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Negotiate Like A Car Salesman: 5 Tactics To Help You Win Every Time

Whether you want a raise, different responsibilities, or more resources, knowing how to negotiate is vital. Here are 5 (non-sleazy, promise!) tricks straight from the car lot that will help you get what you want at work.

The image of the sleazy, greasy car salesman is (kind of) unfair, at least based on my recent experience buying a car. The car dealers I worked with came across as neither; that said, it was clear they knew what they were doing and they weren’t afraid to employ some tricks of the trade to reach a mutually acceptable price. These weren’t even necessarily dirty tricks, just the tools of a skilled negotiator—the ones you would use, too, if only you knew them.

So let’s be nice and just say car dealers are practiced and aggressive negotiators. If they didn’t know how to maintain the upper hand, they’d be out of business. And a big part of keeping that upper hand isn’t about the details of the deal itself, so much as controlling the emotional balance of a negotiation. If they can pull your heartstrings and define the emotional context of a negotiation, the deal will fall into their hands.

Take your average car buyer: Let’s assume he or she is not a practiced negotiator. In fact, the prospect of a lively negotiation makes him cringe. The balance is already beginning to tip into the other party’s favor. The less tolerance you have for the emotional stress of negotiating, the quicker you’re likely to settle, says Michel Tuan Pham, professor of business at Columbia University. "It pushes you to seek closure to get rid of those bad feelings," says Pham.

This isn’t to say we should seek to eliminate emotions altogether. "Emotions are critical to how we negotiate," says Lee Miller, author of UP: Influence, Power and the U Perspective—The Art of Getting What You Want. "Traditional negotiating theory said that the goal of being a good negotiator is to take emotion out of the negotiation and find the best objective solution. The only problem is it ignores human behavior. You can’t take emotions out of negotiations. And there’s no one objective solution—it depends on how each party sees things, which depends in part on what they’re emotionally attached to what they’re motivated by."

If properly understood, the emotional subtext of a negotiation can be used to your advantage. It’s important because negotiating is crucial to professional advancement. Every day we seek to influence colleagues, clients, managers, and vendors, hoping we get what we want. If you’re not prepared to negotiate for your interests, rest assured others will for theirs, and you’ll get played like a fiddle. However, becoming more familiar with the tactics of negotiating and how your emotions and those of others come into play can help tip the scales back in your favor.

1. Understand the Process
"The first way to not fall prey to others manipulating your emotions is to understand the process and what the other person’s going to do," says Miller. "If you can anticipate it, it has no impact." For example, a common tactic in negotiating is using the "good cop, bad cop" routine. One party will entice the other with a promising deal and then bring in someone else to play hardball. "You think you have a deal. You become emotionally attached to that deal. And then he takes himself out of the picture and brings in someone brand new that has no emotional attachment."

Sure, this happens at most car dealerships ("Just let me check with my manager!"), but it’s also used in the workplace. Supervisors often use the guise of getting a higher-up’s approval so they can remain in your good grace while still not budging. The key is, if you can anticipate this, you’re less likely to make emotional, knee-jerk reaction, says Miller. "You won’t be emotional about it because you’ll know it’s just part of the negotiating process." And when it happens, redirect the discussion to the negotiation instead of focusing on who’s making the decision.

2. Always Be Negotiating
In a work setting, people often make the mistake of not realizing they are in a negotiation, when in fact they are. With your guard down, you stand to lose ground to others. "When you’re in a meeting, there are people at that meeting who go in there with the mindset that this is all negotiating—an opportunity to get x, whether it’s resources or support," says Miller. "Another party goes into that meeting with no agenda or goals. The party that’s treating it as a negotiation is very likely to get what they want and the party going in there viewing this just as an exchange of information is likely to wonder, ‘How did we reach an agreement on something I really didn’t want?’"

That’s because they weren’t prepared for it. Miller suggests employing a practice called anchoring, which is simply determining the best-case outcome before entering a negotiation. It’s just a starting point, but it will keep you from being pulled too far from your interests. And with the mindset that everything is negotiable, you’ll a better self-advocate.

3. Watch Out for Inflated Emotions
While shopping for a car, I was amazed by the knack car salesmen have for setting the tone of the conversation. As I lobbied for a lower price, better financing, or even free floor mats, I was met not just by a counter-offer, but an emotional response as well. He would appear upset by my gall, seemingly perturbed by my "unfair" demands. Had I offended him? Did I cross an invisible line? Well, in this case, it’s more likely that he was exaggerating, hoping I’d retreat. "People tend to like human interactions to be pleasant," says Pham, "so negotiators will inflate their emotions hoping the other party will seek closure."

Important to consider is the relationship you have with the other party to determine whether their emotions are likely genuine or feigned, says Pham. "If you’re negotiating within a couple—negotiating the division of labor within the household—I think you should pay attention to those emotions and if the person is really offended by certain requests. Where you have to pay attention is whenever you’re dealing with people who can fake them. That’s the difference between dealing with a car dealer who does that for a living versus the normal negotiations that we do in everyday life." Professional relationships are tricky because they fall somewhere in the middle. Even if you have a personal relationship with your boss, when it comes time to negotiate a salary increase, he may still feign the distress your demands are causing.

