How to Recognize Car Salesman Tactics & Techniques

Man standing in a car dealer's lot looking at cars.
Car salesman are skilled at parting you with your money. Learn how to quickly recognize and avoid their tactics.

The car salesman has you at a disadvantage. You see, he hones his car selling skills five or six days a week while you only buy a car once every three, four or five years.

He, or she, (there are a lot of women in car sales these days,) is the professional while you are the trepidatious amateur. That doesn't mean they will lie to you, but they do have a lot of persuasive tricks up their sleeves.

Here we'll share with you the nine most common car sales tactics and techniques used by these sales people. This will ensure you recognize what they're trying to do and let you prepare your response ahead of time. Don't be too hard on them though, they're only trying to put bread on the table! Our goal here is to ensure you don't get taken advantage of and buy a car at the best possible price.

9 Tactics & Techniques Used By Car Salespeople

Let me clear the air, I'm not saying all car dealers and the car salesman they employ are dishonest. There are many professional car salespeople out there making an honest living trying to shake the stigma that surrounds their profession.

However, there are still many dealers that run dealerships like juicers. Attempting to squeeze every dime they can out of each and every customer that walks through the door. (yeah, I see you over there). It's always better to be prepared before walking into a car dealership because you never know who you're going to run into when walking through the door.

1) Bait and Switch Advertising

This is when a car is advertised at one price, but when you show up at the dealership it’s no longer available. “Since you’re here,” they’ll say, “This one is very similar,” pointing to one priced considerably higher.

It’s a frustrating practice, but one that’s becoming easier to avoid as more dealers put their inventory online. You can avoid most of this by doing your car shopping online. This way you can find the specific vehicle you want, then call or email to check they still have it. Yes, they could still switch on you, but it’s harder and less likely. So to avoid becoming a victim of the bait and switch, check inventory on their website.

Read more detail on how to avoid the bait & switch car dealer scam here.

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2) The Car Will Be Gone Tomorrow

Sometimes they mean the car, sometimes it’s the deal. Yes, it could be gone when you come back next week, but unless it’s the end of a model year that’s pretty unlikely. And likewise, they’ll almost certainly be offering the same deal, or one very much like it, next week (Just so you know, there's always a some kind of sale going on at a dealership).

There's a quote that can be found hanging in many dealerships, normally anywhere customers are waiting like sales offices. It can be portrayed as a greasy car sales tactic, but it's a great metaphor for life...it goes something like this.

The Car You're Looking at Today

The car you are looking at today and want to think about buying tomorrow may be the same car someone else looked at yesterday and will be back to buy today!

What they’re attempting to do is get you to make a decision on the spot. They don’t want you walking out without buying, so they’ll give you this “now or never” challenge. Don’t fall for it, I'm here to tell you, "They'll make more!"

This also illustrates why you must do your research before hitting the dealership. That ensures you know whether it is the price you want. If it is, then go ahead and say, "yes." If you’re undecided, don't be afraid to take a couple steps back. Buying a car is a huge decision, one you don't want to make a mistake. Keep in mind, it's okay to walk away and take the evening to sleep on it.

3) Drawing Out The Car Buying Process

“Let me talk to my manager,” he’ll say, before disappearing for maybe 20 minutes. Is he talking to his manager? Possibly, but he may also be visiting the bathroom, grabbing a fresh coffee and checking his email.

The idea here is just to wear you down. He wants to get you to the point where you’ll buy the car just to get out of the showroom and on with your life.

How to deal with it, you have a few options? Have your research already done and know what you you want to pay for the car. This should and will cut out most of the "back-and-forth" to the manager.

Or you could be very patient, get out your phone and check your messages while your salesman is doing his thing...last but not least, you could get up and leave.

4) Focus on the Monthly Payments

This is a very common sales technique, for the simple reason that it suits a lot of buyers. They’re not concerned what the vehicle actually costs, they just want to know the monthly payment fits their budget. This is why the salesman will often start the conversation by asking what you’re paying now.

The problem with this is that it’s very easy for the salesman to lower the monthly payment. Just increase the down payment, extend the repayment period, (or lease duration,) or both. This could leave you paying something very close to the manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) and not receiving the deal you "think" you're getting.

The way around this is to bring the conversation back to the price of the car. And this is just as important when you plan to lease. Don’t forget that you’re paying the difference between the agreed sale price and the residual value. By bringing down the total price of the vehicle you will lower your overall monthly payment.

