What Is a ‘Bird Dog’ in Car Sales?

When you walk into a dealership to buy a car, you’re probably not aware that a lot goes on behind the scenes. Of course, as the customer, it might not matter that much to you. But in some cases, your very presence could mean a bigger payout for the salesperson that’s helping you. Here is how it works.

A “bird dog” could mean more money for the salesperson

A man looks for the destination fees on the sticker of a new car at a dealership.
A man examines a new car sticker. | Tim Boyle via Getty Images

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Don’t worry, your salesperson isn’t going to add any more fees or taxes to the car your buying in order to make more money. Instead, a “bird dog” in the car business refers to a salesperson, or third party, that refers a potential customer to another salesperson in exchange for part of the commission, according to The Free Dictionary.

The meaning of the term stems from the hunting dogs that are used to track down and retrieve birds that have been shot. It’s a catchy term and as you can see, it doesn’t really affect the customer. If anything, it’s actually helpful for customers since they’ll be pointed in the right direction, and possibly the right salesperson, to find the car that they want.

How much do salespeople make for bird dog referrals?

A couple sitting across from a car salesman while shopping for a car.
A couple shopping at a dealership. | Tim Boyle/Bloomberg News via Getty Images

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Around $25 to $50 per referred customer. However, that referral fee can be much higher depending on the agreement between the two salespeople and what kind of car the customers buy. A lot of times, this practice of referring customers is set up between an auto broker and a dealership salesperson in order to help each other out when it comes to getting business.

Essentially, bird dogs are just “middlemen” in the deal. There have even been times when customers have been bird dogs for dealers as a way to make a little money on the side. But don’t expect to approach a salesperson with that type of proposal as it could be illegal in some states.

How can this referral service be good for customers?

used car dealer shaking on the deal
(GERMANY OUT) DEU, Deutschland, Berlin: A turkish couple at AUDI.- Ali Haydar Berkpinar, a turkish salesman handing over the key. (Photo by Yavuz Arslan/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

While it sounds like a bird dog referral only benefits the salespeople involved – since they’re getting paid – it can actually benefit the customer as well. For example, if you’re looking for a specific make, model, and configuration of a certain vehicle, then you would want to ensure that you can find it in the easiest way possible, right?

In that case, being referred to another salesperson that can get the job done would be ideal. In that case, it wouldn’t really matter if they’re getting an extra spiff for helping you. Ultimately, if you end up liking the service that the salesperson provides, then you can refer your friends and family to them as well.

However, if you don’t want to deal with potentially being passed to another salesperson, then you can always conduct your car-buying research beforehand. By using tools like Edmunds, Autotrader, and Kelley Blue Book, you can find out as much information as possible about the car, or cars, that you’re interested in. By arming yourself with as much knowledge as possible, you can also skip the middleman – or bird dog – and find the car you’re looking for without having to talk to multiple people.