The private feedback I get from other car dealers who read this column, listen to my radio talk show at 9 AM every Saturday on www.SeaviewAM960.com, or see my advertising [view all my TV commercials at www.YouTube.com/EarlStewartToyota] is that I am causing damage to their reputations. Let me hastily add that they won’t state this publicly. No car dealer has ever written a letter to the editor of Hometown News. They will post negative statements on my Blog, www.EarlStewartOnCars.com, but always anonymously. I’ve had only one call to my radio show from a car dealer and he wanted to remain anonymous.
First let me say that I have been doing my Hometown News column for less than two years and my Blog for about the same time. My advertisements against the dealer fee and such have only been running for 3 to 4 years. My radio show is less than a year old. Given this, how did car dealers earn such a bad reputation before I started talking about it?
I’ve been a car dealer since 1968 and I can never remember car dealers not having a bad reputation. Comedians joke about car dealers as much as they joke about lawyers and politicians. In fact, car dealers have even had movies made about their slimy way of doing business. Two of them are Cadillac Man, starring Robin Williams and Used Cars starring Kurt Russell. I’ve always been acutely aware of the generally bad image that car dealers have. That may be because I wasn’t always in the car business, although my father was a car dealer. I studied Physics in college, earning my BS from the University of Florida and my MS from Purdue. My first real job was as an Electronics Engineer for Westinghouse Electric Corporation. I had those early years working outside the car business to give me a better real life perspective when I came to work for my father in 1968.
Surely other car dealers are aware of their generally bad reputation. How do you suppose they think it came about? Can they believe that our reputation is a mistake and that most car dealers really treat their customers with integrity, courtesy, and respect? Do they believe that customers are simply not telling the truth about their bad experiences with car dealers? Anybody who has ever been to a party or other social event has to have overheard at least one horror story about someone buying a car or having their car serviced.
I’m going to assume that car dealers really did know that they had a bad reputation even before Earl Stewart came along. I think they are simply angry at me because I’m calling more attention to a problem that everybody already knows about. And they’re mad because I’m offering advice to customers about how to avoid the pitfalls in buying a car and having a car serviced. But the biggest reason they are furious with me is that they see my business growing relative to theirs. They see their customers coming to my dealership to buy their next car because they know they will be treated with respect, courtesy, and integrity.
I had one anonymous email from a dealer say that “the only reason I have four red phones around my dealership that customers can call me directly on is because I don’t trust my employees”. My answer to him was “the only possible way I would dare to have four red phones that customers can call me directly on seven days a week is because I do trust my employees”. Think about this. My dealership sells 400 to 500 cars every month and services thousands more, making it one of the largest car dealerships in the World. If my employees did not take very good care of all those customers, how could I possibly personally answer all those complaints? The fact is that the reason other dealers don’t allow customers to have direct contact with them is because they are afraid. In every organization there is a mentality of “never let the boss hear a complaint”. Of course, that could be a good thing if she never heard a complaint because all of her customers were happy. But 40 years of experience has taught me that the normal way that the boss never hears the complaints is by not allowing the customers access to the boss.
That’s your problem, Mr. Car Dealer. You think (or maybe you just want to think) your employees are doing a good job satisfying your customers because you don’t hear any complaints. Or maybe you think you are doing a good job in this category because the factory customer satisfaction surveys look good. Have you read the expose in Automotive News about how car dealers routinely rig customer satisfaction surveys? Salesmen offer customers a free tank of gas if they will bring them their “blank” survey so the salesman can fill it out themselves. Or, the salesman gives the manufacturer a phony email address so that the survey comes to a PC at the dealership instead of to the customers. There are lots of tricks like this to make a dealer’s customer satisfaction score look a lot better than it really is.
The only accurate way to measure customer satisfaction is by measuring how many customers who buy a car from you buy their next car from you…customer loyalty. In your service department how many customers bring the car they bought from you back to you for service…customer retention. Toyota has told their dealers that they will begin to measure customer satisfaction in this manner in 2008. My customer loyalty and customer retention is very, very high. If you are one of those car dealers who thinks everything is hunky dory, maybe you better take a look at these two numbers.