In 2009, John Krafcik, who was then the CEO of Hyundai Motor America, told an industry gathering that the car-buying experience is so torturous that "Americans would rather go to the dentist than visit a car dealer." It's the rare car shopper who would have disagreed with him.
Car buying shouldn't be painful. And, finally, things are changing to make it less so.
Edmunds has introduced Price PromiseSM, which gives car shoppers on Edmunds.com a guaranteed, upfront price on a specific car. Price Promise answers the top complaint of car shoppers: their inability to get a price on a car. Also, shoppers are increasingly learning to use dealership Internet departments, which vastly improves the car shopping experience for many buyers.
Some brands and dealership chains are changing, too, borrowing best practices from industries that exemplify excellent customer service. In 2009, 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.
More recently, Chevrolet asked its 3,000-plus U.S. dealers to attend introductory training sessions at the Disney Institute, which trains organizations in the "Disney Way." A car dealership isn't a theme park, but the institute believes their goals are the same: Make the customers' experiences so enjoyable that they will want to come back again and again.
AutoNation, which has more than 250 dealerships nationwide, created a "menu system" to show car buyers exactly what they would pay for a car, says Marc Cannon, senior vice president of corporate communications. This reverses the usual process at dealerships, which tends to delay the discussion of expenses and fees until late in the purchase process. Another big change came when AutoNation brought down the sale transaction time from 4 hours to 2.5 hours. Cannon says that every discussion at AutoNation centers on the question, "How does this affect the customer?"
Deciding on Where To Buy
It's encouraging that some dealers and industry executives understand that the old ways of car selling can't continue. The task for the car shopper is to find those enlightened dealers.
Edmunds' Dealer Ratings & Reviews present actual consumer accounts of their car-shopping experiences (both good and bad) so other shoppers can learn from them. The reviews also include information on service department experiences.
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 an employee of the dealership, or family and friends, might have written the review.
Once you've identified a good dealership, communicate with its Internet department. That's the best way to avoid the problems that can crop up when you shop in person.
Finally, before going to a dealership for a test-drive, it's a good idea to test-drive your salesperson first. This can help you avoid being randomly assigned to someone who may not be a good fit for you.
What if Things Go Wrong?
If things start to go south when you're car shopping, here's what to do:
Use your intuition. Many shoppers don't pay attention to their feelings. If you feel uncomfortable, then something is probably wrong with the way the salesperson is treating you. In some cases, the salesperson could be exerting a subtle form of pressure, either by using manipulative language or trying to create a sense of obligation. Try to pinpoint the source of your discomfort and act accordingly.
Walk away. For some reason, there are shoppers who feel they have an obligation to stay in a dealership, even if they feel uncomfortable with the way the salesman is treating them. You're not a prisoner: Leave if you don't like the way things are going. You don't even have to say good-bye, thank anyone or 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 probably get a different salesman.
Ask for a new salesperson. If you don't like the way you are being treated, ask to speak with the sales manager. Politely explain the problem and ask for a different salesperson. But be aware that this might not improve things: The salespeople might all be working 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 must enforce the rules of the dealership if they want to keep their jobs. The general manager has more power to waive or bend the rules to please customers. And merely asking for the general manager will likely change the tone of the discussion.
If you have purchased a car and, for whatever reason, changed your mind about it, it's important to understand that that the dealership will probably not "unwind the deal" and take the car back. A dealership is usually under no legal obligation to take back a car, but it is sometimes possible to negotiate a return.
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. It's best to handle this by phone, e-mail or letter so you have a record of the discussions, which might be acrimonious if you have reached this stage. Keep in mind, however, that you can't always rely on the car manufacturer as a court of last resort. Carmakers have some control over dealership franchises through customer service surveys (a poor score can affect allocations of car models, for example), but they can't force dealers to change how they treat car buyers.
Take it public. If you actually completed a sale and have a serious problem with it that the dealership is unwilling to address, you can do a number of things, ranging from sharing your experiences with the world via an online review up to a small-claims court action or a full-scale lawsuit. You could also file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, assuming that 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 by threatening to do so.
Car shopping should be an enjoyable experience. And as more dealerships come to understand that it's their job to make you comfortable and fulfill your needs as they sell you a car, we're getting closer to that goal.
Now it's your job to work with dealerships that merit your business. If you do, your next car buying experience could be a real pleasure.