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Monday, October 26, 2009

Open Letter to Florida Car Dealers V

Ethical Car Dealers Attract the Best Customers

Dear Florida Car Dealer:

In past columns I have “confessed” to advertising and employing sales tactics in years past that I am not proud of today. I hasten to say that I never did anything illegal, but 20 to 40 years ago my ethical standards were a lot lower than they are today. I evolved and my customers evolved. Consumers today are far better educated, informed, and demanding than those of three decades back. As I my business practices, sales tactics, and advertising improved, I noticed a very interesting, positive parallel improvement in the kind of customers my company was attracting. It was a sort of a “push-pull” phenomenon. I needed to get better to meet the expectations of my customers and, as I improved, I attracted a better kind of customer.

Today, my customers are smarter, more affluent, better educated, and “nicer”. There’s a good reason for this. For one thing, my advertising is totally ethical and honest. I don’t advertise used cars for $99, I don’t advertise that, if you buy vehicle you can get a second one free, and I don’t advertise a car below cost knowing that there is only one available which is next to impossible for the customer to buy. When you advertise like this, you attract people who are uneducated, gullible, naive or expecting “something for nothing”. The smart, fair dealing customers who know that “there is no such thing as a free lunch” buy their cars from me. I don’t surprise my customers with a dealer fee/doc fee ranging up to $1,000 which is nothing more than profit to you. In fact, many of my customers were almost yours, until you tried to “slip in” your dealer fee. A lot of my service customers used to be your service customers until they discovered that you charge an extra 5% or 10% on their service bill and tried to justify it by calling it “sundry supplies”, “shop supplies” or “environmental impact fee”.

So, you ask, what’s so great about having smart, educated, affluent, and nice customers? Well, for one thing, I don’t get sued like you do and I don’t get nasty letters from the BBB, County Office of Consumer Affairs, and Florida Attorney General’s Office. The last time I was sued was about 7 years ago. Ironically, my customer’s lawyer sued me because I settled a dispute with his client (my customer). After he wrote me a letter saying he was suing me I called his customer on the phone, drove out to her home, sat down with her and her husband at her kitchen table and settled our differences over a cup of coffee. This lawyer sued me because I had deprived him of the fee he would have charged her if he could have sued me. It’s an ongoing saga after all these years. It’s too long a story to tell here, but I will write a column about it one day. I’m guessing that the car dealers who read this column (and I know you do) have at least a half dozen lawsuits going on all of the time.

Another great thing about having nicer, smarter, more affluent customers is that they treat my employees and me with courtesy and respect, just like we treat them. I love to walk into my dealership because customers smile and wave and even stop me to tell me how well they were treated. Customers, who don’t see me in person, know that all they have to do is pick up one of four red phones located in the showroom, service drive, next to the service cashier, and in the body shop to be in immediate personal contact with me. I even give my customers my business card with my home phone number and my cell phone number. Most of the calls that I get are complimentary, just like my personal encounters. You wouldn’t do what I do because you couldn’t. Your secretary screens your phone calls and you wouldn’t dare give your home or cell phone number to a customer. By the way, if you aren’t familiar with my dealership, I probably sell a lot more cars than you do…I average about 475 a month. I have a lot more customers than you, so it’s not like I’m a little rural car dealer who can get away with what I do because I have so few customers.

Here’s another benefit of having such nice, intelligent customers. They don’t have unrealistic expectations like your customers. Remember that you probably tricked your customer into coming in with your advertising. If it worked and your customer bought a car from you thinking that you really could give him $10,000 minimum trade allowance on his car which was really worth only $500, you have reinforced his unrealistically high expectations. In his future dealings with you, he will continue to believe that he can get “something for nothing”. When you finally have to tell him “no”, he’s going to be mad, maybe even sue you.

There are other benefits, too numerous to mention, of having such happy, nice customers. Wouldn’t you like to come to work in that environment? Just think, no more law suits, no more nasty letters from governmental agencies, no more threats from the factory about your customer satisfaction index, and you could walk right through your service department or through your showroom without fear of being accosted by an irate customer. If you would like to give this a try, I would love to discuss it with you personally at any time. This is my 5th open letter to car dealers and I have yet to receive the first phone call… just a few nasty, anonymous emails. Maybe you will be the first to call.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Holdback or Holdup?

