knew I was doing research and might not be ready to buy yet, but he still took me seriously as a customer (unlike the guy at the first dealership).  We went to the lot where a new shipment of cars had just come in and were still in their swaddling clothes* fresh off the assembly line, and took out the Beetle that was easiest to get to.  What a terrific little car… incredibly easy to handle, great on the freeway and solid.  I was completely sold on the Beetle, though not on the color of this particular one — it was silver, and I don’t do neutrals.  So I planned a test-drive of the blue one I had seen all wrapped up in paper.

Then it was time to go see the finance guy.  The sales guy had been extremely low-pressure (and reminded me so much of my friend Luke that he put me immediately at ease), so of course this was where things started to get interesting.  Here was the hard sell I had been warned about.  Sign this and if you change your mind we’ll tear it up, the car might not be here tomorrow, etc.  This guy was going to close the deal come hell or high water.

And I stonewalled him.


Big blue smiley face on wheels.

At this point I should add that I went in to the dealership alone, which was the #1 thing I was told not to do as a woman shopping for a car.  I was wearing a t-shirt, jeans and Converse, no makeup, looking more like a college freshman than a working adult with money to spend.  Basically, I might as well have been carrying a big neon sign that said DON’T TAKE ME SERIOUSLY — as far as this guy was concerned, anyway.  So when I told him I needed 24 hours to decide, and stuck with it, he did not know what to do.  He was totally following the “badger the little lady into signing the papers” script, and I was not having it.  “I need 24 hours.”  “I need 24 hours.”  “24 hours.” “Twenty. Four. Hours. *smirk*”  He was literally sweating.  I could see panic in his eyes: Shit, it’s not working, what do I do?! But there was nothing to do.  I walked out without signing anything.  And I ended up having to delay my test drive.  Three weeks later, I went in, took the test drive, and drove off the lot in my brand-new 2007 Beetle.  I even talked them down to a price that was farther below sticker than is usual [or was at the time, anyway].  Liz: 1 Dealership : 0

Fastforward a few years.  My car’s “Check Engine” light had come on, so I took her to the dealership to see what was up.  I was told that it was supposed to be relatively quick, but it was anything but, and I was supposed to be at work.  And then I was told it was going to cost an additional, distressing amount of money to run another diagnostic.  So I spoke up.  This time around, I was dressed more “rich suburban housewife” — skinny khakis, giant sunglasses, big shiny designer bracelet.  I was polite to the service manager, but you best believe I flashed that bracelet and gave him an ice-cold “don’t you know who I am” tone.  Result: “I’ll have the foreman check it out and come talk to you.”  I then saw the service manager talking to the foreman, who looked terrified and never came to speak to me.  They just ran the diagnostics, gave me the result, and ultimately didn’t charge me a cent.  Liz: 2  Dealership: 0

It would be entirely fair if what you take away from this story is that I enjoy playing mind games with car dealership employees, but I really don’t.  Do I feel triumphant and a little smug?  Yes, because in both cases I was taken less seriously than I should have been, and in both cases I was able to get the results I wanted (or, in the second case, needed; despite the wardrobe, I was and am still a Broke-Ass Writer) anyway.  These are important skills to have — knowing how your appearance/dress might read, knowing what assumptions the other party might make about you going into a meeting or negotiation, can help you figure out the best way to break down those assumptions and open the lines of communication.

No matter how much you or I act in good faith, we’re going to encounter people who don’t, and sometimes the best way to handle it when we can’t walk away altogether is use their own weapons against them.  In the first situation, I was completely honest and direct — Mr. Finance’s assumptions of what I must be like and how I could be manipulated were shot all to hell, and proved to him and the other people in the room that I should be taken seriously as a customer.  In the second, I was also honest and direct in my verbal communication, but this time they were the ones stonewalling — and it was either sit there and take it, miss a day of work and be charged hundreds of dollars I didn’t have, or use those nonverbal cues to force them to pay me the respect they should have as a matter of course.  Of course every situation is different and Jedi mind tricks aren’t always appropriate, but it’s another tool that we have at our disposal, and sometimes just knowing it’s there when we need it is enough.

* New cars come off the ship partially wrapped in paper.  Presumably to protect the finish.