How To Sell A Car (or anything else for that matter)

How To Sell A Car

I seem to have struck a nerve…

I don’t like upsetting people (well not much!) but when it results in money dropping into my bank account, I’m prepared to grin and bear it. If you ever have to write advertisements or sales letters, the lesson of what happened here could provide a breakthrough for you.

It all started a couple of months ago, when I decided to buy a ‘fun’ car with a friend who we’ll call Dave to save him from further humiliation and embarrassment.

Now Dave is possibly the most fussy and cautious car buyer on Gods earth, so when he said he’d found a car which matched our requirements perfectly, I had absolutely no doubt that he was right. He’d asked a thousand and one questions on the phone, had dozens of photographs emailed through, and done all the finance and HPI checks. He’d rung the dealer where the car was originally purchased, and the specialist that had modified it. He’d even insisted on speaking to the actual mechanic who did the work!

Everything looked okay, so when Dave asked me whether I would like to get up at 5.00am and go with him down to Essex to inspect and buy the car, I decided on balance that I would not like to do that at all. This was to prove to be a big mistake.

The owner lived in Germany and so he brought the car over on the overnight ferry and arranged to meet Dave in a Macdonalds car park somewhere in London dormitory land. You might think you know where this is heading, but I’ll guarantee that you’re wrong!

Dave arrived at the appointed hour and the car and seller were already there. He examined the car; it looked fine. He examined the paperwork; that was all in order. So Dave got in the car with the seller and they drove the 10 miles to the sellers bank (which happily was also Dave’s bank) and a transfer of funds was arranged. The paperwork and keys were handed over , handshakes were exchanged, and the seller disappeared in a taxi, back to the ferry terminal.

Dave walked over to our new purchase, climbed into the drivers seat, and reached out to make sure it wasn ’t in gear before starting the engine. The gearstick felt strange – or rather it didn’t, because there wasn’ t one. He instinctively moved his left foot to depress the clutch. That wasn’t there either!

Despite having read the advertisement, asked the owner dozens of questions, spoken to the people who’d sold and modified the car, inspected it, and then been a passenger for ten miles in it….he’d failed to notice that it was in fact – automatic! Not what we wanted at all. He’d become so obsessed with the finer detail, that he’d completely overlooked something fundamental. This is something that’s actually very easy to do in business and something worthy of exploring further, but that will have to wait for another day, because today, we have other fish to fry.

Dave phoned me with the grim news. I tried to put a brave face on it. After all, he may have argued (with some justification) that if I’d got my idle arse out of bed and gone with him, this wouldn’t have happened. But we both knew that this was a cock up of monumental proportions, and the car would have to be sold again.

I wrote an ad’ for the car which was competent, if not groundbreaking, and it brought in a lot of enquiries. Some of those enquirers made appointments to view the car, and I expected it to sell very quickly. But it soon became apparent that what we had here was a ‘timewaster magnet’. I’ve sold cars in the past at 3 times the price without difficulty, and without encountering the sort of scroat who’s idea of a good day out is to drive a car he can’t afford to buy. But this was different.

About fifteen people turned up, inspected the car, drove it, said only good things about it and then scuttled off in their tinny Euroboxes never to be seen or heard of again. Some muttered about having to sell their own car first or having other cars to see. Others said it wasn’t the colour they wanted or they’d have to check the insurance. But nobody came up with the cash – because they had no intention of buying in the first place. Dave, who as his penance was handling the viewing’s (and who suffers fools even less gladly than me) was becoming more than a little irate with the parade of human flotsam and jetsam cluttering up his driveway, all to no effect.

So I decided to do something I’ve done in the past – something totally counter-intuitive. I decided to rewrite the advertisement to ruffle a few feathers, and actively put people off . After the description of the car, here’s what I wrote:

“Just one more thing. This car is re-advertised due to what less charitable folk might call `time-wasters`but I prefer to call, people who let their imagination and enthusiasm run away with them. I’m a reasonable bloke, but I am pretty busy. Can I therefore respectfully point out a number of circumstances in which I would prefer that you don’t make an enquiry about the car…..

