I wrote this article in October of 2007 and it ran again in 2008 after I received a phone call from Ted Smith, the President of the Florida Automobile Dealers Association, FADA. In Ted’s call, he told me that he knew most Florida car dealers and they were mostly honest, good people.
Accepting Ted Smith’s assertion and I know Ted to be a man of very high integrity, I still have this “axe to grind” with Florida car dealers. You do not make yourselves accessible to your customers. You rely on your managers, computers, and reports.
There is a Japanese phrase, “genchi genbutsu”, which translated literally means “go to the place and see”. Toyota Motor Corp. employs this principal. Even the Chairman of the Board of Toyota will often go into a manufacturing plant, walk out onto the floor, roll up his sleeve, and plunge it into an oil sump of a machine tool to find out why parts are not being milled to perfection. The Chairman of Toyota knows what’s going on and all his managers know that he knows this too. It keeps everybody on their toes!
This principal is why I have my red phones, give my home number to my customers, and don’t allow any call screening or automatic answer services in my dealership.
What to do if you are Treated Badly by a Car Dealer
Hopefully the sales or service experience with your car dealer went well. But, sometimes they don’t. Now what? The advice I give you applies to all business transactions, not just car dealerships.
Your first step should be to communicate your complaint ASAP to the General Manager or, preferably, the owner. Be sure that you are talking to the real owner or the real general manger. A General Manager is over all employees in the entire company. A general “sales” manager is not a General Manager. If you can’t reach the owner (Many car dealerships are either publicly owned or owned by absentee owners), ask to see the General Manager. Often times the owner or General Manager is not aware of everything that goes on with all of their customers and employees. They might have new employee that should not have been hired or received inadequate training. Or, they may simply have a “rotten apple” that should not be working there. The ease and speed with which you can meet and speak to a General Manager or an owner is a pretty good measure of the integrity of the company as whole. If the owner or General Manager cares enough about her customers to allow total access, it is probably a very good place to do business. In fact, it is a good idea to find this out before you do business.
If you cannot reach the owner or General Manager, contact the manufacturer who franchises the dealership. Car dealers have a contract with the manufacturer called a franchise agreement and this contractual agreement requires that they treat their customers with courtesy, efficiency and integrity. Most manufacturers have a customer hotline that allows you to call and register a complaint directly. The owner or General Manager of the dealership will be made aware of your complaint. As you might guess, the manufacturer has quite of bit of clout with their dealer. If a dealer does not live up to his side of the contract, his franchise could be canceled or not renewed.
The third step I recommend, if numbers one and two don’t work, is to contact a consumer agency like The Better Business Bureau or the County Office of Consumer Affairs. These agencies will send your complaint to the dealership and request a written reply. No car dealership or business wants an unanswered complaint in the file of a governmental or private consumer agency.
Your last resort is to contact an attorney. I list this last because hiring an attorney just about eliminates the possibility that you can quickly, amicably and inexpensively resolve your differences with the car dealer. Be very careful which attorney you choose. Try to choose one that is primarily interested in helping you and not in generating large fees for himself. Under the Florida Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act, an attorney is entitled to his fees and costs from the defendant in a lawsuit if he wins. These fees can be much larger than the amount of your claim, motivating an unethical attorney to spend more time than is needed and dragging out a case to generate more fees than are necessary. This can be very dangerous for you because the car dealer’s attorney’s fees run roughly parallel to your lawyer’s and you can be held liable for those if you lose the case.
Hopefully you never have to resort to the final step of hiring a lawyer. In trying steps one, two, and three try to present your complaint as concisely and politely as possible. You have every right to be angry when you are taken advantage of, but try to let your anger subside before you speak to or write to someone about your problem. We all react negatively to someone who is profane, raises his voice, or is sarcastic. Your goal of communicating and resolving your complaint is best reached by communicating clearly, politely and concisely.