Steering Clear of Bad Customer Service
Demand Top-Notch Treatment — and Walk If You Don't Get It
The car-buying experience is so torturous, John Krafcik, the CEO of Hyundai Motor America told an industry gathering last year, that "Americans would rather go to the dentist than visit a car dealer." When the head of a major car company openly admits the extent of the problem, and when Edmunds Forums are filled with angry accounts from shoppers, it's a sorry state of affairs.
It's clear that car buying shouldn't be so painful, but rather than waiting for dealers to change, consumers should take control of the shopping experience. Dealer ratings and reviews can at least steer shoppers to a better dealership. Consumers should demand excellent customer service. And they should know the signs of a deal that's going south and have a strategy for how to get things back on track.
Part of the problem is that buying a car is not like buying some other big-ticket item. It's the naïve consumer who goes to a car dealership thinking it will be like shopping at Best Buy or Walmart, where customer service counts and the buying process holds few surprises. Although dealerships proudly display the badges of the cars they sell, they are independently owned franchises that are not controlled by the manufacturer. When consumers go car shopping, the brand is not necessarily an indicator of how they're going to be treated.
A dealership's Internet sales department can offer an expedited shopping route that bypasses many of the most egregious car-buying annoyances, but only about 30 percent of all shoppers take advantage of it. Apparently, the rest of the car buyers feel the need for the face-to-face, hands-on car shopping experience.
Over the past 10 years, I've bought at least 100 cars for the Edmunds.com long-term testing fleet, so I've received both great and shoddy customer treatment. I've also informally helped other car buyers, heard countless complaints and talked to car dealers and salesmen at all levels. Based on all that, here is my best advice on how to navigate your way to a good car-buying experience.
The Four Things That Make Car-Buying Painful
When you spend a lot of money on a product or service, whether it's going on vacation, buying a smartly tailored suit or getting the big-screen TV of your dreams, your outlay of cash usually brings a commensurate degree of pleasure. But in car buying, the pleasure of a major purchase can be tainted with a feeling of anger and the gnawing uncertainty that you've been had. Consumers identify these as the top four things they hate about car buying:
The negotiation process. Most buyers loathe the dickering required to buy a car. The now-defunct Saturn brand built a loyal following not so much for its cars, but for offering no-haggle prices and sticking to them.
The pressure tactics. Consumers are usually out of their comfort zone in the dealership environment, and they understandably hate the bullying and intimidation that often occurs. The pressure-cooker approach reaches its pinnacle in so-called "turnover houses," which are dealerships that send in teams of salesmen and multiple managers to wear down buyers and gang up on them to close the deal.
The inefficiency. Dealerships use the game called "I have to go talk to my boss" to intentionally waste time, suck the consumer into a protracted visit and, theoretically, increase the likelihood of a sale. The dealership wastes even more customer time with slow contract preparation, signing and vehicle prep.
The lack of transparency. Most car buyers are willing to pay a fair price. But it's an exercise in frustration to get a salesman to simply name that price. Salesmen routinely obscure the real price of the car by presenting only the monthly payment to a consumer. The finance and insurance managers obfuscate further during contract preparation, where additions such as extended warranties often increase the price without a clear explanation of the actual cost of the add-on.
Some Dealers Are Changing
Although there is a general acknowledgement that the customer experience in car buying stinks, the process is not changing all that quickly. Hyundai chief Krafcik touched a nerve with his dentist-visit comparison, and acknowledged that turning around the industry "will require some revolutionary thinking." It will only occur when "we listen to our customers and respond to their needs."
Some brands and dealership chains apparently are listening, and are addressing some of the dealer tactics that consumers hate. General Motors brought in trainers from Ritz-Carlton Hotels to show Cadillac dealers how to give their customers the royal treatment. One suggestion from Ritz was for dealerships to give their salesmen "credo cards" that clearly spelled out how customers should be treated — and then make them adhere to the good-treatment gospel.
