American View: Ghost Protocols

To celebrate having this week’s column post on Halloween,  Business Reporter’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert argues that American car buyers can be a bit like ghosts. The angry kind, that is.

Happy Halloween, everyone! Traditionally, in the USA, 31st October is a time for ghost stories, cold winds, falling leaves and a looming sense of dread as winter approaches. It’s a great time to enjoy being frightened by fictional things (like scary movie monsters) and completely unnerved by non-fictional horrors (like the US presidential election). It’s traditionally the time to consider all of the things in our lives that we dread, both real and imagined. This week, in honour of Halloween, I want to discuss something that nearly everyone fears, loathes and would do anything in their power to avoid: no, not ghosts… Buying a car. <cue the spooky movie music>

Let me be clear up front: I love cars. Adore ’em, if I’m honest. I love driving, but I’m also fascinated by their engineering, design, manufacturing, logistics… heck, I’m fascinated with the entire industry. I’d be working in a car company if I had any choice in the matter. On my only visit to Germany, I made a pilgrimage to the Volkswagen Autostadt in Wolfsburg to tour the factory where my wife’s car was built. I follow car industry RSS feeds, subscribe to car magazines and would rather spend a holiday driving back country roads than lounge on any beach anywhere in the world.

I like cars. I cannot freaking stand the car buying process. Neither can most other Americans.

Spoiler: it’s not so much the abstract process in and of itself as it is the migraine-levle stress that results from NOT strangling some of the people involved in the process.
Spoiler: it’s not so much the abstract process in and of itself as it is the migraine-levle stress that results from NOT strangling some of the people involved in the process.

Most of the blame for this comes from how the American market evolved to turn car buying into a dreadful, soul-crushing experience. Here, you can’t just go directly the company that makes the car you like, hand over some cash and drive away the way you can when you buy a new PC. America’s lawmakers have set up an infuriating system where car manufacturers will only sell to dealerships, who then interpose themselves between buyers and makers. These intermediaries rarely add value the way that technology integrators do with tech products. Dealerships are only there to turn a crucial, universal act into a dreary chore on par with enduring an un-sedated colonoscopy.

That’s what makes this process nightmarish: in most of the USA, it isn’t physically possible to maintain a job without having your own transportation. There are a few exceptions – New York City, for example. Most of the country was built after World War II with the automobile as The Way That Things Are Done. This led to our contemporary practice of keeping our homes an inconveniently long way away from office parks, factories, shops, restaurants and everything other than other housing. I could easily go on another long rant about this subject, but let’s press on.

My point is, the staff at car dealerships know that buyers have to have a car in order to function in modern American society. In our parents’ and grandparents’ day, having a car represented a young person’s first taste of freedom – that is, the ability to venture out, away from one’s family and community. Now, having a car has little to do with freedom and (nearly) everything to do with economic survival. We drive to work for the money we need for our cars so that we can work… This leads many dealership employees to become condescending, haughty, smarmy and downright abusive towards customers. Some people ensure this with grace. Others (like me) get irate over it.

The thing is, I really like cars. When manufacturers bring their ‘road shows’ to town, I participate and ask tons of questions. I’ll visit dealerships specifically for test drives so that I can learn for myself what industry professionals are saying. I drive new makes and models every chance that I get, even though I know what I’m likely to face when I have to engage car sellers. Every place I visit it’s hit or miss whether the sales weasel I meet will treat me like a gentleman or like classless vermin.

As badly as I’ve been treated, I know that it’s often far worse for female car buyers. It’s insane how counterproductively misogynistic some sales weasels can be.
As badly as I’ve been treated, I know that it’s often far worse for female car buyers. It’s insane how counterproductively misogynistic some sales weasels can be.

There’s a huge difference between test driving when you don’t need a new car and when you do, and sales weasels can sense it. As an example, I was in pretty dire straits the last time that I found myself needing to replace a knackered car. My spunky little roadster was dying – it looked like I needed a fourth set of roof motors. [1] I suspected that I’d need a completely new transmission, too. I was a month away from starting a long, unpaid sabbatical following my retirement from the Air Force, and I absolutely could not afford to keep shovelling my savings into a mechanically dodgy car. I needed something bulletproof with a robust manufacturer’s warranty to get me through the next few years.

