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Monday, December 19, 2011

MINIMIZING THE PAIN OF HAVING YOUR CAR SERVICED


The pain of buying a used or new car may be greater than the pain of having it serviced, but you need to have it serviced far more often than you have to buy a car. Below, I am listing eight suggestions to make your visit to your car dealer’s service department as pleasant as possible.

(1)   Choose the dealer with the best service department. Remember that you don’t have to have the same dealership service your car that sold you your car. You probably bought your car from the dealer who gave you the best price. You should have your car serviced at the dealer who can best maintain and repair your car. The price of service is important, but secondary to the quality of the service and repairs. Do a little research. Ask friends and neighbors who drive your make of car. Check with the BBB and the County Office of Consumer Affairs.  Ask the service manager at the dealership to show you his factory score on CSI (customer satisfaction index). Every manufacturer surveys dealers’ service customers and ranks that dealer by how well he treats his customers.
(2)   Establish a personal relationship with your service advisor. The person in the service drive who writes up your repair order is very important. Be sure you get a good one. He should be knowledgeable, attentive to your needs, promptly return phone calls, and recommend only necessary services. You might not find this person on your first visit, but if you aren’t comfortable with the person you are dealing with, ask for one with whom you are. When you make an appointment to have your car serviced, always ask for that service advisor. 
(3)   Don’t pay the “gotcha”, miscellaneous supplies fee. Almost all car dealers tack on a phony fee when you pay your bill which is simply more profit to the dealer, but is disguised by various labels. It is also sometimes called “environmental impact fee”, “sundry shop supplies” and many others. The cashier just adds a percentage ranging from 5% to 10% to your bill. This is no different than the “dealer fee” that the sales department tacked on to the price they quoted you on the price of the car. Most dealers will waive this fee if you complain about it, especially if you threaten to call the BBB, their manufacturer, or the Florida Attorney General’s office.
(4)   Always road test your car, preferably with the technician. If you brought your car in for a drivability problem such as a noise, vibration, or pulling to the right or left, don’t accept the car back until you ride in the car with the technician or service advisor and confirm that the problem has been remedied. I also recommend that you drive the car with the service advisor to demonstrate the problem when you bring it in. Experiencing what you experience always communicates your problem more accurately than listening to your description of the problem.
(5)   Ask for a written estimate of the total cost of repairs and maintenance. Florida law requires that the dealer give you a written estimate. By law, they may not exceed this by more than 10%.
(6)   Make an appointment ahead of time. You should insist on making an appointment and you should try to make that appointment at a time when the dealer’s service department will be least busy…typically the middle of the afternoon on weekdays or Saturday and Sunday. Avoid the 7:30-8:00 morning rush. When your service advisor has written up your repair order, ask him how long it will take. After he tells you, ask him to let you know ahead of time if, for any unforeseen reason, your car will not be ready in the promised time. Often times when you call a service department they will tell you to “bring the car in anytime” or “come right over”. Service advisors will tell you this because they are either too busy or too lazy to take the time to make a proper appointment. When they tell you this, tell them that your time is very valuable and that you insist on an appointment at a time when they can get you in and out quickly. Always write down the name of the person that gave you the appointment.
(7)   Shop and compare high cost repair prices. Most service departments are competitive on maintenance items like oil changes, wheel alignments, and tire rotations. However, the costs of major repairs can vary considerably. If you are looking at an air-conditioner, transmission, or engine repair that can cost several thousands of dollars, get bids from more than one service department. Often just suggesting that you will do this will keep the cost down from the dealership you prefer.
(8)   Introduce yourself to the service manager. This falls along the same philosophy as developing a good personal relationship with your service advisor. It can’t hurt to know the “boss”. If you are on first name basis with the service manager, it just might earn you a slightly higher level of treatment from those that work for him.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Do What You Know Is Right


For the last 10 or 15 years I've subscribed to an online service, “The Daily Motivator”, which sends me a short email every morning except Sunday. It’s not religious although it does incorporate advice which can be found in all of the different religions. I like it because it helps to kick my day off positively. In fact I share it with some friends, family and employees…those that I think would enjoy it. This morning there was a phrase that inspired this column… “Without judgment as to whether it is difficult or easy, popular or unpopular, do what you know is right.” I highlighted this phrase before I forwarded it.

My last post was entitled “The Dealer Fee Revisited”. If you’re a new reader or if you missed my last column, please read it before you read further. 

More than one-third of the new and used cars I sell now are sold over the Internet. As you know, online sales are surging for all products and will soon dwarf sales from brick and mortar stores. Prospective customers surf the web to research which specific car they want to buy and then they contact various dealers via email to find out who will offer them the best price. I wrote another column entitled “The Internet is the Lowest Price for a New Car”.  The reason the Internet offers the lowest price is because car dealers have only one chance to sell you a car when you contact them online. You can shop a dozen car dealers online in less time than it takes to visit one car dealership in person. Each dealer knows that if his price is higher than one of the other dealers, the prospective customer will move on and he will lose the sale.

The big problem that I used to encounter was the “infamous dealer fee”.  I don’t charge a dealer fee because I believe it is unfair and deceptive.  I would quote my best price but the other dealers would usually beat it because they could add hundreds of even thousands of dollars to the price they quoted our prospective customer. To solve my problem, I “mystery shopped” all of my completion and learned the amount of their dealer fees. Now, whenever a prospective customer asks me for my best prices on a specific car via email, I always include a list of the dealer fees that all of my competitors charge on top of that price that they quote this same customer.  This enables the customer to make an informed decision on who really has the lowest price.  Without this information, a customer would pay, on average, about $900 more. This is the average dealer fee in my market. Some are well over $1,000. If you would like to see how I do this, click on www.EarlStewartToyota.com and then click on “Request a Quote” on the left.

I’ve been informing my prospective customers of what the other dealers add in the form of their dealer fee to the prices they quote for over two years. Before I began doing this, I discussed it with two Toyota representatives who were responsible for dealer sales in my market. I did this because I knew that the other dealers would be upset about this even though I was doing what was best, not only for me, but for Toyota buyers. Both of these Toyota representatives told me that they thought I was doing the right thing.

A  couple of weeks ago another Toyota representative told me that he thought I should stop disclosing the amount of the dealer fee for other Toyota dealers but that there was no problem if I disclosed the dealer fee amount for non-Toyota dealers. When I asked why, he said that I was “disparaging” other Toyota dealers by revealing their dealer fees. Of course, I responded, “How can the truth or a fact be disparaging?” I still don’t have an answer to that question.  The Toyota representative cited the Toyota Dealer Advertising Covenant, TDAC, as authority for his request to stop what I was doing.  The TDAC is a contract that all Toyota dealers must sign that establishes what he can ethically and legally advertise. Violations lead to huge fines which can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.   I told him that the TDAC applied only to advertising, not a salesman responding to a customer’s request for a price on a specific car. I said that if Toyota wanted me keep other dealers’ dealer fees secret from my Internet customers it would follow that I must do the same for customers who phone or come into my dealership asking for pricing information.

