What It's Like Buying a Car

Auto executives interested in selling lots of cars often lack empathy for the individual customer. And why not? Most executive decision-makers haven't been a retail automotive customer in years. At best they had a distant memory of waiting for service, and at worst all they had was an academic approximation of that wait formulated by its analogy to waiting for a ski lift or a tee time. This year,

Auto executives interested in selling lots of cars often lack empathy for the individual customer.

And why not? Most executive decision-makers haven't been a retail automotive customer in years.

At best they had a distant memory of waiting for service, and at worst all they had was an academic approximation of that wait formulated by its analogy to waiting for a ski lift or a tee time.

This year, I decided to acquire a vehicle for my personal use from outside of my “inventory.” I thought it might be nice to select a vehicle and live with it for a while, to get to know what it's like to have my sunglasses in the cup holder and some change in the ashtray.

For most of the past 40 years, the vehicles I drove were 100% for sale — always available for test drives by prospective customers. The trunks were always clean and interiors vacuumed and ready. My car ownership was measured in months, not years.

So my next vehicle experience was going to be different. I was stepping into the world of a customer. First, I had the challenge of deciding what I wanted. Not surprisingly my conversations with friends led to an exploration of fashion statements, lifestyle, hobbies and brand biases. Even my wife had certain recommendations and preferences.

Ultimately, I selected a black Jeep Grand Cherokee with a V-8 engine and a hitch to tow an ATV up to my fishing lodge or to attach a bike rack for shore trips. I placed the order and waited.

I won't take you through the twists and turns of that wait. There were some issues. But suffice to say, no consumer could have been more excited in anticipation of a delivery day. The night before, I even stopped at Sears for clear rubber floor mats (to keep road salt from my pristine rugs), an EZ Pass holder for my dash, some trunk dividers to hold tennis rackets and fly rods. Oh, and a stainless coffee mug with a no-spill lid. I was psyched.

So what happened next? Were my first driving moments flawless, and if not, did the dealer whisk my problems away cheerfully?

Those, my gentle reader, were the defining questions of whether I was to be a raving fan, a quiet sufferer, or an activist hell-bent for restitution.

Well, suffice to say that because of my dealer background, I will be a Jeep loyalist until the end. But not without some quiet suffering in this case. On balance, I'm a fan of Jeep's commitment to the great outdoors and the automotive capability that gets you there. The path to delivery was not, however, a plus.

Maybe that's not too surprising.

For years the match-ups of Main Street versus Wall Street, import versus domestic content, union versus independent labor, make-it versus outsource-it, and more-dealers versus fewer-dealers have all clouded the central question of whether any given customer might really be better cared for by one brand than another.

Out-of-the-box thinking lured us to embrace innovation and change at all cost. As dealers, the customer we had never seemed to be the one we wanted. Either they were too few or too frugal.

We became an industry uninterested in maintaining anything or excelling in anything. We were constantly morphing into the next best thing before we completed the task at hand.

Even when frozen by indecision or, worse, poverty, rather than embrace our legacy strengths, we engaged in debates over whether our consumer issues were more rooted in the breached responsibilities of dealers than of manufacturers, of government overseers than of internal quality controls.

The gods of new markets, new customers and new designs displaced the integrity of old friends, tenured staff and familiar solutions.

As we survey the horizon in search of the right path to take, we would do well to decide in advance, “Will I choose change or commitment when I come to that fork in the road?”

Peter Brandow is a veteran of auto retailing.

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