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What I Learned Selling Cars

How to sell by being vulnerable and present

About 15 years ago I was selling cars at Hoffman in East Hartford, CT. It was one of the many dealerships right on Connecticut Blvd, in the shadows of interstates 91, 84 and route 2. They had Ford, Lexus, Porsche, Audi – but I worked at the Saab / Oldsmobile store. What a combo, right? Saab and Oldsmobile! Don’t they just go together like peanut butter and broccoli?  

This would be the first time I’d try to make a living without doing physical labor, although walking up and down the length of the car lot in black pointed dress shoes that don’t quite fit IS laborious.

I had answered an ad in the CT Post where they promised training and a job, for only $300 bucks. What a deal! (after wasting thousands to go to UCONN, only to drop out and spend the next 5 years pulling wires through nasty crawlspaces and fiberglass insulation sticky hot attics) – So, I was excited about a change of pace, and this car sales thing was just what I needed, partly because talking to people, especially the idea of selling, terrified me. I knew it was time to face that fear and work on myself, and I guess I’m a glutton for punishment.

They ran us – the new recruits – through a 2 day seminar style training, complete with workbooks and tests. I learned some basic tactics and procedures to sell cars, but it barely scratched the surface in terms of what I would need to really do this job successfully. Especially me. I was NOT a people person.

But, I was competent enough to memorize some scripts and follow directions.

“Hi, welcome to Hoffman. What kind of vehicle were you hoping to purchase today?” Then, the most important part, to gain control and avoid being dragged around the lot, test driving 10 different cars without a commitment, “before we get started, let’s talk a minute about what you’re looking for … follow me”. And the trick was to just turn around and expect them to follow, without waiting for their consent – just start walking.  

And that worked! But it felt very douchey.

I never wanted to be THAT kind of salesman. But, what did I think selling cars was going to be like? I knew the stereotype – hell, it runs in my family! My grandfather, my uncle, and a few cousins either owned small car lots or were somehow “in the business” all throughout my childhood. I remember hearing about how my mom drove a different car every week in high school, as John Pinto Auto Sales turned over stock. They were good people, but this is a tough business.

Well, I wanted to do things differently, and embrace the idea of being nice, real, and authentic, and just try to help people.

One of the other salesmen, Bob, worked at Saab with me. He has since passed away, a super good guy, always so relaxed. There was constant drama at our little store, sometimes behind closed doors, and often right out in the showroom, but Bob was Mr. Chill – and he was successful.

Bob had a stack of Joe Verde newsletters on his desk. I was drawn to them because of the big headlines promising advice and tips for selling more cars. Since I was growing a bit discontent as the shiny newness of my budding sales career wore off, reading this stuff got me fired up again!

I became very interested in the whole self-development thing. But it wasn’t about the tactics or the one-liners, it was the belief and mindset stuff that resonated with me. It became clear that the way I was meant just as much, if not more, than what I knew. How I showed up mattered. The way I felt inside made a difference in how effective I was. I started to become more self aware, and I loved that feeling of hope – that making little improvements in the way I think can drastically improve my life.

For the next couple years, that car sales experience turned out to be a master class in human nature. I got paid to talk to people, notice their reactions, and adjust. Sometimes they were happy and sometimes they yelled at me. (Car shopping brings out the worst in people, because everyone is afraid of getting screwed, and I can’t blame them!) But I knew why I took that job – why I was there. It wasn’t about selling cars, it was about me growing as a person. In a way it was like a boot camp.

Another guru I started listening to at the time was Zig Ziglar. His big thing was, “you can get what you want by helping enough people get what they want.” Huh … think less about me, and more about them? That seemed obvious, but it’s not easy to put into practice. True, I cared about other people, and I thought I was a good person, but that’s not the same as putting my own needs aside long enough to really see things from the other person’s perspective – to really listen to understand, not just waiting for my turn to talk.

That was the big lesson. Learning to be present with people, to see the human being, with all their hopes and fears, sitting eyeball to eyeball with me.

To this day, whenever I’m aware that I’m trying to manipulate and force my way through any situation, things rarely go well. But when I slow down, and allow myself to be vulnerable and let the moment be what it wants to be, I often make the sale.

So what happened, that caused me to “wake up”, so to speak? I have a theory. Because I put myself into a continuously uncomfortable situation, I was forced to take a look at myself in a new light. And I had no choice but to grow.

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4 Comments

  1. Scott Scott

    I am a firm believer that there are only two ways to sell or market goods or services. One is through manipulation and the other is through relationship selling. Unfortunately, more than 90% of the goods and services sold today are through manipulative selling. Buy one, get one free. 20% off, today only. Use of famous actors and sports personalities. The list goes on and on. None of use want to feel manipulated, but why do companies do it? Because it works! Our brains are programmed to accept these manipulations as take it or you will lose it.
    There is a better way to sell and I think, to live life. It is about forming a relationship that is through earned trust and a belief in enough common areas as you can find. Ask yourself, do you find yourself hanging around and becoming friends with people that share your beliefs. Do you tend to trust their knowledge and expertise over other people that may have better credentials, but you have no idea of who they are.
    As we build these relationships, our trust builds and we will rely on our “friends” for decisions we must make, whether that’s buying a car or just where to go and eat. At our deepest core we want and need relationships to thrive.
    I’m glad we have this common bond!

    • Thanks Scott! I appreciate what you wrote, and you’re spot on. I don’t have much experience working with the types of brands that have money to spend on celebrities and big ad campaigns, but I keep learning the hard way that in my one on one small business dealings, that relationships are what really matters. One strong referral partner can keep me busy vs trying to spam 1,000 people gets me nowhere. I’ve gone back and forth on “strategy” vs honest to goodness relationship building so many times over the years, flip flopping whenever I’m mesmerized by shiny objects (when I get SOLD by a marketing guru). Glad we are talking about this stuff again, I miss it!

  2. Suzy Krawczyk Suzy Krawczyk

    Funny – I’ve always been all about the other person. What can I do to help? What do THEY need to feel better? How can I make THEM happy, comfortable, safe, cared for? The list was endless. Then cancer hit me and started me on a path of taking care of myself.
    It’s still a challenge to put myself first but practice makes better!

    • Thanks Suzy for commenting! That’s so interesting, you would probably be awesome at sales! (Maybe you’ve done it before and I’m not aware) I always thought I was a caring person, but when put into a situation where I NEEDED to sell in order to make a living, things get weird. But like I wrote, when I did focus on other people, like you do naturally, they want to reciprocate. Thanks again for being part of our family all these years =)

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