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10 Confessions of Car Salesmen

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It may look like a world of balloons and bad tweed. But making a living on the lot is anything but a Sunday drive.

1. They read you like a book.

I don’t care what anybody says, verbally,” says Prentiss Smith, the general manager at a Toyota dealership in Brookhaven, Mississippi. “If they pull up on our lot, they might say they’re not ready to buy, but that’s not true.” Salespeople watch for subtle signs to read your mind. “If it’s a trade-in and I’m doing an appraisal, I see how much gas is in there,” says Daniel Wheeler, an Oregon-based Hyundai salesman. “If it’s a quarter of a tank or below, it’s usually a fairly good sign [a customer is] ready to purchase.” David Teves, a California-based salesman who writes the blog Confessions of a Car Man, says he can determine a customer’s mood by the parking spot they choose. “There’s a place at the end of our lot we call ‘Laydown Lane’ because the people who park there are too timid to park out front. They’re either total ‘laydowns’—which means they buy whatever you want for whatever price—or they have extremely bad credit.”

2. They are speaking in code to each other. (Yes, about you.)

A potential customer is an “up,” a new salesperson is an inexperienced “green-pea,” and a buyer with no credit history is a “ghost.” Taking up too much of a salesman’s time without actually buying? You’re a “stroke.” If you’re lugging paperwork around—like newspaper ads or car reports—you’re a “professor.” And “one-legged shoppers” are customers without their spouses, which is a regular excuse for why they can’t buy right now—gotta ask the old ball and chain!

3. They believe there is no difference between a new car and a new puppy.

The best lingo appears when a customer is on the fence about buying a car: That’s when, sometimes, dealerships will insist they take the car home for the night. This is called “puppy-dogging.” Mark McDonald, a career car salesman and author of the “Car Salesman Confidential” column at MotorTrend.com, explains: “When customers show it to their friends and neighbors, they will make such a fuss over it—just as they would a new puppy—that they’ll have no choice but to buy it.”

4. Their co-workers are cutthroat.

Forget about the high failure rates, pressures to sell, and potential debts to their employers. Car salespeople also have to endure brutal tactics used by fellow salespeople. For example: It’s your day off? Opportunistic coworkers might tell your loyal customers that you’ve been fired, sell the car themselves, and keep the commission. “Some people would step over their own mothers to get that car sale,” McDonald says. They also risk life and limb whenever buyers take them out on a test drive. “I once went for a ride with a drug dealer in Oakland who took me on a test drive to collect drug money,” Teves recalls. “Any test drive when you come back alive is a successful test drive.”

5. They keep their eyes on the prize.

“Sometimes, a piece of inventory just won’t sell, so the general manager will keep lowering the price,” Wheeler explains. The dealership loses money on these cars, but the salesperson still gets commission. If a car is proving particularly hard to sell, some dealerships hand out cash prizes, called “spiffs,” to whoever finally sells it. As a salesperson, “you could make $5000 to $10,000 a year on spiffs alone,” McDonald says. In fact, the first car a salesperson usually shows you is a spiff. Instead of promising a specific cash amount, some dealerships have their own “wheel of fortune” with various spiff prizes on it. Salespeople could get $100, or they could get nothing, depending on where the wheel lands.

6. Despite the fun and games, they’re not rolling in dough.

The average car salesperson’s salary in 2012 was just under $45,000. And it doesn’t come easy. Many salespeople work purely on commission, meaning they only make money if they sell a car. “We’re not paid anything for standing there 12 hours a day and not selling,” says McDonald. “And if I work a whole week and don’t sell a car that week, I make nothing. When I do finally sell a car, I might make a minimum commission, which at my dealership is $125. When you divide that by 60 to 90 hours a week, it’s nothing.” Smith agrees, citing an average success rate of about 20 percent. “We lose in this industry a whole lot more than we win.”

7. In fact, they might owe their boss money.

If a salesperson has a dry spell, some dealerships will let them draw against their commissions until they can pay it back. In car sales lingo, this is called being “in the bucket.” McDonald says, “Once you get in the bucket, it can be very hard to get out. You could owe $4,000 or $5,000 after two or three months. When that happens, the only thing you can do is quit.”

8. Lots of movement on the lot? Must be a slow day.

One strategy for luring customers is to rotate the vehicles around the lot to convey a busy, vibrant environment. “I tell my guys all the time to go out there and move the whole front line of cars,” Smith says. “Play musical chairs with the cars and customers start moving in. Action creates reaction.” And while there’s no concrete evidence to support it, an unspoken rule is that balloons somehow sell cars. On slow days, salespeople go nuts with them. “I worked at a dealership where you had to put 150 balloons out every day,” Teves says. “By the time you were done, you were exhausted. You didn’t have any energy left to sell a car.”

9. The job is going the way of the dodo.

In 2015, more than a million Americans work at car dealerships. But that could change. Thanks to the Internet, people now walk into dealerships with their minds already made up. They don’t need—or want—a salesperson’s pitch. It makes sense that some dealerships are trading in their inflatable gorillas for online ads, as the Internet is by far their top referral source. In 2013, brand activity on Twitter alone drove $716 million in car sales, according to marketing analytics firm MarketShare. In other words, for better or worse, selling cars is becoming less of an art that involves human interaction, and more of a science that doesn’t.

10. Bad reputations sting more than you’d think.

In a recent Gallup poll, car salespeople were ranked as some of the least honest, least ethical professionals in America, just above members of Congress (who came in last) and below bankers, lawyers, and ad professionals. This stigma has genuinely negative effects: According to a 2007 study published in the Journal of Selling, awareness of this stereotype hurts job performance. When they feel they’re being judged, salespeople don’t try as hard; they think they’ve already lost the sale. Customers then see the salesperson as detached and uncaring, and aren’t as likely to buy—and the cycle perpetuates! Managers can help, the study suggests, by training and providing support and empathy for salespeople. Customers can try to keep an open mind. And the salespeople themselves? They can build relationships, follow up after a sale, and remember honesty is the best policy. After all, as Smith says, “It is our responsibility to help change their opinions.” Of course, that, like puppy-dogging and these things, could just be another hard sell.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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