5) Baffle You With Numbers

There are four numbers the salesman will bat around: the price, the down payment, the value of your trade-in and the monthly payment you’ll be making. What they’ll do though is switch back and forth between these, making it hard for you follow. (Sometimes this goes by the name, the “4 square method.”)

You can avoid this by doing your negotiations by email. Agree the price and down payment. Also, check that you know the value of your trade-in. Then, in the comfort of your own home, work through the numbers and make sure you understand them before walking into the showroom.

6) The Hard Sell

Yes, there are still some sales people still practice this, even though it turns off many potential customers. They’ll follow you around the showroom, talking and asking questions all the time. They rely on the fact that most people are too polite to tell them to go away.

If you encounter a salesman like this and you’re not comfortable, leave. There are lots of other legitimate car dealerships to go to. (And of course it’s another reason for doing all your car buying research over the internet rather than face-to-face.)

7) The Ben Franklin Car Salesman Technique

It’s said that Ben Franklin devised a unique way to guide his decision-making. He’d divide a sheet of paper into two columns. On one side he’d list reasons for making the decision, on the other went the reasons against.

Car salesmen will sometimes use this technique to woo an undecided customer. On the “For” side of the sheet they’ll write all the things the customer has said they like about the car. This could be things like, “Plenty of room for the kids,” or, “I like the performance.”

Then they’ll ask the potential buyer what reasons he has for not buying the car, the “Againsts”. Faced with a blank column the buyer often finds it hard to list anything. If he does, the salesman can then identify ways around those problems.

How to deal with this? Well just be very clear about what you don’t like. You’re not going to cause offense. Alternatively, you could say something like, “Ah ha, trying the old Ben Franklin close, eh?”

8) Hidden Fees

The monthly payment looks good and you’ve said, “Okay, let’s do this,” or something similar. Then they hit you with a bunch of fees and charges.

These aren’t completely bogus because you will need to pay title fees and maybe some others too depending on where you live. What you should watch for though is anything extra or excessive. Why would you need a “Vehicle Preparation Fee” for example? Isn’t preparation part of the price? Check out my article on when a dealer prep fee becomes a scam.

Use this handy Car Payment Estimator to calculate the payment on any vehicle.

The issue with these additional fees and charges is that by this point you’re committed and it’s very hard to say no, which is precisely why they do it. Your best strategies are to (a) find out what fees your DMV charges, and (b) ask the salesman to explain exactly what they are for and why you need them.

9) Extras You Don't Really Need

After you think you’ve done the deal the salesman will walk you down the hall to meet with the F&I Manager. “F&I” stands for Finance and Insurance, and this is the person who helps you complete all the paperwork that goes along with buying a vehicle.

Don't be fooled, normally promoted from within, the F&I Manager is very experienced in the art of sales and normally one of the best salespeople in the building. This is why they're sitting in that chair.

What they will also do is try to sell you a whole bunch of things you don’t need. Glass protection, tire protection, rustproofing and so on. Their argument is, “You’ve spent a bunch of money on this vehicle, shouldn’t you spend a little extra to protect it properly?” Just say no, you can normally pick up anything they're trying to sell you at a fraction of the cost elsewhere.

Closing Thoughts

Let’s be fair, dealerships exist to sell cars and they need to make a profit. They problem is, the salespeople are very good at persuading and influencing the vague and uncertain. By sharing these nine car sales tactics with you, (notice we didn’t call them “tricks”), we’re trying to level the playing field.

As we noted several times, the most important thing for you is to be prepared when you walk into that showroom. Know what you want and what you’re willing to pay. Be prepared for the car sales professional to bring their "A" game along with a full array of tactics to bear on you. All you have to do at this point is be polite but firm.

It’s also important to understand the car buying process. That’s why www.AutoCheatSheet.com exists, so please take full advantage of the information we provide.

The number one tip for saving the most money when buying a new or used car is to always take your time and "DO YOUR RESEARCH FIRST!"

Use this handy Car Payment Calculator to estimate the payment on any vehicle.

As always, I recommend using an online referral service such as CarClearanceDeals, MotorTrend and Edmunds before physically walking into a car dealership. Their free online price quotes will automatically help level the playing field with the dealer and let you know right away which dealer's are willing to be more flexible on price. Please consider them the next time you decide to buy a used car online, they will save you a lot of money.