How Car Salespeople Determine Your Willingness-to-Pay

By Ben Blaney
May 3, 2013

It was something I said as an aside in a previous blog piece. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was true, and something I wanted to explore further.


What I said was that my view is that salespeople in car dealerships are extremely good at establishing willingness-to-pay. I thought about it more, remembering all the experiences I’ve had in buying cars, and all the anecdotes I’ve heard about friends and colleagues buying cars, and that almost uniformly those experiences have been miserable.

Miserable really means that we – the customers – are less skilled as buyers, than we perceive the salesperson is at selling. That seems pretty understandable – we buy a car pretty infrequently, and they sell them all the time.
Compare and contrast, then, if you will, how our commercial teams articulate their day-to-day life in the field.

  • “It’s a tough market right now”
  • “Our competitors are all over us”
  • “Buyers are really savvy”
  • “Our product is commoditized”

That can’t be right. We sell all the time, and sometimes our buyers buy infrequently (particularly in capital type purchase situations, and enterprise software) – just like the situation with car buyers and sellers. (Not to mention the perspective on the first unattributed, generalized quote above – I’ve never heard a salesperson not think that they’re in a tough market.)

What is it, then, that car sellers do, that shifts the balance of power in the relationship to their favor? And can we replicate those in B2B selling?

A few ideas:

  • They qualify quickly, and if they don’t think they have a product they can sell you, they move on
  • They quickly establish willingness-to-pay
  • They understand which features are “must-haves” and which are “nice to have,” and the concomitant trade-offs between then (“would you buy a car with the leather upholstery if it didn’t have the Sirius radio that you want?”)
  • They know that we “fall in love” and when we’ve decided, we’re hard to shift
  • They establish whether we have a need or not, and our propensity to switch. I was told once that when someone drives into the dealership in a crappy car, salespeople rush to greet the customer. Because if you have a crappy car and you drive onto a lot, you want to buy. If you have a nice car, you have less of a compelling case for shelling out tens of thousands of dollars for minimal incremental benefits
  • They offer upsells and downsells – and they’re ALWAYS based on their available stock that day), and articulate the drawbacks of delay (“I know you want a blue car, but I have a red one out front that has all the other features you want…and you might not find a blue one with that spec for months”)
  • They know that people buy from people, and they forge emotional connections, by talking about mutual sports teams, or family activities, or hometown synchronicities.

I would humbly submit that in B2B environments, we should challenge our sales force to become more like the car salespeople. What do you think?

P.S. My thanks for input into this blog piece to my mate Mark, who sells cars. He’s really, really good.

  • B2B , salespeople

    Ben Blaney

    Ben has deep experience in all areas related to enterprise pricing solutions. He has helped some of the world’s largest companies redesign their pricing and commercial models (systems, processes, and priorities). Ben has also sold enterprise software and cloud solutions that changed the game for Fortune 500 companies, and he has managed large teams in executing digital transformation projects in unpredictable combat zones.