As I write this article, I’m waiting for clarification from Toyota on all of the above. I have received a written notice from the independent company in Birmingham, Alabama that administers the TDAC saying that my request to continue informing my customers of dealer fees was denied even though it had been approved previously.  However, when I called the company supervisor last week I was told that a letter had been mailed to Toyota Motor Sales in California asking for a ruling on whether this issue was covered by the TDAC. The supervisor told me that I would be notified as soon as a response was received. As of this moment, I’ve heard nothing.

Hopefully now you can understand my title to this article, “Do What You Know Is Right” and the quote from my Daily Motivator, “Without judgment as to whether it is difficult or easy, popular or unpopular, do what you know is right.” It’s very difficult for me as a Toyota dealer to oppose Toyota and taking this stance does not make me very popular with Toyota but I did what I know is right.  I hope that Toyota doesn’t also rule that this article and my blog also come under the jurisdiction of the Toyota Dealer Advertising Covenant. 

Monday, December 05, 2011

Status of the Dealer Fee As of December 2011


A local attorney emailed me yesterday morning, asking me to send him the various articles I’d written on the infamous Dealer Fee. He is trying a case in Akron, Ohio and wanted to research this issue.  I've written so many articles over the years that I sent him seven and also my blog address, www.EarlStewartOnCars.com, so that he could read all of them if he chose.  Later that afternoon, I received a call from a young couple in Ft. Lauderdale who had just discovered they had paid $1,248 in dealer fees after they bought a new Toyota and drove it home.  They wanted to know what they could do about it. They asked if they had any legal recourse. They had not responded to an advertisement on a specific car, which is the case with most buyers, so they had no legal recourse. They had recently moved to Florida from California (where they do have a good dealer fee law) and were amazed how Florida had such a weak law and that even that was not regulated.

These two occurrences made me realize that I can’t be quiet on this subject, just because things have gotten better in my local market. The number of dealers in my market charging the dealer fee has abated by four…Royal Palm Toyota in the Wellington area, Palm Beach Toyota in West Palm Beach, Treasure Coast Toyota in Stuart, and Delray Toyota have all eliminated their dealer fees. I call this the “domino effect” taken from Dwight D Eisenhower’s famous quote, “Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the 'falling domino' principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.

Why only Toyota dealers? That’s because of the economic impact that my dealership, which does not charge a dealer fee, has had on each of them. I’ve grown from the second smallest Toyota dealership in Palm Beach, Martin, and St. Lucie Counties to the number one, by far. My dealership is in Lake Park which has a population of only 9,000. In fact I advertise being in North Palm Beach (on the border with Lake Park) because most people don’t know where Lake Park is. The only way I was able to grow Earl Stewart Toyota to number one was to sell into the other Toyota dealers’ markets.

 The 21st century consumer is far more intelligent and discriminating than most dealers give them credit for. If you arm the consumer with information, they usually make the right buying decision. I’ve done a good job of arming the Toyota buyers in my market with that information, but I can’t quit now. The word must be spread throughout Florida and the other states in the USA that still have ineffective consumer laws and regulation. This blog is read on the Internet all over the world. National news stories have been written and talked about my battle against the dealer fee. It’s been reported on CNN, Fox, ABC, the Wall Street Journal, NY Times, USA Today and many other national media.

The reason the dealer fee is such a bad thing lies in one undisputable and fundamental right of the consumer. That is the right to be told the true and full price of any product or service before committing to purchase it. I recently bought a Samsung refrigerator from Lowe’s. I researched it in Consumer Reports and it was the #1 ranked side-by-side refrigerator. Consumer Reports also indicated what I could expect to pay for this model. I expected to and did, in fact, but it for slightly less than Consumer Reports suggested and Lowe’s advertised.  Of course I did have to add sales tax but even the delivery and installation were both included in the advertised price. If I had bought a car in Florida, the chances are about 99% that there would be a “surprise charge” anywhere between $500 and $2,500 (or maybe higher).

Our Florida law on this subject restricts the dealer to not advertising a price that does not include the dealer fee. First of all, the law is not enforced at all. On any given day I can show you many examples of car dealers who simply ignore this law. Some totally ignore it, some simply note in the fine print that the price quote in the large print is plus a dealer fee and do state the amount. Some don’t even state the amount. Many display a small innocuous number by the price, like STK#123B. This means that there is only one car advertised at this price. STK# stands for stock number. Your chances of buying this one car when you arrive are slim and none. What you can buy is another stock # car which may be exactly the same, but, because it wasn’t the specific advertised car, the dealer can legally add any amount to the price that he calls his dealer fee. Florida law calls for no cap to the amount of a dealer fee…it’s left up to the dealers’ gall and imagination.

Of course the name “Dealer Fee” is just the most common one. There are dozens of different names because Florida law also does not specify one. This would make it too easy for the consumer. Dealer Prep, Doc Fee, Notary Fee, Pre-Delivery Fee, and Administrative Fee are just a few. Sometimes the dealers will have two or three “dealer fees”. A popular one now is to mark up the electronic filing fee. This costs the dealer $12 and the dealers can mark that up as much as he wants to. The law says that this should be disclosed because it is considered a dealer fee, but many just ignore that. The legal disclosure on the buyer’s order should be: “This charge represents costs and profits to the dealer for items such as inspecting, cleaning, and adjusting vehicles and preparing documents related to the sale”.

What happens most of the time to customers is that they don’t have a chance to learn about the dealer fee until they get into the F&I office also known as the finance office or business office. This is when the dealer tries to make another profit by selling you products like warranties and marking up the bank’s interest rate. Let me be clear, a fair profit is a good thing and you should consider buying warranties or letting the dealer sell you a warranty if he is competitive in his pricing. But, what else happens in the F&I office is that you are confronted by a large number of documents with lots of fine print that you must sign. On one of these, if you’re lucky, you will finally learn of the marked up electronic filing fee, doc fee, dealer prep fee, or whatever else the dealer decides to call it and how much he decides to charge you. As often as not, you will believe these fees are legitimate federal, state or local taxes or fees. You may not even notice them at all until you get home when it’s too late. Or you may believe that you have to pay these fees and everybody charges them so what’s the harm?

Help me spread the word. Just say no to the dealer fee! Always get a competitive out-the-door price and shop and compare. If the dealer insists on adding a dealer fee, just be sure it’s included in the out-the-door price and compare it with at least two other dealers’ prices. Write your legislator and tell him how you feel about the dealer fee. Call your local newspaper and TV station and tell them the same thing. We need laws like they have in California that keep the dealer fee under control. It’s limited to $65 and every dealer calls it by the same name and charges the same thing. The California car buyer know what’s he’s paying for the car before he commits. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

North Palm Beach “Takes the Fifth” On Police Abuse of Power Incident

...or "It Takes a Village to Take the Fifth"

Regular readers of my column are familiar with the saga of my being reported to the Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicle department, FHSMV, as a mentally or physically incompetent driver. I became aware of this approximately two weeks after I was ticketed for speeding by a North Palm Beach policeman. The letter I received from the FHSMV started out, “This agency has received information expressing concerns about your ability to drive safely. Please call the driver license office below to set up an appointment to take the vision, written, driving (in traffic) and hearing examinations.”

