Whenever we want to disparage someone’s honesty, we compare them to a used car salesman. Stereotypes like these are not totally unfair because, like most stereotypes, there is some truth in them. Car dealers in general are looked upon with suspicion because of the way they do business; that whole mating dance when you’re negotiating a price on a new car, and the sales person running back and forth to the manager like they were trying their darndest to get you a better deal. Please.
While it’s true I’ve encountered some sales reps from hell like the little dweeb from the Auto Mall in New Jersey who pressed me insistently for my social security number before he had barely said hello. Later, while test driving the car, I asked to hear the radio and this idiot didn’t know how to turn it on. Generally though, I think most of the problems I’ve had have come after I buy the car. I’ve found that dealing with mechanics and service departments is a lot more frustrating than dealing with sales people. I’ve never understood this because while your decision to buy from a particular dealer is based largely on convenience, your decision to return to that dealer is based almost exclusively on how well they service the car. Duh.
An auto service operation is not just about how well they handle maintenance and repairs on the vehicle, but how well they treat you. In the days long ago, before arrogant American auto makers got their butts kicked by Japan, customer waiting rooms in car dealerships were the pits. Dingy surroundings, uncomfortable, mismatched chairs that looked like they were rescued from a dumpster, dog-eared magazines yellow with age, and nothing to eat or drink while you waited at their mercy to fix your car were the norm. Mechanics were surly, had no appreciation for the value of your time, and usually left a memento of your visit in the form of a grease stain on your mats or upholstery.
My worst experience with a mechanic happened during the 1960s. One morning, I dropped off my big-ass Olds ’88 at the local Shell station for an oil change. When I returned that evening looking for my car, I walked right past a total wreck parked in the same gas station. The station owner came out and sheepishly explained that the wreck I walked past WAS my car! It seems that when he was backing the car out after changing the oil, a speeding car ran the light at 86th Street and plowed into my car. He was totally apologetic, and said his insurance company would take care of the repair. What could I do; the damage was done so I told him to notify me when the car was repaired.
About a week later the station owner called me, said the car was ready, and gave me the address in Brooklyn of the body shop where I could pick it up. The body shop owner pulled the car around, and to my complete delight, the car looked like new! I thanked him for a great job, but as I moved to open the door to get in and drive off, he stepped in front of me. He explained that the Shell station owner’s insurance company had not yet agreed to pay for the damage, and that he was slapping a “mechanic’s lien” on the car to prevent me from taking it until he got his money.
At this point I was at the end of my patience. The body shop guy was a lot older and smaller than me, so I told him in my best “hard guy” voice that the insurance problem was between him and the Shell station owner, and that I was taking my car. He calmly stepped into his ratty office and came out with a snarling Doberman and holding the biggest revolver I had ever seen! Needless to say, no further arguments were made by me. (The dog would have been more than enough.) A couple of weeks later, I got my car and an apology from the body shop guy for his “Little Caesar” tactics. I stammered that it was perfectly understandable and, avoiding any sudden movements, slowly backed out.
Things have changed a lot now that car dealers are beginning to understand the relationship between treating customers decently and repeat sales. My current Toyota dealer in New Jersey has a service operation that makes me want to go back. They keep their appointment times, have a customer lounge with big screen TV and extensive reading materials, and will even give you a free voucher for breakfast or lunch that you can redeem in their on-site restaurant while you wait for your car to be serviced. When the car is ready, it takes me ten minutes to remove all the protective coverings they put over the seats and on the floor to prevent stains. And I’m happy to report that so far, nobody has pulled a gun on me.
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