Marc Cannon, senior vice president of corporate communications for fast-growing AutoNation, which has 200 dealerships nationwide, says that the company has created a "menu system" to show car buyers exactly what they would pay for a car. This reverses the usual process at dealerships, which is to avoid revealing expenses and fees until later in the purchase process. Another big change came when AutoNation reduced the sale transaction time to 2.5 hours, down from the industry norm of 4 hours. He says that every discussion at AutoNation centers on the question, "How does this affect the customer?"
Consumers Can "Test-Drive" Dealerships
It's great that some dealers and industry executives understand that the old ways of car selling can't continue. The task for the car shopper is finding enlightened dealers while avoiding the old-school obfuscators and tricksters.
Edmunds' Dealer Ratings & Reviews pages carries consumer accounts of their car-shopping experiences — both good and bad — so other shoppers can be forewarned and forearmed. The reviews also include information on the service process.
Smart Shopper, in the Edmunds Forums, is another place to learn about dealerships ahead of time. The behaviors described in this forum include dealer game-playing, lying, high-pressure sales tactics and incompetence. In some Edmunds forum discussions, shoppers list prices they've paid and describe the different tricks and traps they encounter. In others, car buyers share the names of the salespeople who treated them right. Reading through these posts provides a wealth of information about the behavior you're likely to encounter at some dealerships.
Consumers also can find dealership reviews on Google, which collects them from various other sites, such as Yelp. The downside here is that reviews are often either one star, indicating a horrible experience, or an unrealistically rosy five stars, indicating that the review may have been written by an employee of the dealership. Still, the reviews of one California dealership are in line with what two Edmunds.com mystery shoppers encountered.
Finally, consumers can consult J.D. Power and Associates' annual Sales Satisfaction Index Study, which ranks mass-market and luxury automakers according to customer satisfaction with four aspects of the sales experience: working out the deal, the salesperson, the delivery process and the dealership facility. But since almost all car dealerships are franchises, one consumer's experience may be very different from another's.
What To Do When Things Go Wrong
The telltale signs of a get-the-customer dealership usually surface as soon as you set foot on the lot. I'll repeat that the best approach is to use the Internet, have the car delivered and avoid going to dealerships altogether. But if you feel compelled to shop in person, here's what to do if things start to go wrong:
Use your intuition. Many shoppers don't pay attention to their feelings. If you feel uncomfortable, then something is probably wrong. Try to pinpoint the source of your discomfort and act accordingly.
Walk away. Many people feel they have an obligation to stay in a dealership, even when they are being mistreated. You're not a prisoner: Leave if you don't like the way things are going. You don't have to say good-bye, thank anyone or even apologize. Just leave. You can always approach the same dealership later, either through the Internet department or by coming back another time, when you'll have a shot at a different salesman.
Ask for a new salesman. If you don't like the way you are being treated, ask to speak with the sales manager. Politely explain the problem and ask to be given a different salesperson. But be aware that this might not improve things: The salesmen might all be acting from the same script. In that case, take your business elsewhere.
Talk with the general manager. If you're committed to staying in the negotiation, but you still don't like the treatment you're getting, ask to speak with the general manager. Many salespeople stubbornly try to enforce the rules of the dealership. The general manager has the power to waive or bend the rules to please customers. And merely asking for the general manger might be a shot across the salesman's bow that will change the tone of the encounter.
Keep going higher. If you can't resolve the problem with the general manager, take it up with the owner of the dealership, whether that is an individual, a local corporation or a dealer group such as AutoNation. It's best to handle this by phone, e-mail or letter so you have a record of the discussions, which are likely to be acrimonious if you have reached this stage. Keep in mind, however, that you can't rely on the car manufacturer as a court of last resort. Carmakers have little direct control over dealership franchises.
Take it public. If you actually completed a sale and have a problem with it, you can consider small claims court or a full-scale lawsuit. You could also file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau — assuming the dealership is a member or cares about a BBB rating. Some people have resolved their problem by going to local TV stations or newspapers' investigative reporters — or threatening to do so.
Car shopping should be an enjoyable experience. It's the job of the dealership personnel to make you comfortable and fulfill your needs. But it's your job to only work with dealerships that merit your business. If you do, you'll save money and you might possibly have a car-buying experience that's a pleasure instead of a pain.