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LIFE ON WHEELS

Tryout Drive Tests Salesman's Mettle as Well as Car's Metal

May 11, 1989|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

You've spotted it--third car from the left, right out front. Sapphire-blue, your favorite color. All the right options and none of the wrong ones. The price is even within reach.

Care to take it out for a spin?

Hold on, not so fast!

Not anymore, anyway.

A generation ago, the car salesman might have simply tossed you the keys and watched you take off for a test drive with hardly a second thought. Now he not only routinely tags along, but he usually insists on taking the first turn behind the wheel.

Even as recently as 2 weeks ago, you could walk into most dealerships and put a brand-new car through its paces--as long as you appeared to be a serious customer--without so much as pulling out a driver license.

But these are cautious times, and salesmen are not as eager as they once were to jump into a car with just anybody. They would rather, shall we say, establish a relationship first.

After a couple of recent occurrences, Southern California salesmen have become even more skittish. Last month, a Los Angeles salesman was killed on a test drive. And last week, a prison escapee on a test drive with an Irvine salesman was arrested in Costa Mesa on suspicion of speeding away alone in a new Corvette--after a chase through three cities.

Isolated events, perhaps. Nonetheless, at least one county dealership has changed its policy as a result. At Newport Auto Center (Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Porsche, Audi and Chevrolet), salesmen photocopy a customer's driver license before leaving on a test drive, according to salesman Byron Brenkus.

Some county dealers were so nervous about test drives that they would not permit their salesmen to be interviewed.

Security is not the only potential problem with allowing customers to shop behind the wheel. Test drives can eat up a lot of time, and every salesman is well aware that time is money.

Still, test drives are too important a part of car selling to be abandoned, no matter what the risk, salesmen say.

"The test drive is the most important thing going," says Jerry Stagnato, a salesman at David J. Phillips Buick/Pontiac/Mazda in Laguna Hills.

"It's the best way to get the customer excited about the car," says Sam Muscato, sales manager for Goodwin Honda in Fullerton.

Besides, Muscato says, "you wouldn't buy a pair of shoes until you've tried them on."

Markus Ballin, a salesman at Newport Auto Center, says his previous employer, a Japanese import dealer in Santa Ana, considered test drives so important that any salesman who sold a car without the customer first taking a spin lost half his commission.

So car salesmen rely largely on their instincts in deciding whether to offer, or agree to, a test drive. Deciding which customers to trust--and which to get rid of politely--can be a delicate science.

Car salesmen know as well as anyone the dubious reputation their profession has in U.S. folk wisdom. But these days, they insist, it is the customer who is more likely to speak with a forked tongue.

"Salesmen don't lie anymore," says Stagnato of the Phillips dealership. "The biggest lies in this business come from the customer."

Such as?

"They say, 'I only have $2,000 to put down,' but then when they find the car they want, they come up with $3,000. If they're ready to leave the lot, they won't just say, 'I'm leaving.' They say, 'I have a dentist's appointment.' Or they say, 'You're here till 6? I'll be back before then.' And you never see them again."

High-end salesmen naturally tend to be the most cautious. At Newport Imports, for example, Ferrari shoppers must have an appointment first.

"We usually talk to people a little to find out where they live and work. Then we set an appointment, and beforehand we'll call the home or business to confirm," salesman Gary Hangen says. In so doing, he confirms not only the appointment but that the person is at least somewhat legitimate.

"If we have any hesitation, we ask for a driver's license," Hangen says.

"Looky-loos" are a particular problem with expensive sports cars, he says: "You get people in who just want to go for a ride. They'll say, 'I'm going to be inheriting money' or 'That's going to be a graduation gift.' You hear some pretty creative stories."

The by-appointment-only policy weeds out most of them, Hangen says.

Sometimes salesmen can judge a customer by appearances, but not always. "You may figure the guy who comes in off the beach is probably not serious," Hangen says. Ditto for customers with teen-agers or drivers with "out-of-state plates, or a rental car, or if they say, 'I live out here on the peninsula,' but they don't know the address."

Then there are the exceptions. "If they look all dirty and stuff, they may have spent the whole day out working on their boat," Hangen says. "It's hard to read people."

There were the two teen-age boys who drove up in a Mercedes-Benz with Texas license plates to look at an Aston-Martin convertible. "A week later, they brought their father in, and he bought it," Hangen says. "So you never know."

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