I looked into this and learned that this “information expressing concerns about my ability to drive” was reported to the FHSMV under a little know Florida law, 322.126(2), (3), which allows “any person” to confidentially report any other Florida driver as unable to drive safely and be held harmless from all civil or criminal liability even if the report was malicious in intent. I subsequently started a petition at www.DumbLaw.org to change this law. I’ve also met with two Florida legislators, Democrat Irv Slosberg of Boca Raton and Republican, Pat Rooney of Palm Beach Gardens to ask their assistance to change this law in Tallahassee. Both strongly support my position and have agreed to help me.  

Under the law, the FHSMV keeps secret the name of the informant. However, after a little detective work, I came up with a “person of interest” or suspect. He is a North Palm Beach policeman, the same one who ticketed me for speeding two weeks before I received the letter from the FHSMV. It turns out that this officer’s wife had been recently employed by me at my Toyota dealership. For what I believed were good reasons, I was forced to terminate her employment. She subsequently sued me under the EEOC for wrongful termination and my insurance company settled the case. I was also able to learn from the FHSMV that the informant was a “professional” meaning a police officer or doctor. Since my doctor agreed to give me a letter stating that I was 100% mentally and physically capable of driving a car, that left a policeman. The only policeman that I’d had any dealing with in quite some time was this North Palm Beach policeman. Finally, I did take and pass all of the required driving tests…written, eye test, hearing test, driving in traffic and driving on a special course. In fact, I not only passed, I passed with flying colors. My hearing and eyesight (20/20 with glasses) were perfect. I completed all of the driving tests without a single mistake and I missed only one question on the test (I could have passed missing up to10). These findings prove that the “person” who reported me to the FHSMV was either mistaken or not telling the truth. Since we know that the “person” was a professional, it would seem unlikely that he was mistaken.

Feeling that the above circumstantial evidence uncovered by my detective work was overwhelming, I decided to confront the Village of North Palm Beach. Through my attorney, I spoke with the vice Mayor who agreed to talk to the chief of police. When I didn’t hear back for a while, I was told that the matter was being discussed with the “collective bargaining” entity for the police department, the PBA. After several weeks, the North Palm Beach town attorney wrote me a letter stating the town’s position on my allegations. This is the pertinent part of the letter:

“With respect to the letter Mr. Stewart received from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (“DMV”) requesting that he appear for re-examination, Section 322.126(3), Florida Statutes, states that any report regarding a licensed driver’s mental or physical disability to drive is confidential and exempt from disclosure pursuant to Florida Public Records Law. The Florida Legislature has expressly determined that such reports shall not be disclosed or used for any purpose other than determining the qualification of a person to operate a motor vehicle on the highways of this state. As such, no civil or criminal action may be brought against any physician, person or agency who reports a potential disability to the DMV, nor shall any such report be used as evidence in any civil or criminal trial or in any court proceeding. 322.126(3) & (4), Florida Stat. (2011). See also Duckworth v. State, 923 So. 2d 530 (Fla. 4th DCA 2006). The Florida Legislature has clearly determined that the overriding public interest in ensuring that all licensed drivers possess the requisite ability to operate a motor vehicle trump any concerns raised by licensed drivers regarding the circumstances surrounding the filing of such a report.

            In light of the foregoing, even if the Village possessed information regarding a medical report filed with the DMV concerning Mr. Stewart, the Village is prohibited from disclosing the information set forth therein. Additionally, neither your client nor the Village can utilize the report as evidence in any criminal or civil proceedings unrelated to Mr. Stewart’s qualification to operate a motor vehicle.

Should you have any questions relative to the foregoing, please to not to hesitate to contact me.

Sincerely Yours,

Village Attorney”

After reading the above, I think you can appreciate my title to this article, North Palm Beach “Takes the Fifth” on Police Abuse of Power Incident.  Most people understand that people accused of a crime in America can elect to “refuse to answer on the grounds that it might tend to incriminate them”.  If you feel the same way I do about this, “taking the fifth” it’s just another way of saying “I’m guilty but you’ll have to prove it without my cooperation”. 

I’m betting that this police officer has never filed another report under this statute before in the remote chance that he believed in good faith that the driver lacked the physical or mental qualifications to drive. It’s a shame, arguably disgraceful, that law enforcement in North Palm Beach allows its officers to quench their personal agendas by abusing their official position and then hiding behind a statute’s confidentially provisions. I’m sure that the confidentially provision was not made part of the stature by the legislature to allow police officers to file reports in bad faith and with no objective basis.

My attorney tells me that, in spite of this statute, I have grounds to sue on the basis that this Florida statute is unconstitutional and that a judge could overturn this part of the law.  But I don’t want to sue the town of North Palm Beach, the cop that reported me, or anybody else. What I do want is for the town and the police officer to do the right thing which is to sincerely apologize. I would also like the town to take the necessary precautions to see that this never happens again to anybody else driving through the Village of North Palm Beach.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Caveat Emptor and Car Dealers: You Can Fool Some People All the Time


Almost everyone has read Abraham Lincoln’s popular saying, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” I think Abe meant this to be a positive assertion that government may get away with deceiving us for a while, but in the long run, truth justice and the American way will prevail…and I think he was right.

However, it doesn’t work that way with unethical car dealers and car buyers. It always has been “caveat emptor”, or “buyer beware when it comes to buying or servicing a car. Unfortunately for a buyer to “beware” he must be “aware”…that is to say educated, mature, sophisticated and experienced. This excludes a very large segment of our population including the very young, the very old, the uneducated, those with low I.Q.’s and those not proficient in the English language. Is this one reason why our regulators and elected politicians don’t seem to care or take action with respect to the rampant unfair and deceptive sales practices of a large number of Florida car dealers? Most elected officials and regulators are lawyers and are highly educated and sophisticated. They don’t have a problem buying or servicing a car. In fact, the car dealer that tries to take advantage of a lawyer, regulator, or politician is asking for trouble.

I’ve been writing this column/blog and broadcasting my radio show, Earl Stewart on Cars, for about four years. I sometimes feel that I’m “preaching to the choir” when it comes to advising people how to avoid getting ripped off by a car dealer. You, my readers and listeners, largely fall into the category of the educated and sophisticated, “aware” buyer. Most of you aren’t taken advantage of when you buy or service your car because you won’t allow it. Unfortunately, there are enough uneducated, naive, and otherwise vulnerable consumers to feed those unethical car dealers who prey on the defenseless among us. All you have to do is read some of the car ads in the Saturday (the biggest selling day for most car dealers) auto classifieds. To the educated, sophisticated buyer, these ads are actually funny if you can forget the fact that so many fall prey to them and are taken advantage of by the dealers. For example, it’s hard for you or me to believe that anybody would respond to an advertisement without reading the fine print. Many dealers today are advertising prices that, when you read the fine print, are understated by many thousands of dollars. When you or I see a dealer stating that the car price is plus “freight”, we are educated enough to understand that the law requires that the freight cost be already included in the price. A shrewd buyer knows that “dealer list” is not the same thing as MSRP and that a large discount from “dealer list” means absolutely nothing. We know that the “lowest price guarantee’ is worthless if the dealer reserves the right to buy the car from the other dealer that offers a lower price.