So, late one November night, I cut a deal to lease an entry-level Audi compact that my local dealership hadn’t been able to sell. It was a practical compromise. I give up the driving performance that I craved for something mechanically unflappable. My sales guy was quite good, but the rest of his dealership staff was absolutely rubbish. It took us six hours to get the transaction processed for a dirt-simple lease on a car that the dealership was desperate to get rid of. The ‘sales manager’ and his team jerked me around until I was ready to set the place on fire and hold the doors closed from the inside. I walked away that night with an acceptable car at an acceptable out-of-pocket cost, but only by sacrificing the actual trade-in value of my beloved little roadster and most of my dignity. Had I not been under a lot of pressure to get things sorted, I would have gone somewhere else. [2]

So, when the lease on that little compact wound down earlier this month, I was dead-set against going through that process again. A mate asked me what I wanted out of a car buying experience, and I exasperatedly snapped that I’m a bloody adult with decades of driving experience, extensive knowledge of both the products and the industry, the ability to do elementary sums and a current concealed firearms license. Therefore, I feel like I deserve to be treated with some respect. Not fawning – just common human decency. That shouldn’t be too much to ask… but, this being America, I knew that I was almost certainly expecting too much.

I spent months researching what sort of car best fit my needs. I factored overall vehicle size, how many seats, how much cargo capacity, fuel efficiency, acceleration, braking distance and expected maintenance costs. I crunched all of the reliability data that Consumer Reports had amassed. I built a spreadsheet [3] that weighted all those factors to work out exactly which makes, models and trims were optimal. I also weighted the customer service that I’d received at all of the major dealerships in a 250-mile radius. Once the numbers crunched, I started seriously hunting for acceptable options.

My options were still pretty limited; I’ve got two sons to get through university. so brand new and mechanically-unreliable cars were off the table.
My options were still pretty limited. I’ve got two sons to get through university. so brand new and mechanically-unreliable cars were off the table.

After weeks of online reconnaissance, I’d amassed a dozen or so promising leads. I cut the cars listed at skeevy fly-by-night dealers immediately. Then I cut cars listed at places that had treated me like crap. After that, I contacted places that I hadn’t ever done business before, and I scratched a few of them because of bad exchanges with their employees. After two months of searching, one specific dealer chain and a few excellent prospects stood out. I was honestly a bit surprised.

We have a chain of 20 dealerships in Texas (mostly in the Dallas area) run by a company called ‘Park Place Motorcars, Ltd’. They’re primarily known for selling luxury marques, and have a reputation for loyal customers. I’d visited some of their nearer locations, but I’d never purchased anything from them. They didn’t know me, and had no reason to treat me any differently than any other customer walking in off the street. So, when I saw that they had a one-year-old compact sedan with very low miles at a competitive asking price at their Dallas Porsche dealership, I figured that a fella like me wasn’t likely to be given the time of the day… let alone the treatment that I deserved.

As luck would have it, I was wrong. Delightfully wrong. Cavorting-in-the-pumpkin-patch wrong.

I sent them a request late one evening, asking about maintenance particulars on the car that I was interested in and got a near-immediate response. Within ten minutes, a salesperson named Ricardo Ramirez pinged me and provided me with exactly the answers I’d been looking for. That caught me by surprise. I’d grown accustomed to being either ignored or pestered. Atypical for the industry, Ricardo was polite, dignified and straight-to-the-point. I liked that a lot.

I emailed Ricardo several more questions about the car’s service history, assuming that he’d have no idea – it was just one used car in a lot among dozens of trade-ins. To my delight, Ricardo provided me with detailed answers for everything that I’d asked about. He not only knew every service that the car had ever had performed, he also knew the original salesman who had originally sold the car. He then pre-emptively provided me with the original window sticker and the complete CarFax report since he figured that I’d be interested in reviewing them. Complete transparency. Very nice.

Actual transparency is a lot harder to pull off in real life than it is in the movies.
Actual transparency is a lot harder to pull off in real life than it is in the movies.

I made arrangements to drop when the dealership opened one Saturday morning. Ricardo surprised me again by having the car I wanted to see moved to the front of the lot so that it was waiting for me as soon as I pulled in. That was going a bit beyond, and I hadn’t even met the fellow yet.

