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February 23rd, 2010
03:16 PM ET

My car buying misadventures

David Gewirtz | BIO
AC360° Contributor
Director, U.S. Strategic Perspective Institute

I recently bought a new car, which was a lot harder to do than it should have been. During a nearly three-week long process, I became convinced that American car dealers are grossly incompetent when it comes to selling.

I wound up with a Ford Escape, but my intention was to buy my fifth Subaru Forester. For the Subaru dealer, this sale should have been a slam dunk. My lease was running out in a few weeks, they said I had "approved" credit, I knew precisely what I wanted (it was to be the fifth lease of the exact same model), and all I needed was paperwork faxed to me to sign.

Needless to say, it didn't work out as I'd planned.

I bought my first Subaru Forester back in New Jersey in the mid-1990s, where snow storms sometimes made it impossible to get to work without four-wheel drive. Even though I'm now in Florida, I've continued to buy Foresters because I like four-wheel drive, they fit me nicely (which is important for a big dude) and none of the four Foresters I've owned has ever had any mechanical or maintenance issues. Ever.

What broke down was the dealer network.

I live in the largest (by population) town in my Florida county. Even though we have the most people, we don't have a particularly vibrant business environment. Three years ago, when I leased my last Subaru, there were exactly two car dealers in town: the Ford dealer and the Subaru dealer.

Now, all that survives is the Ford dealer.

During my car buying misadventures, I learned that the local Subaru dealer collapsed, dropping from selling more than 100 cars a month to two. Two! What was left of the franchise was sold to another dealer, more than an hour away.

The recession hit the Ford guys as well. I also learned that our Ford dealer is now selling less than half the number of cars it sold two years ago, but at least they didn't drop to 2 percent of their previous sales levels.

Anyway, even though the nearest Subaru dealer was more than an hour away, I was a loyal customer. I called them up, told them they had a guaranteed sale, and then went through a three week period trying to get them to sell me a car.

I explained that my alternative was the local Ford dealer, but I would buy the Subaru if they could make it possible for me to take only one long trip to the dealer, instead of the three or four you usually have to make to buy a car.

After all, with a pre-sold customer, a fax machine, and email, that should be easy, right?

Wrong.

After about three weeks of a complete lack of clue on their part, they finally suggested that if I was considering a Ford from the dealer in my neighborhood, maybe I should consider buying a Mazda from them, instead. A Mazda? From them. An hour away.

Somehow, after maybe ten discussions and emails, the Subaru dealer had missed two simple points: (a) I didn't have time for multiple hour-long each way drives, and (b) I wanted another Subaru.

Could the suggestion I buy a Mazda be an indication that this other Subaru dealer was also about to fail? My confidence went the way of my patience.

Fine. Ford makes great cars, too. I started thinking about giving Ford a chance. I'd just spent a year writing How To Save Jobs. It's important to support American workers by buying American.

There was also the issue of distance and safety. I worried that if the car broke down, we'd have an almost 60 mile tow to the nearest Subaru dealer (if it didn't go out of business, too). There are many Ford dealers in Central Florida, so no matter where we drive, the longest tow at any point is about ten miles.

We took the five minute ride to our local Ford dealer to look at the Ford Escape, the separated-at-birth twin of Subaru's Forester. It's virtually the same size, virtually the same horsepower, looks almost identical, gets virtually the same gas mileage, and is equally utilitarian.

We drove up to the dealer, parked the car, and, as we walked in the door, we were mobbed by desperate sales people.

Desperate, recently unemployed, completely untrained, commission-only-so-why-not-see-if-they-can-sell-anything sales people.

The guy who won the race got our attention, let us take a test drive, and then sat down with us to try to get the paperwork together.

Unfortunately, simple tasks like computing how much the vehicle would cost got the better of him. Each question necessitated a run to that magical "I'll check" location and each time he returned, the numbers were different and completely inconsistent when compared to the previous set. At one point, he showed me a print-out with our "final numbers" and the car listed was an Alfa Romeo.

I couldn't make this stuff up.

After about three hours of this, we lost patience and decided to go home and "think about it." Think about it, we did. We decided the car was nice, the price (at least what from I could research online) was fair, and it'd be nice to buy American.

The very next morning, I called the dealer and asked to speak to my salesman. It went like this:

Me: "Hi, can I speak to Frank?" (not his real name)

Ford: "Frank? Frank who?"

Me: "Frank Jones." (still not his real name)

Ford: "What does he do?" (seriously, they asked, "What does he do?")

Me: "He sells cars."

Ford: "Oh, well, we have a lot of salespeople. I don't know him."

Me: "Uh, OK, thanks."

Once again, I could not make this stuff up even if I tried.

Eventually, my wife and I did buy the Ford. I went online and asked for an Internet quote. The Internet sales manager was a paid professional. He followed up, and he had a sale within a few days.

But the comedy continued. A few days after I bought the Ford, I got an email from the very same Ford dealer where I bought my car, inviting me to Ladies' Night.

Ladies' Night?

Interestingly enough, the dealer had decided to Cc: all their prospects in the email. So they sent me (and 500 of their prospects) an email message with a list of all their active prospects and their email addresses.

Five hundred of them.

If you're in sales, you know your prospect list is like gold. This Ford dealer sent their hot prospect list to hundreds of people. Here's a tip if you're a car dealer and you want to get the competition's prospect lists: just stop into each of your competitors and leave your email address. Give them a few weeks and they'll probably send you a whole list of prospects you can call. Plus, there's Ladies' Night.

Where does that leave us? One car dealer couldn't be bothered to make a slam-dunk sale. The other couldn't even locate its own salesman and then gave out its leads list to everyone in the community.