There are those who argue that all buyers have the responsibility to guard against unethical sellers, to take care of themselves. In fact, that’s the literal translation of the Latin legal term “caveat emptor”…let the buyer beware. That’s sounds good, but what about the elderly widow whose husband recently died and who never had to make a the decision on a major purchase in her entire life? What about the young person just out of school with no experience in the real world? How about the immigrant who struggles with English? Should we be concerned about our underprivileged classes who often drop out of school because they have to go to work to support themselves or their family? You and I know lots of good people who, for one reason or another, simply can’t cope with a slick car or service salesman.

My bottom line is this, since we can’t rely on our regulators and politicians to protect those who “can be fooled all the time”, maybe we owe it to society to protect these folks. If you know someone who is thinking about buying a car or has a service problem with her car and you feel she may not have the ability to fend for herself with the car dealer, offer your support. If you’re one of the people who needs support, ask someone who can go “toe to toe” with a car dealer to come with you when you are car shopping. By the way, nobody, sophisticated or not, should car shop alone. Two heads are always better than one and it’s always a good idea to have a witness to what was said during a negotiation. And, of course, if you don’t have the time to help a person or you’re that person, you can always call me…I’m always here for you.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Why New Car Tires Wear Out So Fast


The tires that came with your last new car were not designed by Michelin, Goodyear, Bridgestone or any other tire manufacturer. They were designed by the manufacturer of your car. If your new car came with a set of Michelins, Michelin made the tire but they made it to the specifications set by your car manufacturer. These tires are referred to as OEM (original equipment manufacturer).

Furthermore, your manufacturer does not warranty the tires on your new car even though he tells you that you have a “bumper to bumper” warranty. The last time I checked, my tires were between my front and rear bumpers. Even though GM designed the tires on your Chevrolet, they have no responsibility if they are defective. The tire manufacturer bears that responsibility.

The OEM tires that came with your car can’t be replaced (which is a good thing) after they’ve worn out. And they will wear out much sooner than they should. This is because virtually all auto manufacturers specify very soft rubber which means they wear out too fast. Why would the manufacturer do that? They want that new car to have the smoothest ride possible, even at your expense of having to buy a new set of tires at half the mileage you should have to. When you test drive that brand new car and it rides very, very smoothly you’re more likely to buy it. You’ll find out how fast the tires wear out much later, and when you do you’ll blame it on the tire maker.

By the way, another way the car makers delude you into thinking your ride is very smooth is by recommending low tire inflation. The number you see on your door jamb or in your car’s owner’s manual is the car manufacturer’s recommended air pressure. The number on your tire is the tire maker’s recommendation. The number on the door jamb is the minimum and the number on the tire is the maximum. There’s typically a 10 pound difference.  I recommend you try the maximum and, if the ride’s too rough, split the difference. You’ll not only get longer tire wear but better gas mileage.

I can’t prove it, but I suspect another reason auto manufacturers design their own tires is to cut costs. By cutting a few corners in the design and specifications, they can increase their profit and/or cut the overall car price. If there purpose was to design a better tire, why wouldn’t they make these OEM tires available for the car owner to buy after the first set wears out? Many car owners “think” they’re replacing their Firestones or Michelins that were on their new car with the same tire, but they’re not. The tire might be the same size and look the same, but it’s a different model number.

One thing you should look for on your first set of replacement tires is the “tread wear index” which is molded into the side of your tires. This number will be 200 to 800. Your OEM tires will have a lower number because their made of softer rubber. If the tires that came on your car had a 200 tread wear index and you replaced them with 400, you should get twice the mileage on your second set of tires. The car might not ride as smoothly, but most people can’t even notice. And to my way of thinking, cutting you tires cost in half is pretty good compensation for a slightly rougher ride.

When replacing your tires, don’t get enamored by a sexy brand name. Brands aren’t always built on quality but also on advertising. Also, a famous brand tire makes all different kinds of tires to many different designs and specifications. Just because it’s a “Michelin” doesn’t necessarily man it’s a good tire. If Michelin made that tire for an auto manufacturer who designed the tire with only two things in mind…low cost and soft ride, you didn’t get a very good tire. My recommendation is to check Consumer Reports for the best tire replacements. You’ll find tire brands recommended that you may never have heard about. The Japanese and Chinese make some very good tires but they have funny sounding names and you don’t see them advertised heavily on TV. 

Monday, October 31, 2011

Hold Accountable Whistle Blowers with Malicious Intent


Get Bad Drivers off our roads, but not good ones you dislike

I don’t mean to sound like a broken record (or should I say defective audio chip) these days.  This is the 4th article I’ve written on the subject of Florida’s dumb law (see www.DumbLaw.org), 322.126(2), (3). This is the law that allows “any person” to report in confidence any Florida driver as being physically or mentally impaired and be held harmless from any civil or criminal liability even if it can be proven it was done with malicious intent.  

No one is a greater advocate than I for removing bad drivers from Florida’s roads. I see them daily and am convinced that they are responsible for a large percentage of highway deaths, injuries, property damage and soaring insurance rates. But I’m also a strong advocate of the facts that the end doesn’t always justify the means and that everyone should be held accountable for their wrongful acts.

Last Friday, I had a very productive meeting with Representative Irving Slosberg of Florida’s 90th district in Boca Raton. He impressed me very much with his openness to my suggestions. I conversed with him and his two aides for about 45 minutes.  His office is at 9045 La Fontana Boulevard, Suite 117. When I walked in the front door there was no one in the front office. I heard a dog barking in the back and Irv came out with his dog, Soldier, a fine looking Terrier, on a leash. He asked me if I like dogs and said, “Very much”. Soldier joined the meeting and anybody who loves dogs this much has to be a good guy.  I also learned that I didn’t even need an appointment because Irv Slosberg has an open door policy. Anybody who needs help can just walk into his office at any time. This is very rare for a politician and, before I left, I told Irv that we needed more guys like him in Washington D.C.

During our conversation he called one of the higher ups of the FHSMV (Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicle department). This FHSMV person was aware of me and told Irv Slosberg that he was the fourth caller about the “Earl Stewart’s problem”. This person, not surprisingly, was not at all sympathetic to my position. He pointed out that the informants were not anonymous as I had incorrectly stated, but were “only” confidential. He is exactly correct, there is a shade of difference between the definitions of confidential and anonymous. Because the FHSMV knows the name of the informant but won’t tell anybody else, including the accused, the informant is confidential.  Anonymous would mean that not even the FHSMV would know the name of the informant. Of course, the net effect is exactly the same because the informant is held harmless even if the motive for turning in a driver was purely malicious. It makes no difference if the FHSMV knows the identity of the informant if they will not tell anybody else…not the accused, not the accused’s lawyer, the police, or even a judge.  And, if through a fluke, the identity was known and it could be proven the intent was malicious, the informer is held harmless from civil suit or criminal liability.

Representative Slosberg was incensed when I explained to him why I believed that I knew the person who had informed on me did so for revenge and why I’m 99.9% sure that I know who he is. He agrees with me that this is the part of the law that must be changed. A person who takes it upon himself to try to have another’s driving privileges revoked must be held accountable if this is done falsely and with malicious intent.