4. Don’t Fall in Love
The first thing a car salesman asks when you walk onto the lot is, "Do you want to take a test drive?" That’s because once you fall in love with the heated seats and surround-sound audio system, he can play to your emotional attachment to the car instead of the facts and figures of the deal. "The worst thing you can do is become emotionally attached to a deal because then it feels very hard to walk away," says Miller. "If you’re not willing to walk away from a deal, you really can’t negotiate effectively."

To avoid having your emotions toyed with, have a backup plan for whatever it is you’re negotiating—a raise, a course of action, a new role in your company. "If you know you can get the same car at a dealer that’s a mile away, then you’re not going to be as emotionally attached to buying this car from this dealer," says Miller. And that alone might help you get a better deal.

5. Beware of the Empathy Trap
A trick some men use when negotiating with women is to make them feel guilty simply for negotiating, says Miller, by putting their relationship in the balance. "They use their friendship or their relationship to get women to agree to something they might not otherwise agree to. I call this the empathy trap." This isn’t exclusively something that men do to women, of course, but because women often put more value on relationships, some negotiators will exploit this.

However, reaffirming that it’s okay to negotiate will put you on stronger emotional footing. For example, you may feel uncomfortable asking for a higher salary than the one that’s offered, but managers likely expect you to negotiate (and may even see it as a lack of confidence if you fail to do so). "When [people] learn that it’s not only acceptable to negotiate, but expected at a certain level, they become very good negotiators. Initially, some of them are afraid to negotiate and therefore pull their punches." Miller says a negotiator’s mentality should always be that "I’m happy to give you what you need, as long as you give me what I need."

Seeing what happens when you don’t negotiate should also motivate you to lobby for your interests. "You see that people take advantage of you if you’re not negotiating. Once that happens and you recognize it, emotionally, you say that’s not going to happen again."

What negotiation tactics do you find most effective? Tell us about it in the comments below.

[Image: Flickr user Frank Tellez]

Add New Comment


  • 505144056325267

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  • The empathy trap is definitely a pitfall that most people don't realize. Been in a situation like that before and at the end I wasn't sure that we were offered the best deal so we turned the car down. It made me think that when I go to the next dealership to try and keep my thoughts to myself and give as little away as possible.

  • David Martin Maxson Jr.

    I sell cars at Dan Deery Toyota. If you don't want to run through the hassle of negotiation give me a call, If you do want to negotiate I do that too. Toyota has some of the best lease deals around right now, take advantage, you'll be glad you did!

  • Jjmpro

    Most negotiations are positive.  That's the approach, get to the bottom line and treat the money like it is your own. Everything is negotiable. You can practice negotiating with your cable provider, phone service, pizza delivery guy or mechanic.  If you don't ask you will never know.

  • SoundsGr8toMe

    Always remember (and remind the seller if you desire) that if they are IN the business of selling something (cars, tv's, etc) that YOU don't really have to BUY anything to continue with your life, but THEY MUST SELL something if they are to remain in business. And if they don't hit YOUR terms (assuming they are "reasonable") they THEIR walking out the DOOR, in YOUR pocket. 

  • Bill

    precisely follow unbiased  advice re: negotiating like that found in Consumer Reports on auto purchasing.  Establish a bottom line and stick to it.  Remember; the cream will ultimately rise to the top.  Be the cream!

  • Scott F

    Very good article, but one point that isn't touched on is practice. Part of the reason people can feel uneasy negotiating is that it's not really like much else you are going to be doing in the day-to-day, so it puts you off your game from the start. The only way to get around this is to practice. Lots of games include a negotiating component - Monopoly is great for this.

  • Rita Ashley

    My role as an Executive Coach requires I assist Senior Execs with negotiating all sorts of things including salaries, raises and promotions. Here's what tends to work and an approach with which even the most reluctant are comfortable:: First, acknowledge the offer and your commitment to making this work. Then state what you want and ask, "How can we get there?" Don't demand or draw a line in the sand. Often the person with whom you are negotiating has alternative ways to get you what you want and you may not know what they are. 
    Rita Ashley, Executive Coach

  • Julie Twaddell

    Like the article!  I'd add, before you enter into an important negotiation, settle in your mind at what point you'll call it off and walk away.  If you know beforehand, it gives you confidence and a backbone. 

  • Wilson

    My take on it is to buy used cars from an established new car dealership.  They have reputations to uphold.  When it comes to buying for example a new Chevy, they're going to be the same no matter what dealership you choose.  It's the reputation that will be the deciding factor for a number of potential customers.

    A private seller selling to a complete stranger really has no reputation to uphold.  The only way I see an advantage is if you are confident in sussing out the mechanical status of the car yourself.  Another advantage I suppose is it gives you the opportunity to play the sales role yourself and lowball the seller.When I was on the market recently for a used car, I looked at both used car lots and manufacturer dealerships and ultimately went for the latter.