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Car Salesman Confidential: When the Customer Comes Last

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 9/27/2014 Mark McDonald
Car Salesman Confidential 1024 680© Provided by MotorTrend Car Salesman Confidential 1024 680

“The customer comes first.” I’m sure you’ve all heard that one, right? That phrase has been around as long as I’ve been alive, which is half a century (ugh), and I’m sure it goes back even further than that. I don’t know the name of the guy (or gal) who first coined it, but I’m pretty sure that when they did they felt they had come up with a “Golden Rule” for all businesses to follow.

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Unfortunately, at too many car dealerships these days, the customer comes last. Before the sale, of course, they’re Numero Uno. After the sale… well, that’s a different story. After the sale the attitude at some places is more like something Tony Soprano would say: “. . . Forgeddaboudit!”

Let me illustrate my point. At a dealership I worked at awhile back, I sold an “old age unit” to a couple I’ll call Mr. & Mrs. Larsen. An old age unit is a car that’s been on a dealership’s lot for a long time. Well, this particular car had been in our inventory a very long time. More than 500 days. (Folks in the car biz will be astounded by that.) This car had already celebrated one birthday and was about to celebrate another. As a result, Mr. & Mrs. Larsen got a fantabulous deal. They really did.

But they took delivery of the car late at night, so we had no time to clean it because our “detail department” had gone home. The plan was for them to bring it back the next day for a “full detail.” Sounds simple enough, right?Well, it should have been. But this is where the best laid plans of mice and car salesmen fell apart.

To put it bluntly, the detail department sucked. In fact, they aren’t really a detail department, but a car wash department. Actually, that’s an insult to car washes, because I’ve seen drive through car washes that do a better job.

This has nothing to do with the people in detailing. They’re all great guys, I like them, and they genuinely care about the job they do. Nobody at a dealership works any harder in all kinds of weather, from stifling hot to freezing cold, than the people in Detail. But they seem to lack the necessary tools or training -- or both -- to do a really good job.

Anyway, the next day, Mr. Larsen dropped off his car to be detailed and went to work. About two hours later his car came up from detail and I inspected it. I was unhappy with the job that had been done, pointed out some areas that had been missed, and sent the car back to be recleaned. The guy doing the work on this particular car had a perfect attitude. He wasn’t rude or upset in the least. He took my comments well and drove the car back to detail. About an hour later he brought it back. While it still wasn’t perfect it was a lot better, and I knew I had time to fine-tune it myself, so I signed off on the paperwork. I spent the next half hour or so going over the car myself with a toothbrush and some cleaner wax and a microfiber towel until I felt the car was presentable. Mr. Larsen arrived late that afternoon. I did a full delivery, explained all the features and controls, and he drove away a happy man. Or so I thought.

The next day was my day off. Apparently, Mr. Larsen started blowing up the dealership’s phones before eight o’clock. He started with the receptionist and worked his way through several people, giving each an earfull about how “filthy” his car was and what a terrible job we had done. At one point he spoke to my sales manager, who informed him the car had been on the lot for over 500 days, so it was “only natural” that it would be dirtier than the other cars. This particular manager also tried to turn the tables on my customer, suggesting he was the one to blame because he was being so “picky,” and pointing out he had taken delivery the day before and not complained about the car being dirty. Of course, this charming response sent my customer through the roof.

I learned all this when I returned to work the next day. (It’s amazing what can transpire on one’s day off in the car biz. You leave and all is well; in the next 24 hours World War III breaks out.) It seemed everyone in the dealership had heard about my “crazy customer with the dirty car.”

It took me awhile to work up the courage to call this guy, but when I did he was calm and polite. I felt he was being too picky about a few things, and exaggerating a few others, but overall he had a valid point: it shouldn’t matter how long a $30,000 car has been on a dealer’s lot, it should look brand spanking new at time of delivery. But his broader point was, as he put it “You guys did an excellent job . . . [meaning the sales department] . . . but your detail department is making you look bad.” I agreed with him. He said he wanted to meet with a manager and show him some of the areas of the car that looked as if they hadn’t been touched, and I thought that was a reasonable request so I went to the “sales tower” to relay it.

That’s when the tire shine really hit the fan.

Basically, what happened was, the GM and the sales manager blew up. They attacked the customer. They denied there was any problem with the way the car was cleaned, and instead focused entirely on the personality of the customer, whom they described as “rude,” “mean,” and “crazy.” When I spoke up in the customer’s defense, and pointed out that he wasn’t the only customer who had complained about a detail job, they turned and attacked me. All guns were trained on the messenger. The message -- that our detail department needed to do a better job -- got completely obliterated by the blind rage of a defensive general manager. And why was the GM so defensive? Because he had fired the previous company that did our detailing and hired this one, telling everyone at the time that they were “the best there is.” So he took any criticism of detailing personally.

So where were the customer’s needs in all this? Dead last. In their minds, the customer was the problem. In my mind, dirty cars were the problem. The failure to isolate the real problem and instead focus on the person bringing the complaint is one of the main reasons behind poor customer service.

Eventually it was decided to have the customer take the car to a professional detailer of his choice and we would foot the bill. While this solved the customer’s problem -- it cleaned his car -- the real motivation was simply to get him out of our hair.

Was anything learned from this incident? Yes, that one customer was a pain in the butt and we hope to never see him again, and McDonald is a troublemaker for taking his side.

Has the detail department improved at this dealership? Last I heard, not in the least. But the GM and the sales manager are both happy. In their minds, they “won.” They fought off an attack from an irrational customer. All is well. Things will continue in the future as they have in the past.

Yep, customers always come first.

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