Monday, January 14, 2008


Late last year I edited a story from one of my reporters that told of Chevrolet’s coming effort to push the 2008 Chevy Malibu. (The story’s HERE if you want to see the background, and what led up to this little rant.)

In it, my colleague Steve Miller (the writer, not the singer) told how Chevy is going after the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord buyers. The director of Chevy advertising was candid enough to admit, “…we have scrutinized the landscape, and we are after a different target, one that is highly skeptical of domestic car brands.”

OK, all to whom that statement applies, raise your hand. (Wow. That many?) Yes, I count myself among them, and I’ll tell you why.

Car sales people are, by nature, lying liars. They have to be. (And please, spare me your whiny e-mails, especially those of you in the business. We’ve all bought cars. You WILL lie to make the sale. You know it; we know it.)

But we all enter into this Bargain with the Devil with our eyes wide open. We can pay more than we admit, they can come down more than they’ll admit, and somewhere along the line we’ll strike a deal, both feeling somewhat screwed. And the salesman will be happy to never see us again until it’s time to buy another new car.

But it’s after the sale where any feelings we’ve had about our purchase decision can be changed or reinforced. I’m talking about the Service Department.

A few years back I bought a ’98 Chrysler Sebring LXi. Nice car; REALLY nice car. It was one year old when I got it, and whoever bought it new ordered it loaded. It had every option they offered, plus an extended warranty.

But when I brought the car back to the dealer for regular maintenance, that’s where disappointment set in. Where the showroom floor had been a polished, brightly lit, welcoming place, the service area was dingy, dirty and peopled with, well, angry people. Mechanics wandered in, complaining about this or that, and every employee there seemed quite peeved to have to deal with us and our needy cars. And at a “Posted Labor Rate” of $90 an hour, no less.

True story; the horn on the Sebring stopped working. I brought it in, they called and said it was in fact the “Airbag Module,” and they wanted $600 to replace it. “Not Covered,” they said. Indeed it was, I retorted, as I’d had an extended warranty. After some back and forth with Chrysler Corporate, they replaced it no charge. But why did I have to go through that? Why should I have to fight for what’s mine? And that was just one of several “encounters” I’d had with them. It got so I dreaded taking the car in.

Flash forward a few years. I now have a Nissan Altima. Nice car, handles well, no problems, and I bring it to the dealer for regular service. When I go THERE, they are DELIGHTED to see me; Bright, airy service department. Scrubbed, pressed, SMILING service people, seemingly HAPPY to help me.

Now, I’m not an idiot. I know deep down they could care less, but it’s the impression of caring I buy into. They can rip me a new one as soon as I walk out the door, for all I care. When I’m face to face with them, they project an air of “Thanks for coming.” I’ll never buy another Chrysler, but when It’s time to replace this Nissan, I’ll give them another shot.

And it’s not just Chrysler I’m whining about.

Last year, the wife got herself a 2007 Pontiac Torrent. It’s a nice SUV (or CUV, if you will) and it’s been doing us fine. But again, back at the dealership, it’s another story.

Crowded, tiny, service department, with too-big men squeezed behind too-small desks. And because the showroom isn’t open at 7:30 a.m. when I drop the car off, I have to walk through the service bays, with its blaring radios and yelling men and oil stains and that overhead heater blasting out hot air, to get there. Not a great way to start the day.

Is my story atypical? Who knows? My friends and I don’t sit around swapping dealership horror stories. But the hearts and minds of future customers can be won and lost by the smallest of things.

Automakers ought to take a look at the whole process of car selling, and not just the glitz of a snappy TV spot. (Who drives like that, anyway? On a “Closed Course?” With a “Professional Driver?” Please.)

The opportunity to reinforce a brand doesn’t end when I drive off the lot. It happens with every interaction with the company. (By the way, Note to Pontiac: You can stop sending us those “How Was Your Car-Buying Experience?” surveys. You’d think after EIGHT tries, they’d get the hint that we’re not filling it out.)

So I wish Chevy good luck with their new campaign. One of the reasons we bought the Pontiac was because we’d been feeling a tad guilty about not “buying American.”

But I still can’t shake the feeling that the Nissan people like me more than the American car people. And while you can dismiss that as “silly” or “immature” or “stupid,” it’s a real feeling. If I’m about to plunk down $20,000 or more for anything, I want to continue to feel the love. Even if they’re faking it.

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