I've talked to a lot of people. Stories like this are relayed with gusto wherever you are in America. Car dealers, when it comes to the sales process, seem stuck in a time warp and mired in incompetence.

But it's more than that. Dealers all across the country no longer employ professional sales personnel. Instead of hiring trained, experienced sales professionals or investing the time and money to train promising new talent, most car dealers hire commission-only people right off the street.

Selling is an important profession and requires skill, aptitude, courage, and training. Most Americans don't understand just how important sales people are. To everything. Sales people are unsung heroes who are often unfairly maligned. The sales profession is the oil that keeps the engine of commerce smoothly running. Without sales people, jobs wouldn't exist because there'd be no income stream.

As a way to save money, it seems as if car dealers are going the cheap route with their sales people, and it's costing them far more than hiring a professional, experienced sales team ever would. It's cruel to the sellers, it's an insult to their customers, it's lazy, and it makes an awful first impression of these wonderful vehicles, the company, and the brand. It's just bad business.

In most cases, these desperate newbies are people who've struck out finding a job elsewhere and are willing to try anything - and for whom the lure of large commissions is compelling enough to give up a month of their lives to see if they can make some money selling cars.

Some of these new "hires" coming into dealers to sell on a commission-only basis could be turned into successful professionals, but that would require an investment in real training and support - something that most dealers who churn through free labor on a monthly basis aren't willing to do.

Sadly, these down-on-their-luck nuevo-salespeople rarely make it in car sales. It's hard for someone who has to take a bus to work to identify with a person buying a $30,000 vehicle. It's hard for someone making a $30,000 buying decision to feel comfortable with someone who seems so uncomfortable selling cars.

Buying a car requires trust. Consumers often have to give up a tremendous amount of personally identifying information to qualify for a lease or a loan. The human animal can intuit fear and desperation on a subconscious level, and potential buyers are often scared away by the "feeling" they get from some of the more desperate and hungry commission-only first-time car sellers.

Consumers these days know they're taking a substantial identity theft risk every time they fill out a credit application. It's worse when they know they're handing it to someone who isn't being paid and hasn't had work in months.

Obviously, not every out-of-work person is going to steal your identity. But there are desperate people out there and someone with a good credit rating could be a juicy target for someone both desperate and unscrupulous.

As for the dealers, well, their liability here could be huge.

So next time you're told cars aren't selling because of the recession, think twice. Sure, less cars are selling because Americans are being more frugal.

But cars are also not selling in America because our dealers are cheaping out by going the free labor route. Those unfortunate human beings have little or no training, no clue how to sell, and virtually no chance to succeed.

American car dealers, if you want to sell more cars, you're going to need to become more professional. This isn't your father's recession.

Follow David on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz.

Editor’s note: David Gewirtz is Director of the U.S. Strategic Perspective Institute and Editor-in-Chief of the ZATZ magazines. He is a leading Presidential scholar specializing in White House email. He is a member of FBI InfraGard, the Cyberterrorism Advisor for the International Association for Counterterrorism & Security Professionals, a columnist for The Journal of Counterterrorism and Homeland Security, and has been a guest commentator for the Nieman Watchdog of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. He is a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley extension, a recipient of the Sigma Xi Research Award in Engineering and was a candidate for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Letters.


Filed under: David Gewirtz • Economy
soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. Michael

    David,

    Having bought probably 20+ cars in my life so far, including a few Mercedes, they are all the same. I did use a broker once and that was a smooth deal, he picked me up, drove to the dealer and picked up the car if it needed service. I don't know why i opted out after that. I also have had some unbelievable conversations, some purchases taking three hours to negotiate. At a Mercedes dealer I inquired about a model that Mercedes was "going" to make and the dealer told me that they were taking orders (deposits) for the car and had over a dozen orders. I doubted this and went home to check. I checked other dealers, on line and called US Mercedes, this model was not being built and there was not a date of production. I called the dealer to advise them the model was not available, after a very nice dance, he said he would check and possibly have to return deposits. This is a common practice to be aware. Get the deposit, in a few weeks call and advise that the model is having a problem and suggest a different model. I have had another similar issue at a dealer, where I wanted a model that had just ended and asked them to locate one for me, they wanted a deposit to find one and if it was different they would adjust the price.

    I am moving to NYC and selling my cars.

    February 23, 2010 at 4:01 pm |
  2. Anne E

    Nicely said! Agree 100%. My lease on my 2007 is up in 2 months. This is the 2nd Ford Escape I have had. Not sure what I'm going to get this time around, but we are a "Ford family" – dad, grandfather, aunt & uncle all have/do work there. My last experience with the dealer was awful! Young salesperson who didn't know what he was doing...eventually bringing me the wrong color car I had requested, he had a very bad attitude and he didn't have answers to my questions. I too got the "let me check" every 5 minutes. My sale too was a slam dunk for the salesman, Ford Z plan...etc. But that experience has ruined it for me. I'm thinking of getting a moped!

    February 23, 2010 at 3:59 pm |
  3. John Wiley

    I work in car sales for a Cadillac dealer and I agree with this 100%. Dealers accept a high turn over rate and throw these people to the wolves figuratively. Lots of shuddering and sputtering because of a constant failure to properly train and educate its new employees. I'll be the 1st to admit I can't sell cars because I don't care about them, that passion or fire a person someone should have for there profession isn't there.

    Thats why I sell the experience and hold the sales staff to it. Customers keep their appointments and are in constant contact because you let them know what to expect and there is no dark area.

    February 23, 2010 at 3:47 pm |