The Customers From Hell

Customer horror stories about car dealers abound. But how about dealers' horror stories about customers who can be abusive, unfair and downright obnoxious? How do dealership professionals handle customers from hell or at least those who are hot under the collar? We asked several veteran dealers to share their experiences with angry customers and how they handled the situations. In a nutshell, here's

Lillie Guyer, Correspondent

February 1, 2008

9 Min Read
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Customer horror stories about car dealers abound. But how about dealers' horror stories about customers who can be abusive, unfair and downright obnoxious?

How do dealership professionals handle customers from hell or at least those who are hot under the collar?

We asked several veteran dealers to share their experiences with angry customers and how they handled the situations.

In a nutshell, here's what dealers say:

To deal with a problem customer, listen and be ready to offer alternatives. In extreme cases, where a customer might be extorting or deceiving a dealership, it might take extreme measures because there comes a point when the customer can be wrong.

Consider these scenarios.

In Texas, a customer transported his Mercury Cougar by trailer to a location near a dealership, then drove the car a block to the store for a trade appraisal. The customer, who lived more than 60 miles away, was hoping to conceal underlying problems the car had and knew driving 60 miles would accentuate them.

In the Atlanta area, an irate customer returned his new Honda Accord after 10 days, complaining that the transmission fell out. The customer was furious, demanding a new car. The dealer offered to replace the transmission and loaned the customer a new car during the repair period.

A customer in Billings, MT, took it to the top when she claimed the service department refused to fix her Ford Taurus immediately.

Also in Montana, a woman insisted the dealership fix her “defective” sunroof even though the problem seemed to be debris jammed into the sliding track.

Then there were lawsuit-happy customers who offered to drop their legal claim — if the dealership forked over new cars.

The way Annette Sykora sees it: “The customer is not always right, but is always the customer.”

She is co-dealer with her husband Patrick Sykora at Smith Ford Mercury in Slaton, TX, and Smith South Plains Ford, Lincoln-Mercury, Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep in Levelland, TX.

She is the first woman elected chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Assn. She begins her 2008 term at NADA's Convention in San Francisco this month.

It was at Sykora's Smith Slayton store that an alert sales manager suspected the customer who brought his Mercury for a trade-in was trying to trick them.

“We knew the customer lived far away and we told him our initial inspection created concern about the condition of the car and we noticed the hood wasn't warm like it would be from being driven 60 miles,” Sykora says.

The customer eventually admitted what he had done. “We were able to offer a trade in deal, but at least we were not taken in,” Sykora says.

She says it's important to determine if a customer is upset about a perceived problem or is one of those rare difficult people who want to grab attention or outright deceive the dealership. The difficult customer often likes to create a scene, she said.

In another instance, she recalls a customer returned a loaner more than a week late, not responding to calls that his serviced car was ready for pickup. The loaner was trashed, as well as being overdue.

If there's a next time, the dealership will forego the loaner privilege and arrange a rental.

Another lesson learned from that incident:

“We prepare people ahead of time on how to handle it,” Sykora says. “In a loaner case, the customer is told the condition the vehicle needs to be returned in to prevent future mistakes.” is a major dealer referral services. In the case of the Honda with a faulty transmission, CarsDirect had referred the Atlanta area customer to the dealer.

Ken Potter, CarsDirect vice president-sales, reversed a bad situation by serving as customer advocate, even refunding his service-referral fee, which the customer later sent back to him.

“The dealer acted in good faith within state and federal laws and also offered the customer a no-charge extended warranty in addition to the money I sent the dealer,” Potter says. “ Neither of those things were required.”

Potter has been on the dealer side of such situations. He was a general manager at CarMax and at Peachtree Mitsubishi in Atlanta.

Dealer Bob Thibodeau Jr. of Bob Thibodeau Ford in Centerline, MI, says angry customers can be tamed.

If the problem customer isn't abusive or dishonest, in most cases the dealership will go to bat for them, especially if the problem reaches the dealer's door, or if it is a product-quality issue, he says.

“More often than not, we kill them with kindness,” says Thibodeau, whom the Detroit Auto Dealers Assn. has nominated for the 2008 Time magazine Quality Dealer award. “As long as they're not abusive or lying to us, we try not to write anyone off.”

Thibodeau talks to customers personally and won't have his calls screened no matter what. He spends a good deal of time role-playing and training employees in handling work issues.

A situation on the service floor in January called for some dealer-like counseling and coaching. A customer became highly agitated when the parts to her 2-month new Ford were not in stock. Her anger was fueled by the fact it was a new car she was complaining about.

Thibodeau's service staff handled the issue promptly and the customer relationship was preserved.