Back in 1968 when I first went into the retail car business with my father, I can remember asking him, “What is holdback?” I was learning the business and had been studying the invoices on new Pontiacs that General Motors sent us when they shipped a new car that we had ordered. We had to pay the invoice immediately when it was issued, sometimes even before the car arrived at our dealership. Actually, in most cases, it was our bank or GMAC who paid GM and we borrowed the money from them to pay for the car.

My father’s answer to my question about holdback was that it was an increase in the amount of the invoice that we paid General Motors which was not really part of the price of the car. It was just an extra amount added to the real price of the car and included in the invoice. At that time it was 2% of the MSRP [suggested retail], so if a new Pontiac Bonneville had an MSRP of $10,000 and a true cost of $9,000, the factory invoice would be $9,200. I asked my father, “When do we get the $200 back?” He said, “At the end of the year”. I asked him if they paid us interest on our money and I can remember him laughing loudly and saying no.

Of course my next question was why they do that. He told me that the reason they gave him was to be help dealers sell their cars for more money so that they didn’t go broke. He said that because they didn’t get their holdback money for such a long period of time, they began to think of their invoice as being the actual cost of the car. General Motors felt that many dealers were such poor businessmen that they might sell their cars so cheaply that they would go out of business. Now, because GM was kind enough to hold back hundreds of thousands of dollars of the dealers’ money [and pay them no interest on it] but return the money to them once a year, they could help the dealers make a bigger profit and maintain adequate working capital.

At that time I thought this was the biggest bunch of boloney I had ever heard and I was sure that this was a scheme by the manufacturers to keep a free float of millions of dollars of their dealers’ money under the guise of helping the dealers. I asked my father why the dealers didn’t strongly object to this and he said that most dealers actually “liked” the idea of holdback. When I heard that, I thought that maybe GM and the manufacturers were right about the dealers not being smart enough to sell their cars for a reasonable profit.

It took me a few more years in the business before I understood what was really going on with holdback. It was a “no brainer” as to why the manufacturers liked it but at last I understood its attraction to us dealers. Because we had to pay an extra amount over the true price of the car and not see that money for up to a year, we began to think of the invoice as the true price, even though it was actually inflated by hundreds of dollars. Because all manufacturers added holdback to all dealers invoices, the net effect was to raise the price of all cars to all buyers by the amount of this holdback. I know this is a dirty word, but it is price fixing on the grandest of scales. This might have been something that Henry Ford, Alfred Sloan, and Walter Chrysler concocted while playing golf at Bloomfield Hills Country Club outside of Detroit.

Another neat thing about holdback for us dealers is being able to tell our customers that we are only charging them “X dollars” over invoice. Or, we can tell them that we will sell them this car at invoice with no profit to us at all! [There’s a sucker born every minute] Dealers often have “invoice sales” with copies of the invoice pasted on the car windows. Who doesn’t believe that an invoice is the cost of the car? The truth is in the semantic skullduggery …”Mr. Customer, I solemnly swear to you that this the exact price that I paid the factory for this car. In fact, here’s a copy of the invoice.” That’s what the dealer “paid” the factory all right, but it’s not what the he paid the factory after he got his holdback check in the mail.

You might be thinking, so we’re talking about $200 more or less on a $10,000 car. Who cares? Don’t forget, that was over 40 years ago. Holdbacks have expanded considerably and now instead of several hundred dollars we’re talking several thousand. Also, dealers no longer have to wait a year to get their hold back money back. Now they get it back monthly. Manufacturers even changed the names of these monies they hold back. These are innocuous names so that, if you see them on the invoice, you will have no suspicion…names like floorplan assistance, advertising, PDI, Administrative or DAP. Of course there are also cash rebates to dealers that don’t even show on the invoice. I estimate the average car invoice today includes $3,000 to $4,000 in hidden holdbacks to the dealer. Holdbacks are also applied to factory or distributor accessories like “protection packages” [wax, undercoat, window etch, roadside assistance], floor mats, window tint, etc.

