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Car Salesman Confidential: Evil… or Incompetence?

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 1/3/2014 Mark McDonald

There is an assumption that car dealerships are well-oiled, money-harvesting machines kind of like the KGB or the Mafia, or maybe the evil Empire from "Star Wars," where everything we do is a result of a deliberate plan to cheat customers out of their money. But the truth is, most of the dealerships where I've worked have more in common with the Three Stooges than Darth Vader. And sometimes what we do seems designed to cheat ourselves out of our own money.


Case in point: A woman came in one morning to buy a car. Let's call her Velma. I followed the usual process: the Meet & Greet, the Needs Analysis, the Test Drive, the Trade Appraisal, yada yada yada. At some point early on our used car manager happened to be standing nearby, so I introduced him. Velma told the manager a little bit about her trade -- a 4-year-old, low-mileage Mercedes SUV -- and mentioned that she had seen the ad on our website that said we would give her $1000 over the Kelley Blue Book trade-in value for it. My used car manager nodded his head like he knew exactly what she was talking about, and reassured her that we would do what our ad said, then went off to appraise her vehicle. I overheard all this but wasn't paying much attention and promptly forgot about it.

Velma's trade-in was in good condition and it was a nice vehicle, but it was a V-8 with poor gas mileage and not the kind of thing in high demand in the area, particularly not at a Zorch dealership. During the discussions between the used car manager and the new car manager that led up to the creation of the "first pencil" -- the first set of numbers presented to a customer-- it was agreed that the woman probably wanted top dollar for her trade, but the actual Kelley Blue Book value was never discussed. (As I've mentioned in previous blogs, KBB is not used by very many dealerships to determine trade-in value, at least not in my area.) This would later turn out to be a critical error.

When I presented the first pencil to Velma she was angry and came back at me hard on several counts. First, we hadn't given her USAA pricing on our car. Second, where was the Loyalty Money for being a Zorch owner? (She also owned a Zorch.) Third, we were showing her an interest rate of 3.9 percent, but our website said there was a 0 percent offer on 2013 models. Finally, and most importantly, our website said that we would give every customer $1000 over Kelley Blue Book for their trade.

I sat there completely gobsmacked, as the Brits say. I felt like a bomb had been dropped on me. "Where did you see all this again?" I asked. "Your website," Velma replied. "Ah," I said, trying to joke it off, "It sounds like our website is going to make it completely impossible for me to make any money today!!" She laughed. I laughed. But inside, I was crying.

We then went to my computer and looked at the site. I have often found in these situations that the customer is mistaken. Either they've confused another dealer's website with ours, or they've been looking at the manufacturer's website, or they haven't read the ad correctly. So when I pulled up our website I breathed a sigh of relief. None of the things Velma mentioned were on our home page. But she was insistent, so I asked her how she had found the website. When Velma typed the dealership's name into Google a totally different website popped up, one I had never seen before. And it was almost as if I had entered some distorted parallel universe.

This site, which was definitely ours, had ads all over it advertising the things Velma mentioned: USAA pricing, Loyalty Money, the 0 percent financing, and a grand over KBB trade-in value. And there was no fine print anywhere. No disclaimers, no time limits, nothing to get us off the hook. We had been completely undone by our own website.

Here's what happened, as far as I can tell. My dealership was owned by a large national chain. I won't tell you the name of the chain because it has small teams of lawyers trained better than Navy SEALs. They're standing by at all times, ready to parachute into my backyard before I can even finish typing this sentence if I mention its name. So I won't. But what this chain does, apparently, is run two separate websites for each of its dealerships. I'm not quite sure why -- I'm sure it's brilliant -- but one site is the national website, and the other is the local website, run by people at the local dealership. The national website is run by people at the chain's underground facility in a secure, undisclosed location. And apparently the folks there had been out to lunch . . . for the past six months. Because every one of those ads was for programs that had expired months before and should have been yanked off the site. The Loyalty Money had stopped in the spring. The KBB Trade-in Value had stopped months earlier. We were still doing USAA pricing -- but none of these programs was intended to be run concurrently, and it should have been clearly stated in every single ad that you couldn't combine offers. But nowhere did it say "One coupon per purchase." So Velma naturally assumed -- as would anyone else -- that she could add all those things together and get a stupendous deal.

In short, we had screwed up big-time. We had a series of ads running that were incorrect and out of date. If we honored them, we'd lose our shirts. Velma's trade, while it was nice, was worth about $22,000 in our area. But KBB said it was worth $27,000, meaning if we gave her 1K over that, well, ouch.

My greatest fear was that my boss would tell me to go in there and explain to Velma that it was a screwup and try to get her to understand that we couldn't do all that because it would mean losing a lot of money, blah blah blah. So before it even got that far, I said: "Look, this is your dealership and your money, not mine, but I think we need to honor our ads. We ought to just bite the bullet and do the deal." After about 30 minutes of back and forth between the managers, that's exactly what we did. We honored our ads.

This lady made out like a bandit. But, she had every right to. It wasn't her fault that our ads were wrong -- it was ours.

So again, the next time you suspect evil intent on the part of your local car dealership, consider this: It could be just plain, old-fashioned incompetence.

More from Car Salesman Confidential:

  • Beware These 2 Dirty Tricks
  • Customers are Walking Contradictions
  • How Much Does Your Salesman Know??
  • 10 Things to Never Say to a Customer
  • AdChoices

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