1. If you‘re waiting for a mug to come along and buy your car for £5,000 more than it’s worth so that you can afford to buy mine. It won’t happen.

2. If you’re waiting for a tax rebate, loan repayment or to be paid by a customer for work you’ve done.
Yes I’ve heard all of those.

3. If you really want a car which isn’t black. This one is.

4. If you don’t want a car with a supercharger. It has one. They whine a bit.

5. If you have several others to look at. Go and look at them first. Buy one if you like it. Come to me if you don’t find something that suits.

6. If you’re looking to nail some poor sucker to the floor on price because `they must be desperate` in this market. I’m not.

Assuming that none of the above applies, and that you have funds available to buy, I genuinely look forward to hearing from you and answering any questions you might have. Previous viewers who I’ ve now insulted are most welcome to make an offer, at which point I will apologise unreservedly for calling them timewasting oxygen thieves – which I just have!”

I suspect you’ve probably never seen a car ad’ like that before. But there were several reasons for doing it, which you might find interesting if you ever have to sell things to other people (and we all have to do that from time to time)…

1. It got attention

The first goal of any advertisement is to get attention. If it doesn’t get read, then it can’t possibly sell. There are a number of ways of making an advertisement attention-grabbing, and one of those ways is to make it different and unique. This stood out dramatically from the hundreds of other ‘samey’ car ad’s which fail to grab the reader. An interesting bi-product of this ad’ was that it got talked about on internet forums, drew a dozen or so complimentary emails from people who weren’t interested in the car but liked the ad, and prompted two dealers to frame it up and stick it on their office walls. Not surprisingly, they could sympathise with the sentiment.

2. It pushed some people away

This is a ‘secret’ that few people preparing advertisements, ever discover. It isn’t necessary to please everyone with your ad’. Actively pushing some people away is no bad thing . There are groups of people who are never going to buy from you anyway, so there’s nothing to be lost by firmly pushing them away and targeting your appeal and emotional content exclusively towards the people who may respond positively. Who would be offended or upset by this ad? People who go for test drives in cars they have no intention of buying.

3. It drew other people closer

This is a curious thing, but whenever you push some people way, you almost always simultaneously draw others closer in.

They might be the people who sympathise and empathise with your position. In this case they are the people who have suffered at the hands of time-wasting car viewers in the past. They would have perhaps liked to write something like that in their own ad’s, but were worried it might ruin their chances of making a sale. The truth though, is quite the reverse. You only need one buyer to make a sale, and that person isn’t going to come from the group of people offended and dissuaded by an advertisement like this.

The other group brought closer, are those who (maybe on a subliminal level) are flattered that they qualify to view what you ’re selling. They know they’re not timewasters; they know they’re serious buyers, and the fact that you’ve restricted your offer exclusive to them makes it more likely that they will be motivated to take it up.

Whatever the underlying psychology, those people who have been brought closer already feel a connection with you as the author of the advertisement, and that can only make a sale more likely.

4. It saved time

The average ‘time-waster’ would have to be pretty thick skinned to turn up after reading this. All his excuses and ‘get-outs’ have been dealt with. So the only enquiries after this are likely to be from people with a genuine interest in buying,…people who have the money…and people who know that you’re not a soft touch for a silly offer.

So what was the result?

Well 30 people responded to the original advertisement over a period of several weeks. Fifteen came to view and none of them bought. Lots of people responded to the second advert, but most were emails praising, the advertisement. Surprisingly there were no calls from any of the folk I’d just heartily insulted. Too embarrassed perhaps?

Anyway, just 3 people enquired about buying the car,
two came to look at it and one bought…all within 7 days.

Fast, efficient and with little time wasted.

Now I have to admit that this isn’t an easy trick to pull off. If you get the tone wrong, you can easily come across as arrogant and aggressive, and end up offending and upsetting everyone. I’m sure you’ve seen car ad’s that end with an abrupt ‘No timewasters’. This is no good at all. But if you can employ a little reverse psychology in your ad’ s like this – perhaps softened by some humour – it can pay massive dividends.

If you’re having trouble selling something it could be worth giving some thought to how you might put a few people off. I think you might be pleasantly surprised by the result.

John Harrison

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