Is Being a Car Salesman a Good Job and How Do They Get Paid?


A lot of people have a pretty low opinion of car salesmen and saleswomen because they think they’re only there to try and earn as much commission out of you as they possibly can. In some cases that can definitely be true, but have you ever stopped to wonder if being a car sales exec is a good job or how they actually earn their money?

I was in the retail auto business for almost a decade before getting out of that side of things and into automotive writing and journalism, so let me tell you the truth about what it’s like to sell cars for a living and how you earn your money in that job.

Is car sales a good job to be in?

Being a car sales executive can be a really good career if you’re suited to it, but it can also be the worst job in the world if you’re not the right sort of person. The job can often involve long hours, few breaks, working weekends, self-doubt, and a less-than-favorable standing in the eyes of other people because of your occupation. On the other hand, being a car salesman can also mean an enjoyable working environment, good money, and enjoyable lifestyle, and the opportunity to run and drive some pretty sweet cars.

Do you need to be a car fanatic to be a car salesman?

It’s certainly a good starting point for embarking on a career in the retail auto sales business if you have a love of all things automotive, but it’s certainly not a prerequisite for getting a job as a car salesman. Some of the most successful and best-paid sales execs I’ve ever come across didn’t have much interest in cars at all, but they were the exception rather than the rule.

At the other end of the interest spectrum, if you’re a committed gear head and you know absolutely everything about the workings of the internal combustion engine you may not make a great salesman at all. Most buyers are not particularly technically minded and they’re more concerned about what the car and its features can do for them, rather than how things work.

Is car sales a stressful job?

Car sales can be one of the most stressful jobs you can have at times, and there are two different types of stress involved. One is the stress of having to make enough sales to at least keep you and your family financially afloat, and the other is the stress placed on you by your employers to meet what can sometimes be extremely demanding sales and profit targets. Being a car salesman isn’t as stressful as being a brain surgeon or an air traffic controller, but it can sometimes feel as though it is.

Can anyone get a job in car sales?

There are generally no qualifications or prerequisites required when it comes to landing a job as a car salesman, and that means it can be a very well paid job for people who might not have the opportunity to get anywhere near a car sales exec’s salary in any other walk of life. You could go to college for years and rack up a $70,000 debt in the process and not earn half as much as a car sales exec can earn when you finally complete your degree, and the only qualification you need to be a car salesman most of the time is a driver’s license.

Despite the potential financial rewards that are undoubtedly there for good car sales execs, dealerships can often find it difficult to recruit new salesmen. Dealerships are often prepared to give people a chance who would never even get an interview for a job paying anything like as much in another industry, so it can be a fantastic opportunity if you’re prepared to give it a go.

What hours do car salesmen work?

There are no set industry standards as far as the hours that car sales executives are expected to work, but the hours can be long and you can probably forget nine to five. Some prestige dealerships may open relatively sensible hours but mass-market franchises and used car supermarkets will open all the hours God sends as long as buyers want to shop then.

It’s not uncommon for car sales to be a six-days-a-week job, or at least six days one week and five days the next on a rota basis. You’ll usually have to be ready to start work or be present at a morning meeting for around 8.30am, and you might still be at work on a normal day at 6pm or later. Weekend closing times can be earlier, but expect to be expected to work most weekends, if not every weekend apart from when you’re on vacation.

How do car salesmen get paid?

Car salesmen usually get paid a combination of a basic wage and commission, but the balance of the two can vary vastly from one dealership to another. The basic wage will usually be fairly low, and usually around minimum wage for a 40-hour job even though you might work 60 hours or more. Your basic will not change depending on the number of hours you work, and that’s one of the issues with being in car sales.

The commission is what being a car salesman is really all about, but once again, the commission rates and how they are calculated can vary massively from one employer to another. As a rough rule of thumb, the higher the basic wage the less commission there will be available and vice-versa.

Although you don’t need any formal qualifications to be a car salesman, in some cases you might need a degree in applied math to properly understand the commission scheme. I’ll tell you more about commission schemes later.

How much can a car salesman make in a year?

The average wage in the US for a cars sales exec is around $42,000 per year, although it’s also possible to earn as little as $19,000 or as much as $83,000 or more in some cases. That’s not too bad for a job that doesn’t require a college degree or any other sort of formal qualifications, but it’s not the end of the story either.

