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Persuasion: Battle on the Car Lot

How does a car salesman get you behind the wheel? By being a keen observer of human behavior—and not letting you say "no."

The auto salesperson holds a special place in American society. According to a Gallup poll, 95 percent of Americans believe car salesmen have low ethical standards. Twice as many people trust lawyers as car salesmen.

Robert V. Levine, a California State University at Fresno psychologist, spent weeks as a car salesman while writing his book The Power of Persuasion.

Here's what he's gleaned:

The Low-Ball

Salesmen often lure customers by quoting an impossibly low price over the phone. When the customer arrives, the "low-baller" excuses himself—to the bathroom, a phone call or family emergency—leaving a second salesperson to explain that the first had misquoted the price or was having personal problems.

Common Ties

Successful salesmen try to latch onto anything they have in common with the buyer, such as a link—real or not—to the buyer's job or college. "There's also a lot of matching," says Levine. The manager "will bring out the Hispanic salesman for the Hispanic couple, or the female salesperson for a woman."

Sensing the Vibe

If attempts at a personal connection have failed, smart salespeople bump the customer to a colleague. If there's a sale, they'll split the commission.

Never Let Them Say No

A major tenet of auto sales: Never ask a customer a question that can be answered with a "no." It stops the sales pitch in its tracks. Instead of asking if a customer is interested in a particular model, a savvy salesman might ask, "Do you prefer the economic four-cylinder or the power of the six-cylinder?"

Stall and Then Stall Some More

A good salesman will eat up as much time as possible, rattling off safety features and crisscrossing the car lot. As the minutes tick by, many buyers feel guilty about walking away. Not only would they have wasted the salesperson's time, but they may regret having wasted their own time.

Obedience School

If a salesperson feels a customer is slipping away, he may abruptly walk to another car or head back into the office without telling the customer where he's going. The maneuver, known in car lot lingo as the "turn and walk" lets the salesperson gauge whether he's in control of the situation. A customer usually follows, says Levine.

The Key Swap

Giving the customer the keys mentally prepares the buyer for the sale. A dealership may even "lend" the car for a weekend. Buyers rarely give the car back. Alternatively, a dealer may try to get you to hand him your keys, hoping you'll feel you've already traded in the old car.

Point of No Return

If a customer agrees to a test drive, salesmen know they've probably sold the car. By then the customers have spent so long on the car lot that they tell themselves that if they don't go through with the purchase, they'll have to go through the process all over again.

Pressure Cooker

After the test-drive, the salesperson will likely turn on the pressure. "Would you like to have the stereo installed today, or come back Thursday?" he might ask. "Put the car in the sold line, Mike," he might call out. At this point, few customers object.