Guide to Buying Used Car Part 1: Knowing the Process

My first round in the sales business was at the store everybody knows. I wore the blue shirt and khakis, I told people how I wasn't on commission, and while I was never paid extra I worked my butt off to sell those Extended Service Plans. Fun Fact: If you ever get into one of those high-pressure situations and the sales guy tells you he's not on commission, tell him: "Lucky for you then, huh?" and walk away without saying another thing.

One of the first things "Big Blue" taught me, as with any other large business, is how to actually sell something. The process is as old as the first caveman traded a spear for a woman, but the fundamentals never change:

Greeting: "Hi, welcome to G.T Autos. My name is Vito, and you are...?" Make a good first impression on the customer, make them feel welcome. Try to get them to smile, even laugh. Find common ground.

Gathering Information: Your customer is at your store for a specific reason. If they are looking for a computer, find out what kind? Desktop or notebook? Who's going to use it? What are you using it for? As you ask, you learn more about what the customer's needs are.

Recommend - Isolate: After listening to the needs and wants of your customer, show them the item that best fits their description. Should the customer object, reiterate their wants and needs and explain how this item is better than the others around.

Close: After showing the customer the item that best suits their needs, get a commitment to buy from the customer. Your product knowledge as well as your gathered information will help you overcome customer objections.

In any sport or competition, if you know what your opponent is doing, you'll have the edge. While we're not engaging in physical acts of strength and agility to buy a used car, there is a level of competition that can't be ignored. Because of our egos, we don't like to be tricked into buying something. We like to earn a deal, we don't like to be given one. We'd rather buy from someone we know, even if they're clueless about the product, then buy from an informed stranger.

Sales people know this, and these are tools that they use to "push" you in the direction they want you to go. The best can gently push you so far off your target, you end up buying something completely different than what you planned. There is a way to avoid this, and I'll get further in detail later. For now, let's agree that if it benefits the seller to know the buyer's actions, the same must be true in reverse.

Here's another example: Studies and market samples show that car buying habits are broken down into 4 major decisions. Depending on the buyer, those decisions can take as short as a day and as long as 8 months. Whether it be a widget, a service, or personal property, all purchases must go through this 4-step decision before a customer buys:

Exposure (Average time - Instantaneous): You see a commercial for the new BMW M5. You're buddy tells you about the new pair of Nike's he bought. You see your neighbor's new deck and think you might want one yourself. Something sparks your interest in a particular item. In most cases, a need for a new or second vehicle (gas prices, child leaving for college, growing family) is the initial exposure to buying a car.

Gather Information (Average time - 2 weeks to 6 months): You've accepted that you need a new vehicle, but which one should you get? Do you want to buy/lease a new vehicle, or just a used car? How much can you spend? Should I buy a domestic or an import? Since the decision to buy a vehicle involves so many choices and considerations, the gathering of information should take the longest part of the entire process.

Decision to Buy (Average time - 3 days to 2 weeks): After examining all the options, making a list of the pro's and con's, and maybe even settling on the specific make and model of vehicle you want, so begins the process of buying the car. You are still gathering information, but this process is more of a personal decision to spend the money and make the purchase. Will it cost more than you have? Where will you get the best bang for your buck? Do you truly need a car, or do you just want one?

Act of Buying/Delivery (Instantaneous - 30 minutes): This is the awkward climax that some of us love and others hate. This is the reason you bring friends along and why you feel nervous about the vehicle. This is why companies like CARFAX, Edmund's, and Consumer Reports make money hand over fist. This is why we tell friends we bought something and lie to make it sound like we got a better deal. This is the knowledge that you will buy this item, and you need only give them the funds to end the transaction.

The big question you probably want answered: "What do these things have to do with my car buying experience?"

These last four steps are key to any salesperson's approach. If you walk on the lot and I know you're still at step two, I tailor my approach to match. A guy walks onto the lot and tells me: "My buddy got a Honda last week, says it's great on gas. What can you tell me about that Civic over there?" Obviously he's just been exposed to the Honda brand; closing a deal on this guy would be considered offensive. My method of attack: become a walking Mexican of Knowledge, give him product knowledge, acclaims and benefits of the vehicle, show him the history of the car, and perhaps even let him test drive the vehicle. I may ask a few "closing questions," but I know that aggressive sales will backfire.

One day I met a woman who was looking at our Honda's in the pouring rain. As we stood outside in the storm, she told me how during the closing at another dealership, the owner changed the price at the last moment, hoping she'd be fed up and pay anyway. She left angry, depressed, and with $6500 in her hip pocket. She was on Step 4 already and suffered from the same problem many of us face: we don't want to do the whole thing again. Within an hour she left with a 1995 Honda Accord with good mileage and warranty for under $5500. By knowing which part of the sales process she was at, I adjusted accordingly.

In much the same way, you can use the sales process to your advantage.

Answer to the Greeting: If you're absolutely sure you don't want information, there's ways out. Keep in mind, if you want questions asked about a car later, you may be labeled as a "tire kicker" and have to come back another time:

  • Start a fight with your boy/girl friend. Nothing's more awkward than trying to talk about cars with a couple who are obviously having a tiff. If you're with your significant other to browse for cars, plan to act mad at each other. If you don't drive off the sales guy, he'll definitely back off.
  • If you have your iPaq or Blackberry stand at the front of the cars and walk with it in one hand and your stylus in the other. If you're approached, just wave, smile non-nonchalantly and tell them: "I'm just grabbing VIN numbers." If you've ever worked in the car business, you'll know why this trick works.
  • Look like a salesman. Walk fast, talk fast, and have that "I want to sell you something" grin on your face. Dealerships are bombarded daily with people who are trying to sell them something. If they think you are a solicitor, or you're just stopping for your lunch hour, you'll be left alone.
Answer to Probing Questions: This part actually is beneficial to you. Information is what you are after, and if the person you're talking to is truly benefiting your shopping experience.

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