Foremost, he tells employees: “Let's be upfront, communicate thoroughly and explain what's happening to customers. If you stay in constant communication with the customer you can diffuse many situations.”

That's the recipe that has led his single-point Ford Motor Co. store to earn his region's best customer satisfaction scores for more than five years and a high repeat-customer rate. Thibodeau has worked at the dealership for 24 years and assumed the presidency when his late father Bob Thibodeau Sr. retired in 1990.

Often misunderstandings can rub customers the wrong way.

“If we make a promise to fix things, we do it,” says Mike Weiland, sales and Internet manager at Archie Cochrane Ford in Billings, MT.

It's rare, but the dealership has had people trying to extort or get a big-ticket item for free, Weiland relates. Not long ago, several customers said they would drop efforts to sue for discrimination, if Cochrane gave them a free vehicle. Dealership managers saw through the ruse and dropped the customers.

“Dealers are easiest to pick on,” Weiland says. “They get a bad rap for the few that are not good.

His store has a rich heritage. It is 50 years old and “is close to getting the President's Award from Ford” for its superior sales and customer reputation, he says.

The store was owned by brothers Jim and Dave McNally, who bought it from Archie Cochrane in the 1970s. Dave McNally, former Baltimore Orioles pitcher, and his brother Jim ran the operation until 2002, when Dave died of cancer. Long-time employees Dustin Timmons and Gary Brayko then bought the dealership.

Managers at the North Carolina-based Anderson Automotive dealership group take a different tack with angry customers. An ounce of prevention and erring on the side of the customer can turn the tide, they say.

“Our cornerstone is to approach everyone as an opportunity for recovery,” says Fred Anderson who has 13 franchises in two states. “We see every customer issue or complaint as an opportunity to create a positive service story,”

He adds: “Even with the most difficult, loud and angry customers, it helps to approach them with empathy. Some people don't have great communication skills or conflict-resolution skills.”

Jake Lowe, president of Anderson Automotive, says, “The customer is not always right, but you can't give up on them. We may not be the right folks for them today, but maybe we can meet their needs and be their dealer at another time.”

He adds: “We try to resolve issues quickly and we expect our front-line person to resolve a problem without passing the customer around.”

There's no gender associated with customer rage, he says. “It's not a male-female thing. It depends on the personalities. Men don't have a monopoly on anger or poor communication skills.”

Anderson is one of 12 U.S. dealers to receive the Toyota President's Cabinet Award for 2006 for high satisfaction and sales.

Even at award-winning Fred Anderson Toyota in Raleigh, NC, customer problems arise. The important thing is to be prepared and not get defensive, says Michael Bardaxis, general manager.

“It can be confrontational with the customer being loud and angry,” he says. “It's important to take your tone down. With your body language showing concern, you need to be an extremely good listener and respond accordingly.

“At least go into a confrontation with the expectation to listen first,” he says. “Don't make any judgments and let them get their story out.”

Bardaxis recently diffused a situation in which a customer had brought her 3-year-old Toyota back four times for sunroof problems.

Technicians found tree twigs and debris stuck in the sunroof track. The customer had learned online that certain Toyotas had sunroof operation snag. She was convinced that was the problem.

The car was out of warranty. The dealer ended up swallowing some of the repair costs and going back to the manufacturer to keep the customer happy.

“We make judgment calls on repairs,” Bardaxis says. “If we take care of the customer now, it gives us an opportunity in the future to sell or service their cars.”

That even pertained to a woman who raised a scene in the service bay recently complaining about premature tire wear on her car. That too resulted in management intervention.

“You have to take the audience away from a person,” says Anderson. “Find a private office and talk to them in a normal tone and listen. This does not come naturally to any of us. It's lot easier said than done.”

What if the situation is intolerable? Should you ever “fire” the customer?

Not according to Anderson.

“Two things we never do: We never fire a customer and we never say ‘no’ to a customer,” he says. “Instead, we offer an alternative that we hope is acceptable to them.

“If the situation is irreconcilable, we try to end the discussion in a way that leaves the door open to doing business with them in the future,” he says.

“We might acknowledge that we can't agree on or resolve all the issues today, but we try to be professional and respectful enough of the customer and his position that he will be comfortable doing business with us in the future,” he adds.

But Sykora says some customers aren't worth the trouble they cause.

“Sometimes the customer is not telling the truth or not telling us what we need to know,” she says. “I don't think there really are a lot of bad people. It just means we need to earn their trust.

“In sales, you don't win 100% of the time. But it's true some customers we are better off without. We work hard for our customers. In extreme cases, if they take advantage or lie to us, they don't deserve to be our customer.”

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