Like most decent jobs, car salespeople can also get other benefits such as health insurance, dental plans, a 401(k) plan and company cars. The last of those is the most common benefit and it’s the reason many of us get drawn towards the auto industry in the first place. If you fancy driving a brand car all the time and swapping it for a new one every three months or so, it’s hard to think of another job that offers such a massive benefit. Of course, not every dealership will offer sales execs a company car, but it can be the best way they have of attracting decent candidates.

There can, of course, be tax liabilities associated with getting a company car, but it’s hard to believe it’s not more financially beneficial to have a company car than to buy the same car or one similar out of your own money.

Commissions

Your new commission scheme explained

As well as commissions on vehicle sales, it’s also possible to earn extra commissions for sales of finance products and add-ons such as paint protection. Some dealerships keep those sales and commissions for finance managers or business managers, but even then, you could still be targeted on the percentage of your sales that have these extras.

That brings me nicely to the incredibly complex and contentious issue of commission schemes. If you’re lucky you could end up working for a small independent dealership where they have a simple system such as a set percentage of the profit of each unit sold. In the same type of dealership, it could be a little more complicated, and you might be on a sliding scale where you get a certain percentage of the profit for each unit up to a certain number in the month and a different percentage for a higher number. These are called commission “bands” and there can be as many as the dealership wants there to be and this is where things can start to get out of hand.

Qualifying for different commission bands can involve any number of criteria. It could be based on units sold, the vehicle model mix, finance penetration percentages and any other number of variables. In some cases I’ve come across in the past the structure was so complex that it was impossible to calculate your commission or know what you needed to do to get into a higher commission band without using the requisite computer program.

And if you think the way you get paid when you start is the way you’ll always get paid then think again. Once again, in my experience, dealerships like to tinker with the commission scheme either every year or whenever they think people are earning what they perceive to be too much.

For example, if your brand launches a new model that’s so in-demand that there’s a waiting list and every car is being sold for the full MSRP, the dealership might decide to lower the commission level on that particular model because it “sells itself” and you are just an order taker. Ask any car salesman or ex-car salesman about commission schemes and be prepared for a lengthy tale of woe and despair!

What cars do salesmen get to drive?

As a car sales exec you’ll get to drive whatever cars your dealership deals in, but what you get as a company car and the cars you drive as part of your job could be very different things. If you end up working for a mass-market new car franchise such as a GM, Ford or Toyota dealership you’ll probably get one of the cars you sell as a company car. However, if you work as a sales exec for a Bentley or Porsche dealership you’re not going to get a new Porsche or Bentley as your company car.  

We then have dealerships in the middle, such as Jaguar Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and the like, and some of these will give some of their entry-level models to sales execs but others might not. You could work for a Mercedes dealership and find yourself with a VW Golf or similar as your company car, but a new car is still better than no new car isn’t it?

There’s also usually a hierarchy of company cars in a dealership, which means the more senior you are the higher-spec model you get to drive. For example, as a sales exec in a Chevrolet dealership, you might get a new Spark as a company car, while a senior sales exec might get an Impala and a manager might get a Camaro, Blazer or a Suburban.

It might be a good time now to tell you a little more about what to expect if you get a car sales job with a company car. Unless you work for a prestige brand and they obtain cars from another brand explicitly for use as company cars, the car you get will probably be classed as a demonstrator.

This means your car can be used at any time for customer test drives and you might have to swap it for another car on a day off or a vacation if it’s going to be needed while you’re away from the dealership. They also get loaned out by the service department, and I could write an entire book on the pros and cons of having a demo as your company car. There are plenty of pros, but there are often many, many, many more cons you’ll have to deal with.

How do you get a car sales job?

Car sales jobs get advertised in the same places as other jobs in other industries, so online recruitment sites like indeed.com are as good a place as any to start your search. If you’re really serious about getting a job in car sales in your local area though, I’d suggest you go to your local dealerships and ask to speak to the sales manager. Ask if they have any vacancies, offer them a copy of your CV and ask them to keep your details on file should anything come up in the future. Remember, this is a sales job you’re applying for and why would they believe you can sell cars for them if you can’t do a convincing job of selling yourself? In my experience, when a dealership needs a salesman they often need them as soon as possible, and unlike many other types of employers, they really are very likely to get in contact if you’ve made a good impression.   

Sean Cooper

Former retail auto industry professional for almost a decade and an automotive writer and journalist for the last 8 years

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