Wednesday, December 3, 2008

What The American Automakers REALLY Need To Do

My last experience at a GM dealer (February 2006)...

The woman I was dating in 2006 (I'll refer to her as "M") is not a car geek. To her cars are appliances; something to get her from point A to point B. She was driving a 1994 GMC Jimmy with a ton of miles on it. It had served her well, but was starting to rust.

"M"called me and asked if I would find a new vehicle for her. Her only requirement is that it was an SUV and black in color. She preferred a GMC, as the last one had served her so well. She did not want a car loan and had a considerable amount of cash to spend. A new vehicle or a “certified” used vehicle is what she wanted. As she was going to donate her ‘94 Jimmy to the Kidney Foundation, she had no trade-in.

A mile or so from my business was a Pontiac / GMC dealership. On the lot was an ‘05 Envoy, black in color. There was a big “SPECIAL” sign on the windshield. I stopped by after work and was completely ignored. I finally found a rep and asked the price of the Envoy in the lot. I explained that it was for my girlfriend and that she could be there in an hour if the price was in her range. I also told him that she’d be paying cash and had no trade-in.

This should have been a simple 2 minute conversation, right?

FOR 20 MINUTES I TRIED TO GET A PRICE OUT OF HIM! It was insane. This guy talked about everything but the price. I asked if he had an 06 on the lot with a sticker in the window. He said he didn’t know. He finally said he would have to meet my girlfriend before he could quote a price on the 05 or a new one. (Huh? What? Did I look so stupid that he thought I'd forget the price?) I suspected he wanted to "size her up" and see just how much money he could get out of her. I told him that she wasn't going to drive all the way here only to find out that the car was out of her price range (I doubt that it was, but who knows?). He told me that I had to "understand" that "too many people come in here with no intention of buying" and "waste (his) time" I said OK, and told him that the next time "M" was in the area we'd stop in.
That was a lie. I had no intention of ever setting foot in this dealership again. What he had made me "understand" was that I wanted no part of this dealership or this salesman.

Two days later I stopped at a Nissan dealership a few miles from her house. They had a black Pathfinder out front.

I walked into the showroom and was greeted by a guy in his late twenties or early thirties. He was not car salesman slick, he was dressed casually and asked if he could help me or if I wanted to "just look around". He offered me coffee. I told him I was interested in the Pathfinder out front and told him the same thing about it being for "M" as I told the Pontiac / GMC guy. Without looking at a sheet or talking to a manager he explained that it was a leftover 2005, quoted me the sticker and then said that there was a $4500.00 discount off that price and a free extended warranty. He rattled off the specs and options on that particular vehicle and told me to bring "M" by anytime for a test drive.

I told "M" about the Pathfinder when I got to her house and we went back to the dealership that evening.
"M" and the sales rep took the Pathfinder for a test drive.
I stayed at back the dealership. They gave me more coffee.

When "M" and the rep got back from the test drive I asked how it went. She replied that she had bought the vehicle. It was that easy. OK, I wished she had shopped around some more - not that I think she'd have found a better deal - I just like shopping for cars - but she was happy.

She's had the Pathfinder for 2 years now. She's had no problems with it. The Service Department at this dealership has treated her and the Pathfinder very well when she's brought it in for its routine service.
"M" is nothing if not loyal. When the time comes for her to trade in this Pathfinder, I know she'll go back to this dealership. They've made a lifelong customer. There's not a doubt in my mind.

"M" would have probably liked the Envoy, too. Being a GMC SUV and black, I bet she would have bought that one. It, too, may have been a great SUV. The GMC Service Department may have been great too. But because of the stupid game their sales rep played, we'll never know and they'll never get the chance to make a lifelong customer.

As I write this GM, Ford and Chrysler are in front of Congress looking for bailout money. As I wrote in an earlier post, I hope they get it.

Congress wants to see a plan of change. They want to see it at the top. I don't believe that's going to solve the problems. The American automakers can build great cars, but if no one wants to shop their "stores" (dealerships) to buy them, they'll never succeed.

My experience was not an isolated one. I've heard so many stories about people shopping one of the "Big 3" dealerships and being treated the way I was. The change needs to start at the bottom, at street level. I would suggest that the automakers take some of the money they get from congress and use it to retrain the dealers.

Car shopping should be fun. Salesmen need to look at everyone who comes through the door as a potential customer (if not now, in the future), not a potential "waste of time".

Like any retail business, if you treat a person well and give them a reason to come back, they usually do.

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