However, Irv Slosberg did not think that my going public with my opposition to this bad law was a good idea. He felt that the more people who know about this law, the greater the potential for abuse.  I have to agree with him that more awareness of this bad law will generate more abuse. But I can’t agree that this justifies keeping quiet about it. In fact, if more people like me are willing to stand up and be counted, we may be able to expedite changes in this law. This law has been on the books too long, seventeen years, and the reason it’s been there so long is that people only became aware of the law when they fell victim to it. Most of the victims never responded to the letter from the FHSMV and continue to drive their cars, but now with no license and no insurance. They don’t speak out because of the same reason they don’t take the driving, written, hearing, and eye tests…fear.  Who wouldn’t be afraid of even the remotest chance to lose their driving privileges?  Why not gamble that a policeman will never stop you especially since most people have never been stopped before…especially if you’re a good driver. Would you take a chance that some FHSMV bureaucrat may mistakenly fail you in some part of the test if you didn’t have to? God knows government bureaucrats make lots of mistake…we read and hear about them in the new every day. The letters from the FHSMV are mailed out regular mail, not certified as they should be. Who’s to say your letter wasn’t lost in the mail? In fact, I’m certain that some letters are lost in the mail and some letters are accidentally thrown out, what with all of the junk mail we receive nowadays. This means that there are probably also lots of drivers without licenses that don’t even know that their licenses are suspended.  

Please sign my petition at www.DumbLaw.org. Next Tuesday, I will be taking my driving, written, eye, and hearing tests and, of course, I will pass them all and retain my license. Don’t sign this to help me, but sign this petition for those who can’t or won’t stand up because they’re afraid. Sign this petition because this law is un- American because the state should not protect someone when they maliciously attack another by concealing their identity and shielding them from all civil and criminal liability.


Monday, October 24, 2011

Sun Sentinel Defends a Dumb Law


  I’ve written two blog articles on the subject of Florida’s dumb law allowing “any person” to anonymously report you or me as an “impaired drivers”. Perhaps the worst part of this dumb law is that even if it can be proven the report was unfounded and had malicious intent, the informer is indemnified from all civil or criminal liability.  Why am I writing a third column on this subject? It’s because the Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel published a headline article in its Sunday, 10-23-11, edition supporting this law and the AP picked up the story, a release of which was published in the Monday, 10-24-11 edition of the Palm Beach Post and many other newspapers nationwide. I suspect that these articles were the result of press releases by the Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicle department, FHSMV, who enforces this dumb law. You can read the article by clicking on the link, www.FHSMVDumbLawArticle.com.

  I’m asking you to sign an electronic petition to change this law to remove the anonymity and “hold harmless” sections. Please click on www.DumbLaw.org. Below, I’ve addressed various omissions, misunderstandings, and distortions of the article from the Sun Sentinel. I’m sure that when you’ve read both the article and my comments you will agree that this law needs to be changed.
(1)               It acknowledges that “most of the drivers lost their privileges because they didn’t submit detailed medical information requested by the state to show they are still able to drive.” What they don’t do is drill down and ask the question, WHY don’t drivers submit their medical information? Is it always because they know for certain that the medical information would have resulted in a license suspension? Or is it often because they are simply afraid and unsure? My personal situation is a good example. When I first got the letter from the FHSMV, I was concerned that I might fail a hearing test. I’m a former hunter and I have high frequency hearing loss in my left ear. It wasn’t until I read the Florida Driver’s Handbook that I discovered that a driver’s license cannot be revoked for being hard of hearing or even deaf. Supposing I had been too afraid to take a hearing test and chose not to respond to the letter with the following reasoning…If I drive carefully, the odds are 99.9% that I will never be stopped by a policeman and asked to show my driver’s license? I can probably keep quiet about the letter, keep on driving, and nobody will ever be the wiser. The worst case scenario is I get stopped sometime in the future, and they cite me for driving with a suspended license. I claim that I never got the letter asking me to take the test which was sent by regular mail, not certified. I’ve had the benefit of years of driving that I would otherwise have lost and I can, even then, agree to take the test and hope I pass it. The alternative to this is to respond immediately and risk taking the test and losing my driver’s license. Think for a minute about how terrifying it is to lose your right to drive a car in Florida. During this Great Recession it was shown that many people choose to have their home foreclosed on rather than their car repossessed. Keeping their car allows them to get to drive to work ,the doctor, the pharmacy, the grocery store, etc. and continue with their lives. They can sleep and live in their car which is a hardship, but at least they can still have a life.  
(2)               The article acknowledges that this is a “little-known law”. But this front page article and other recent media attention will soon make this a “well-known law”. Up until now only 11% of anonymous informants have been non professionals (regular people, not doctors and police). What will happen when every “person” which is the other category specified in the law who can make an anonymous report learns of this law? What happens when angry neighbors, divorce litigants, estranged spouses, political opponents, jilted lovers, disgruntled and fired employees, business competitors, pranksters and sociopaths (Psychologists say that 1% of the population are born sociopaths and 10% more become so because of their environment)  learn about this perfect tool for revenge on somebody they don’t like?
(3)               The article points out that 42% of anonymous informants are cops. Several questions occur to me that the media has left unanswered. Why would a policeman waste the time of filing a report to the FHSMV instead of taking immediate action to remove an impaired driver from the roads? Police take drunk drivers off the road immediately, why not legally blind drivers? Why does a cop want to remain anonymous and immune from civil or criminal liability? The answer to this question might be frightening. A cop isn’t afraid to “look you in the eye” when he gives you a speeding ticket, makes you take a breathalyzer or blood alcohol test, and cites you for DUI. He’s not anonymous and he faces civil and criminal liability if he carelessly and/or maliciously does any of these things. Unfortunately in our society, instances of police brutality, sexual harassment, and other police abuses of power are not uncommon. Some police forces are requiring video cameras be placed on squad cars and even then, we’re discovering cops who take advantage of civilians because they have the power to do so. Is it so farfetched to think that a cop who has been “smarted off to” by a traffic offender might get even with him by reporting him as impaired driver…especially since he remains anonymous and is immunized from all civil or criminal liability? When a cop or doctor makes the anonymous complaint, there is no investigation of the complaint as there is if a non professional is the informant. The person reported is ordered to immediately take driving, written, eye, and hearing tests. In my personal situation, I suspect a policeman as being the anonymous informant. Of course I can’t prove it and, if I could, I could take no action against him. My reasons for my suspicion are that I was ticketed for speeding while driving in the right hand (slow) lane while cars passed me on the left. The cop was annoyed at me because I didn’t pull over right away. I didn’t pull over immediately because there was no safe place to pull over and I was driving with the windows up and while conversing on my cell phone and simply didn’t notice him at first. I got the letter from the FHSMV in the mail a couple of weeks after I was ticketed. At this time I learned that this policeman was married to an ex employee of mine that I had fired and who subsequently sued me for firing her. I’m not just a good driver; I’m an excellent driver with 20-20 vision, adequate hearing, fast reflexes, and a sharp mind. I’ve never had a traffic accident but I admit that I do drive slightly over the speed limit as do most drivers. Whoever reported me clearly did it for malicious reasons.
(4)               The AARP in the past has opposed age based additional road testing for drivers according to this article. I have some contacts in Tallahassee that spoke to me off the record Legislators tried to get age based testing into the law but AARP stopped this dead in its tracks. However, the FHSMV is proceeding to do this in spite of it not being in the law. They have taken it upon themselves to send out letters to all of those seniors who have reached 70 who have also not renewed their license in person in the past 5 years. They have renewed by mail on online. In my opinion, if this is true, it is a serious violation of the law by a state agency.

