A CC commenter posed this question yesterday at the Camry COAL, and it made me realize that with one exception, my experiences with buying four new cars in the past 20 years or so has been very good. As in excellent even, in one case. But I know that’s hardly the norm. But in mulling over what was the key ingredient to a good experience, I’ve come up with one constant. And it is undoubtedly the key to a good dealership experience.
When I went to buy our 2000 Subaru Forester at the local dealer, my salesman was a guy roughly my age (late 40s at the time), and he clearly had worked there for some time. And he had the experience and intelligence to pick up that I just wanted to buy the advertised special for cash, skip all the other BS, and treat me like a sentient human being. The whole process was about as painless as buying something at the supermarket, and about an hour later we drove off. I’d say it happened because that dealer knew what kind of people (especially in Eugene) tended to buy Subarus: folks with higher than average education and income. Folks not willing to play stupid games. And it worked.
In 2005 or so, I helped my older son Ed buy his first new car, a Ford Focus. It was a colossal step backwards, and representative of how the typical American-brand mass-market dealer operated. Meaning: the sales person was a green young kid, who had no real authority (or knowledge). He was nice enough, but his only job was to shepherd us to the Assistant Sales Manager to close the deal, and then his job was to force us into the F&I gauntlet.
That 20 minutes across the desk with the prototypical F&I guy was pure hell, as he tried one ridiculous high pressure tactic after another to sell Ed on various BS high-profit gimmicks, like rust proofing (in Oregon!), clear coats, financing, extended warranties, etc. I clearly told him that we didn’t want to hear any of that and just pay for the car and go. he claimed he was required by law to present these to us (total BS). I finally walked out of his office and let Ed sit through his spiels.
When I searched for a rare left-over 2013 Acura TSX wagon, I found one in Boise, Idaho. I wrote up that experience in detail here, but let me summarize it briefly. My salesman, whom I had negotiated this on the phone and via email, was again a middle-aged career car salesman, and a genuine car guy. I negotiated really hard, but he never took it personally. I took the bus to Boise and spent the night in a hotel downtown. he picked me up the next morning, took me out to a great breakfast, and then helped me get on the road for the 500 mile trip back within an hour or so. Terrific guy, and a great dealership.
My most recent experience buying the Ram Promaster van was also out of state, but a bit different, since I was buying from a mega-dealer located in the tiny town of Kellogg, ID. Although thta dealer employed literally hundreds of salespeople, I could tell from meeting him and some of the others that these folks were all long-term employees, supporting families, and committed to providing a very satisfactory buying experience.
OK;my three experiences do not make a representative picture. But a recent article in autonews.com makes it clear what is a key problem in the industry: insanely high turnover in staff, most of all in sales, where it’s 67% annually! Which means dealers are constantly hiring completely inexperienced sales staff that typically come from other retail/hospitality businesses and have no real interest or affinity to the product they’re now trying to sell.
The survey referred to in the article shows that out of 800 prospective job seekers, only 5% would consider working in a dealership. And only one quarter of those would consider working in a sales capacity. That’s like barely over 1%.
The same survey, of existing dealer employees, showed that over a quarter of all dealer employees are going to be looking for a new job within 6 months. The reasons given are low pay, poor work culture, long hours, and bad management. The same reasons that undoubtedly many employees would give nowadays in many areas of retail and other industries.
It’s quite clear that the connection between employees who are in it for the long haul, and can earn a proper living wage doing it, is the key differentiator. Of course that comes from the top, which defines the culture, ethics, compensation structure and all the other aspects that define the workplace experience.
It’s not just dealers either; wherever I interact with companies/stores, the difference between dealing with an experienced staffer compared to an inexperienced one is huge. And I make a point to seek out those companies that foster that kind of setting. But it seems to be getting harder and harder.
There’s no reason a dealership experience can’t be good, or even excellent. But like everything else in life, it depends on the values and follow through of the other person/company one is dealing with. It seems like there is a growing polarization of these qualities, just like with everything else. Some folks “get it”; other don’t.
In autonews.com, I also read about a four-generation dealership in New Hampshire that ditched all of the “dog and pony show” approach, with a “lowest price, no-haggle” policy. They treat their customers (and employees) like real humans, and the results are predictable: They have an extremely loyal customer base, as well as equally loyal employees. Their profit margin is about 50% of the industry standard, but their commitment to fostering a workplace that provides for family-wage jobs, security and satisfaction is more important to the owner (shown above), than maximizing profits.
Once upon a time, business owners felt that way about their customers and employees much more commonly, although of course the auto dealer industry was always something of an outlier in regards to its selling approach. But as the internet changes the industry, there will undoubtedly be a place for those dealers that treat their customers and employees like genuine humans. My experience seems to bear that out.