I had a few minutes to inspect the car for signs of prior accidents or repairs. One of the sales staff asked if he could help me. I told him that I had an appointment with Ricardo, and the fellow was off like a shot. A minute later I was shaking Ricardo’s hand. Five minutes after that we were driving. Everything had already been arranged – all I had to do was adjust the driver’s seat and mirrors.

I learned that Ricardo was an Audi expert (even though he was a Porsche salesperson in a Porsche dealership). He’d owned a few and knew a great deal about their product line. We were able to talk in satisfying detail about Audi engineering and driving performance, all while enjoying a quiet run up and down Dallas’s Lemmon Avenue. It was a very cordial and pleasant exchange.

Back to the dealership, I explained that I’d researched the depreciation of this exact model and proposed a more reasonable price. Ricardo listened carefully to my argument, then represented my proposal to his finance staff. He was back in five minutes with an agreement to sell me the car at the price I wanted. He politely asked for a chance to complete on financing, heard what my bank had already approved and came back with a better rate. He then had all of the paperwork drawn up for my review in just a few minutes and we cleared the lot of it efficiently. Two hours and 47 minutes after I drove onto the lot, I departed with my new compact. I’d never bought a car that efficiently.

More important than the speed, though, was the encounter’s complete lack of drama. I’ve had far too many encounters with pushy, sneering jerks. At Park Place, there was never a single moment of ‘hard sell’ behaviour. No trace of condescension. Ricardo comported himself throughout the entire experience with the quiet reserve and professionalism of a career military officer. That resonated strongly with me. This was what I’d been wanting from the car buying experience. Exactly this.

Searching for simple respect from people that you’re prepared to give thousands of pounds to shouldn’t be an epic freaking quest.
Searching for simple respect from people that you’re prepared to give thousands of pounds to shouldn’t be an epic freaking quest.

There are two key points that I want to make sure I emphasize. First, if you happen to visit the Dallas area and want to buy a car, you should buy it from Mr. Ricardo Ramirez. His office is on the right-hand side of the reception desk, by the driver’s side front tyre of the display model Panamera.

Second (and more importantly), this story illustrates why human dignity is a far more influential factor in sales than price, features, promotions or any other commodity feature. Put bluntly, more sales are lost due to a salesperson’s crap attitude than are ever lost because of cost or features. I’ve found that the more expensive the product is, the more that a salesperson’s attitude determines the outcome of negotiations. When a sales weasel belittles or infuriates his or her customer, and those customers have any say in the matter at all, they’ll go somewhere else. Even when customers have no other options, they’ll remember how poorly they were treated and will doggedly seek out a rival the next time they have to buy the product out of sheer spite. It’s human nature to nurture a grudge.

I appreciate that being in a dominant monopoly position tends to corrupt workers’ attitudes. When customers don’t have options, they start to appear contemptable, like victims. It becomes natural for otherwise reasonable employees to start acting like schoolyard bullies… just because they can. The environment warps the worker into something twisted and ghastly. Many car dealership people that I’ve met over the years behaved monstrously, even though their behaviour lost them business.

The thing is, it absolutely does not have to be that way. Ricardo is living proof that a person and a dealership can succeed at selling cars by acknowledging the simple human dignity that all customers deserve. Ricardo represented the Park Place brand exceptionally well by engaging a scruffy-looking Fort Worth cowboy the same way that he’d engage a Dallas oil tycoon or a Plano dilettante. In doing so, he made a sound investment in his own (and in his dealership’s) future business. Based on this encounter, I’ll be coming back to this place first the next time that I have to replace a worn-out car.

In keeping with the spirit of Halloween [4] you might consider that car shoppers are sort of like ghosts: treat us well and we’re cheerfully benign. Helpful, even. Treat us with contempt, the way that stock characters do in almost every horror movie ever made, and you’ll discover that we never forget or forgive the slight. That’s worth remembering if you want to make a living in an industry that your customers have been conditioned over the years to hate and resent.


[1] A known defect on the first production run of the Mark II TT.  I really liked that car.

[2] That wasn’t the first time that I’d gone this particular route. When my beat-to-hell ’88 Accord died on the highway one night, I limped down to a nearby Honda dealer and cut an 11th-hour deal for a wallflower trim V6 Accord that the dealer was thrilled to get rid of.

[3] Because of course I did. I’m a professional nerd. It’s what we do.

[4] I do not apologize for that pun.

Title Allusion: Brad Bird (Director), Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011 Film)


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

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