If you agree with me, please click on www.DumbLaw.org and sign my petition. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Good People Make Good Car Dealerships


In my columns over the years,  I've always advocated carefully choosing the car dealership that you buy your vehicle from or allow to service it. I still believe this is important. In fact, I recently published a list of dealers that I recommend you buy your car from and a list that I recommend you avoid. We've all visited a restaurant or retail store and had a terrible experience with a waitress, sales person, or other employee and never returned. Yet, we’ll friends recommending the same store that we swore never to patronize. We condemned an entire company because of one person.

I also wrote a column a couple of years ago in which I suggested that you carefully choose the individual who advises you and sells you service on your car.  These individuals are really commissioned sales people who sell you service just like car sales people sell you cars. Unfortunately most dealerships call them something else like “assistant service manager” or service advisor. In my dealership we used to call them Assistant Service Managers because that’s the term that Toyota uses. We now call them “service advisors” because too many people thought they were dealing with the service manager. In all candor, I’d feel more comfortable naming them what they are, “service sales people” and I may make that change.
As I was rereading this old column, it occurred to me that the same recommendation applies to all companies, not just car dealerships and it applies to all departments in a company. Whichever car dealership you choose, take the time to pick and choose those individuals you deal with. Car dealerships, just like other organizations, are nothing more than the sum of their parts…their people. You should get to know the person who sells you service and, if you don’t like him, ask for another person to handle your service requirements. You should also meet and cultivate a manager in the service department.
The same holds for the sales department. When you buy a car, don’t settle for the first salesman who approaches you. For example, if you’re a woman you may feel more comfortable dealing with another woman. Or, if your native language is Spanish or Cajun, you may feel more comfortable with one who can converse with you in your native tongue. Don’t be shy about asking and don’t feel bad about hurting the feelings of the first sales person. An automobile is the 2nd largest purchase most people make and it’s very important that you feel comfortable with the person selling it to you. Furthermore, if after dealing with your sales person for a while, you think you made a bad choice, ask to speak to the sales manager or general manager. Believe me, car buyers hold all the cards in today’s shaky economy and no sane sales manager is going to lose a sale because a prospective customer doesn’t like or trust the sales person she’s dealing with. He will handle your sale personally or choose another sales person you do feel good about.
Car dealerships have other departments including parts, finance and insurance, accounting, and some have body shops. My same recommendation applies to all departments. A word of caution, when you ask to speak to a manager, be sure you’re really are truly speaking to one. Car dealerships are notorious for calling rank and file employees managers to trick the customer.

My purpose in writing this column is in realization of the fact that there are no perfect companies, especially car dealerships and that includes mine. I employ 130 individuals and I would be less than candid if I didn’t say I have a few rotten apples in my barrel. Unfortunately, I don’t know who they are and finding them is a continuous work in progress. The same thing applies to all companies including car dealerships. In my list of recommended dealers, there are some employees of those dealerships who would take advantage of you but most would not. In those dealerships that I recommend you don’t buy your car from, there may be a few honest, courteous employees. Then there are all the dealerships that I don’t put in either category. Your odds of finding the right individual are much better if you patronize a good company or car dealership, but don’t totally let your guard down.

 Just stay away from the ones that I recommend you don’t deal with. In every organization there’s a tipping point. A great company reaches a critical mass of good employees and as their reputation grows, more good employees from other companies seek to be employed there. Honest, hardworking, courteous people enjoy working in an environment where others are like them. The same holds true for evil dealerships and bad companies (those on my “don’t buy” list). A good person with a conscience has a very difficult time functioning in an environment where, from top management all the way down, the design is to trick and take advantage of customers. These few good people don’t last long in evil dealerships and flee to a place where they can treat their customers in a manner that lets them sleep at night. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Your Angry Neighbors (or anybody else) Can Cause You to Lose Your Right to Drive!


I wrote another column on this subject last March and an update a few weeks ago, but it really came home to roost personally in the last two weeks. Just when you think our state government can’t pass a dumber law, you find one that sets a new record. This is the law that allows the Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicle department (FHSMV) to force you to take written, driving, hearing and eye examinations based on any person who says you are an impaired driver. No evidence is required, just the say-so of any person in the USA. As if this isn’t dumb enough, the informant remains anonymous and is indemnified from any civil or criminal liability. This means that if you don’t like the way Florida Governor Rick Scott is doing his job, all you have to do is download a form from the FHSMV website (www.flhsmv.gov/ddl/faqmed.html), fill it out, and email it to Tallahassee. He will be investigated as to his driving impairment and can be required to take a written, driving, eye, and hearing exam. If you wanted to “rub it in” you could voluntarily dispense with your granted anonymity and tell the Governor that you did this just because you don’t like him and he could not prosecute you criminally or sue you in a civil court.

Somebody turned me in and I will be going through these various driving tests. I strongly suspect that I know the identity of the person who turned me in. This person bears a personal grudge against me and knows that I’m a perfectly good driver without any “impairment”, but I have no choice but to follow the dictates of the FHSMV with great inconvenience and embarrassment.  The changes I wish to make in the law are to hold accountable people who maliciously turn in others. I should be able to sue this person in a civil count for libel. And I certainly should be able to learn the identity of that person under my constitutional right to face my accuser. Dictatorships like Iran and communist countries like China, not democracies like us, encourage anonymous informants to accuse their fellow citizens without proof and punish the accused, allowing them no means of recourse or retaliation against their accuser.

If all of the above isn’t enough to anger or frighten you about this law, how about this? More than ten thousand such letters were mailed out by the FHSMV last year and more than seven thousand Florida drivers lost their licenses. Most of those who lost their right to drive were never tested. They simply chose not to show up and their licenses were automatically revoked. I’ve spoken to some of these drivers who called me as a result of this blog and my radio show. Their reasoning is that if they don’t show up and just keep driving, there is a very small chance of them ever being stopped by a policeman. Many never have been stopped because they are very good drivers. If they should be stopped, they can claim they never received the letter (It isn’t mailed certified). However, if they do take the test, there’s always a chance they may flunk something. Older drivers haven’t taken any kind of a written test in decades. It’s a little scary. Or how good is their hearing or eyesight? How good does the DHSMV expect their hearing and eyesight to be? There’s nothing in the letter to tell the recipient what criteria for hearing or eyesight is expected. What 70 year old hears and sees as well as she did 50 years ago? They reason that if they take the chance and fail, they are in far worse shape than if they simply gamble and continue to drive with no license. Why this all should anger and frighten you, is that all of these thousands of drivers with no licenses also have no insurance. What happens if one of them is involved in an accident with you?