The bottom line is that you don’t rely on the dealer’s factory invoice to determine the price you are willing to pay for a car. And be especially suspicions when the dealer quotes you a price of “X dollars over invoice” or actually shows you the invoice. You’ve heard the old joke, “How can you tell when a politician is lying?” Answer: When his lips are moving. “How can you tell when a car dealer is lying?” Answer: When he shows you the invoice.

Monday, October 12, 2009


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.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Are Car Manufacturers and Dealers “Grasping for Salvation?

Last week Akio Toyoda, the CEO of Toyota, apologized to his customers, employees, and stockholders. He said that Toyota had suffered from “hubris” [Overbearing pride or presumption; arrogance], “undisciplined pursuit of more” and “denial of risk and peril”. He said that Toyota now is “grasping for salvation”. Akio Toyoda who is also the grandson of Toyota’s founder then said “Toyota has become too big and distant from its customers”. His confession and apology is courageous, refreshing, and encouraging. If GM and Chrysler had had a leader like Akio Toyoda, they wouldn’t find themselves where they are today. Mistakes don’t cause failures; Denial of mistakes does.

I ordered Jim Collins’ book, How the Mighty Fall, on Amazon. The author postulates that big companies don’t die suddenly but rather through five stages: (1) Hubris born of success. (2) Undisciplined pursuit of more. (3) Denial of risk and peril. (4) Grasping for salvation. (5) Capitulation to irrelevance or death. I must say that these stages describe General Motors, Chrysler, Ford, and even Toyota to a T. In fact GM and Chrysler may be in, or too near, the final stage 5, “capitulation, irrelevance, or death.

I was a Pontiac dealer in West Palm Beach from 1968 to 1999. I have lots of memories of those times, good and bad. The good times were when Pontiac was the 4th largest selling brand in the world, behind Chevrolet, Ford, and Oldsmobile. Pontiac and GM thought that Japanese cars were inferior and no threat whatsoever. I still remember the day in 1970 when the Pontiac zone manager, Murph Martin, visited my dealership and told me to get that “Jap” car off his showroom floor. He was referring to a Mazda as I had just signed a franchise agreement with that Japanese auto manufacturer. Today Pontiac no longer exists but Mazda is still going strong.

My regular readers will sense where I’m going now. Nobody can argue that car manufacturers, including Toyota, the mightiest of them all, have fallen precipitously in the past 3 years. I want to believe and I do believe that the new CEO of Toyota, Akio Toyoda, “gets it”. For him to publically apologize and acknowledge that his company was one step away from “capitulation to irrelevance or death” took great self awareness and courage. On the other hand, Ed Whitacre, the Chairman of GM, is doing TV commercials comparing GM cars to Toyota and Lexus, saying “If you can find a better car, buy it”. I have to say, “Hey Ed! Be careful what you wish for!” I would also recommend that Ed check out Consumer Reports, 2009 Best and Worst Cars, the April issue, page 17. All 34 car brands sold in America are ranked by Reliability. There is not one GM brand listed in the top half. Buick is 18th. The top 10 brands are all Asian. The bottom 10 includes GMC truck, Pontiac, Cadillac, and Saturn. Chevrolet is #24, 11th from the bottom.

But what about car dealers? In my opinion, we car dealers also have succumbed to the same temptations as manufacturers. Great success brings on hubris/arrogance. Big is never big enough and so we strive for more in an undisciplined fashion. When you make a lot of money and get lots of recognition, you feel “bullet proof”. Can you say “Bernie Madoff”? How many of us find ourselves in stage 4 “grasping for salvation”, like Akio Toyoda now? In order to successfully manage stage 4, a business owner or CEO must be courageous, but more importantly, he must have self awareness. Mark Twain said “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble; it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so”. I have to confess, that occasionally I start to feel a little “full of myself”. I’ve grown to be the largest seller of automobiles in Palm Beach County, the 5th largest Toyota dealer in the southeast USA. When I go out to a restaurant or shopping, lots of people recognize me and shake my hand. Now, when I get that feeling that I’m a “big shot”, I simply remind myself who it was that “brung me to the dance”… my customers.