Some of you may have seen the TV converge on my personal situation.  As I type this article, I’m awaiting a call from a major national news organization. All of the journalists that I’ve spoken to are equally aghast at this very bad Florida law. I discussed this twice on my Saturday radio show and my listeners were shocked that such a law could have been passed. By bringing this bad law out into the “cold light of day” through this blog and the media we can collectively change it.

I’m asking you and anybody you know to send an email to MyDriversLicense@ESToyota.com and state “Name and hold accountable those who would take away my right to drive” or whatever you would like to say in your own words. You can also fax this to 561 858-0746. I would especially like to hear from anybody that has received one of these letters from the DHSMV. Most importantly, please sign my petition at www.DumbLaw.org. I will forward all of your emails, faxes, and our signed petition to our Florida legislators as well as member of the Executive branch, including Rick Scott. I wonder if anybody will report him as an impaired driver…I certainly hope not. Oh, just in case you missed the website where you can download that form to report people, it’s www.flhsmv.gov/ddl/faqmed.html

Monday, October 03, 2011

Grandma's and Grandpa's "Freedom Machine"


I wrote this column four years ago but a recent incident made it very personal. Last Thursday, I received a letter from the Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicle Department (FHSMV). It said that “This agency has received information expressing concerns about your ability to driving safely. Please call the driver license office below to set up an appointment to take the vision, written, driving (in traffic) and hearing examinations. This came as a total surprise and I was very skeptical because I’m in excellent physical and mental health. My vision, hearing, and reflexes are more than adequate to drive a car. I have an “safe driver” stamp on my license and I’ve never had a traffic accident. I’m in the process of investigating this bizarre occurrence and my preliminary finding show that the FHSMV is not being forthright in their letter. In fact, letters are mailed to all Florida residents who turn 70 and renew their licenses online or by mail. After 80 these letters are mailed every other year. Testing based strictly by age is prohibited by law. Our legislators attempted to pass such a law but it was defeated by strong lobbying by the AARP. I will write a column on this when I have all the facts.

You may have read in the newspaper a couple of weeks ago about a 94 year old man who hit a woman riding a bicycle. It wasn’t the man’s fault; the woman, in her fifties, ran a stop sign. They put the old man in jail overnight and he was given probation because he was driving with no license. It had been taken away because he failed his driver’s test. He said he had to drive because he had to take his wife to the doctor and pick up medicine for her.

There is another reason that a lot of younger people don’t seem to understand why this old man still owned a car. If you are one of these people, think back to the first time you ever drove a car. Think back to the time you owned your first car. Can you recall that wonderful feeling of FREEDOM? No longer did Mom or Dad have to take you to school, to work, to the store, or to a friend’s house. Or, you didn’t have to take the bus, the street car, or impose on a friend who already owned a “freedom machine”. If you are a guy, do you remember how you felt when you first picked your girlfriend up at her home in your very own car? I don’t know about you, but I still feel a tingle when I think about it. I really can’t think of a more memorable experience in any young person’s life. Your first kiss is probably a close second [My first car was a 1951 Pontiac Chieftain & my first kiss was from Mary Ann Riggle during a “spin the bottle game”].

 If you are one of those younger people who curse at that gray haired driver in front of you because she is driving too slowly, just remember that she is probably a safer driver than you. Newspapers like to feature stories of senior citizens having accidents and questioning their mental and physical faculties for driving but insurance companies charge senior citizens lower premiums than you. That means they have fewer accidents and cause fewer injuries. Admittedly that is partly because we seniors drive fewer miles but it’s also because most of us drive slower and more carefully than you.

My Uncle Charlie died eight years ago. He was 94. My Aunt Marion died within a year of Uncle Charlie. They lived in the same very modest, small house on Valencia Drive in West Palm Beach for fifty years. But they always owned a Cadillac and it was always parked outside in their driveway. Up until the time they were in their late eighties, the highlight of their week was to take a Sunday drive in their shiny Cadillac. Uncle Charlie always drove. When his eyesight got too bad to drive, he still kept that Cadillac in their driveway, always clean and shiny. His eyesight was still good enough so that, from his rocking chair in his living room, he could see that big Cadillac sitting outside (and so could his neighbors).

My father died when he was 86 and he drove a Pontiac TransAm up until the very last. He had cataracts removed from both eyes and back then, you had to wear “coke bottle” style glasses to see after this operation. He had no peripheral vision and there were a lot of scrapes, dings, and dents that appeared on both sides of that TransAm. Thank God he never had a serious accident. I saw Dad every day and I would see that the dents and scratches were regularly repaired. He always said he didn’t know where they came from and I never questioned him about that. Maybe I was wrong, but I didn’t have the heart to ask him not to drive anymore. I knew how important that car was to Dad and I knew how devastating it would be to him if he couldn’t drive anymore.

You may have heard of George Greenberg a. k. a. the “Mayor of Clematis”. He died a few months ago at the age of 91. He owned Pioneer Linens on Clematis Street in West Palm Beach, a store founded by his father, Max, in 1912. George and I were close friends and I delivered a eulogy at George’s funeral at the request of his grandson and daughter. George always drove an old Buick station wagon, although he was a wealthy man and could have bought any car he wanted. A couple of years ago, George finally treated himself to a new Mercedes Benz SLK-Class convertible! Boy did George look good in that car and he was always smiling when he drove it! When he was diagnosed with brain cancer and given only months to live, he finally had to stop driving his freedom machine. His grandson drove him to our monthly dinner at Carmine’s Ocean Grille and picked him up. It never was the same for George after that.

At my Toyota dealership in North Palm Beach, we have a lot of older customers. It’s just the demographics of northern Palm Beach County. My average customer is 55 and I have lots of customers in their seventies, eighties, and nineties. Maybe it’s because I’m a senior citizen too, but I especially like talking to my older customers and I’ve become personal friends with some. I can tell you from personal experience how important their cars are to them in their latter years. During your middle years when you have so much more going on in your life, your car becomes more utilitarian and you take it for granted. But when you retire and your life is not as hectic your car returns to the importance it had when you were sixteen…your “freedom machine”.

We recently leased a new Camry to one of our very good customers. This was the third car that she got from us over the last seven years and she had just turned 90. One of my managers, who has worked for me for 20 years and is a neighbor of hers, handled the lease. About a month after she took her new Camry home, her Grandson learned of the transaction and demanded that we rescind the lease. When we spoke to our customer, she let us know that her Grandson was very upset with her for leasing the car. He didn’t think she should be driving a car anymore and that she wouldn’t live long enough to make all the payments on a 4 year lease. We offered to refund all of the profit on the lease (about $850), but the Grandson insisted that we take the lease car back. This would cost my company thousands of dollars because of the depreciation a car takes on as soon as it is titled as a used car.

Yesterday afternoon my customer’s Grandson and Stepson visited me in my office. They continued to demand that I rescind the lease [Only the leasing company, Southeast Toyota Finance can rescind the lease] and absorb the thousands of dollars in depreciation on 1 month old used car. They suggested that I may have broken laws by exploiting the elderly and that if I did not succumb to their demands they would sue me. They had already called Toyota to complain about my actions. Not so politely, I asked them to leave my office.

This experience troubled me for the rest of the day and even last night and is what inspired this column. Now I understand why I was so angry at the actions of my customer’s Grandson and Stepson. They didn’t seem to understand how much that car meant to their Grandmother/Stepmother’s happiness and what an important thing her “freedom machine” was to her.  I have to wonder how much of their ire was due to genuine concern for her or the potential financial impact on her estate. Her Grandson told me that she had put only 1,500 miles on her last car and what does she need a new car for? He just doesn’t get it! A new car is a lot more than just a way to get to the drug store. To a senior citizen it’s a source of pleasure, pride, and comfort, knowing that it’s in their driveway for everyone to see and it’s there if they need it.

One of my sons just called me to double check on the correct time for him to come over for Thanksgiving dinner today. I told him that I was writing this column and we discussed the subject. I also told him that I hoped that neither he, nor his two brothers would ever take away my “freedom machine”.




Monday, September 26, 2011

Rebuilding Car Dealers’ Character


At a recent lunch between a group of Wall Street Journal Reporters and the new dean of the Harvard Business School, Nitin Nohria, he spoke on “changes in business education and how to teach character-building.” He said that “ethics” were the centerpiece of Harvard’s recent curriculum overhaul. Of course, a lot of this was fueled by the financial meltdown that the USA entered around 2006-7. The meltdown has been largely attributed to greed, lack of ethics, and illegal acts by businesses. Before the meltdown companies like Enron, AIG, and Lehman Brothers were considered role models for business students. Now, these companies and many more are held in no higher regard than politicians, lawyers, and car dealers (not necessarily in that order).

One of the WSJ reporters asked if it wasn’t too late to change a person’s “moral compass” by the time he’s going to graduate school. The dean responded that he didn’t believe that but believed that morals and character are a lifelong development. I totally concur because I grew my character in a positive way after I was out of school. I had a good foundation from my parents but there’s nothing like life’s school of hard knocks to jolt some sense into you. I half jokingly refer to myself as a “recovering car dealer” because I began positively adjusting my character and my moral compass considerably when I reached my mid fifties. People ask me all the time, what spurred this change. First, I tell them it’s a work in progress and I’ll continue to try to get better until the day I die. Then I tell them there is no one thing that brought this about. You can take your pick…Maturity, my sons and wife becoming part of my business, grandchildren, a near death experience with colon cancer, the realization that treating my customers with courtesy, respect, and integrity was actually better for business than the old way.

Abraham Lincoln said that people think that the real test of a person’s character is how they deal with adversity. I’ve been hearing a lot of excuses from dealers who say that they can’t stop charging the dealer fee because business is so bad. If they stop charging it, they would go out of business and just think of the number of innocent employees would be unemployed! I’m sure that rationale is why a lot of car dealers add thousands of dollars to the MSRP of their advertised cars so that they can trick their customers into believing they’re getting a large discount. Or why dealers charge customers twice for freight and even mark up the license registration electronic filing fee. But the dean of Business at Harvard thinks the biggest reason for the collapse of morals and ethics in business is “power”. Lord Acton (1834-1902), British historian, said “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. This explains why we have so many corrupt politicians, lawyers, and, yes, car dealers. Being able to handle power in a humble fashion is the truest test of character.

Unfortunately, car dealers fly much lower on the radar than the Exxon’s, Lehman Brothers, and AIG’s of the world. There are more than 10,000 car dealerships in the USA and most of them operate independently. For this reason, laws controlling them and regulations are a state issue. California, for example has good laws and regulations protecting car buyers but Florida does not. Some attempt has been made to bring Federal regulation to bear through the Federal Trade Commission, but powerful dealer lobbyists like the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) have fought that successfully so far.

The only advice I can give you at this time is “don’t take it lying down”. The only way to get the attention of our politicians and regulators is to make lots of noise. This is why I write this blog, my newspaper column, and do my weekly radio shows. If a car dealer wrongs you, call the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Count Office of Consumer Affairs, the Attorney General’s Office, and/or the manufacturer. Put your complaint in writing. And of course, you can always email or call me and I will make your message known.



Monday, September 19, 2011

BUYERS ARE LIARS!


I’m always amazed by the way car dealers who use deceptive advertising and unethical sales tactics rationalize their behavior by actually blaming you, their customer. The following is a direct quote from an anonymous car dealer’s email I received this morning in response to one of my recent columns in this newspaper:  I don't think you would make any of these comments if you sold fords in a non-metro market. How do you expect dealers to change when consumers think they should pay less than dealer cost for a car and then walk into any other form of retail store and pay what they are asking?? Your ideas are noble but there are other dealers who have tried 'your' methods who are no longer in business.” This dealer is saying that his customers are so ruthless and cunning that they won’t buy a car unless they can buy it below his cost and his only solution is to trick them into thinking that they are buying it below his cost, like tacking on a “dealer fee” to the price they quoted the customer.  He also goes on to say that my “ideas are noble” but I can’t possibly be successful and I will go broke trying. I truly appreciate his concern and I want to assure him, if he is reading this article, that my business is doing very nicely.

This attitude is actually a prevailing part of the culture in many car dealerships. Many dealers, dealer managers, and sales people don’t trust their customers (how paradoxical!). They don’t even like their customers. A very common expression among car dealers and their sales staff is “Buyers are liars”. This means that a prospective customer will not tell you the truth about the condition of his trade-in, he will lie to you about the price he got from your competitor, and he is likely to remove those new tires that were on his trade-in when the dealer appraised it when he comes in to pick up his new car.

There are also a lot of dealerships where used car buyers and people with bad credit are held in especially low esteem. They have nicknames for people with bad credit like “slugs” and “roaches”. Apparently dehumanizing these unfortunate members of our society with derogatory labels makes it easier to treat them so shabbily. People with bad credit are targeted with direct mail and newspaper ads making absurd promises that convince prospective customers that they can finance a car no matter how bad their credit. In some dealerships applicants are coached on how to falsify credit application and pay records. In some cases the applicant may not even know he is signing a false credit application which is federal offence.  In most cases the credit is refused and the applicants are not even given the courtesy of a return phone call to tell them this.

I don’t claim to be a psychologist (and I don’t even play one on TV), but I have read articles explaining how humans will stereotype other people in a fashion that falsely justifies their negative behavior toward those same people. We see this with racism and even in wars. If you make yourself believe that car buyers are out to take advantage of you, “buyers are liars”, you can’t feel guilty about tricking them into paying a dealer fee. If you trick a “roach” or a “slug” into coming in to buy a car on credit when they probably can’t, why should you feel guilty? After all, roaches and slugs don’t have feelings.

What these kinds of dealerships don’t understand is that you must trust a person first before you can expect her to trust you. You have to treat a person with respect before you can expect that person to respect you. Somebody has got to go first. My experience over the past 40+ years as a car dealer is that 99.9% of my customers are good people who I can believe and trust. Those are pretty good odds and I just assume that every customer I am dealing with is part of that 99.9%.  Once in a great while I get burned, but the loss from that one in a thousand that takes advantage is far out-weighted by the other 999 who respond positively to my trusting them and treating them with respect.