Car talk: How to lose (or gain) a customer in 10 minutes or less

This is a tale about customer loyalty, and just how easy it is for one person to screw it up.

Car salesmen have a reputation for being slightly below pond scum on the evolutionary scale. I know this to be true, having encountered many sub-evolutionary beings while car shopping in Texas. The bar has been set so low that just one good experience can win customers for life – or until someone else screws it up.

Dave and I were loyal Saturn customers for more than a decade. The marketing focused on “A different Car Company” and car buying experience. Sales people were salaried, prices were fixed and the cars were decent compact family cars.

We first encountered Saturn in New Jersey, one week prior to a cross-country move. We had recently sold a second car and were preparing to move in a Pontiac Sunbird. Perhaps it should have been a Firebird, as catching fire is exactly what it did less than a week before the movers arrived.

Jobless, carless and soon to be homeless we took a leap of faith and went to Saturn. After practically blubbering in the salesman’s office, he sold us a battered but functional Saturn at cost and wished us well on our trip.

That simple act of mercy earned our loyalty and repeat business. You may remember the ad campaign that ended, “They’re Saturn People.” We were. We bought two more Saturns within five years, and used the dealership exclusively for maintenance. We fully expected to buy two more Saturns to replace them. But by the time we were ready for Saturn #4, the company we knew and loved was gone.

Technically, Saturn still existed – but General Motors had changed everything that made Saturn well, Saturn. The cars had expanded into gas-guzzling road hogs, and the prices rose to match. Finding out that GM killed the original electric car, a Saturn, was the last straw. Our faith was gone, and so was our loyalty. We decided to buy a Prius.

Having been Toyota shopping with others as a child, I frankly dreaded going to the dealer. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the company also had the “no dicker sticker” price tag, a major selling point for Saturn in the past. Plus we were generally treated well by the dealership, Toyota of Burien. The salesman did not have the ease or panache of a Saturn person, but we were content enough to buy a service plan and commit to a 30+ minute drive south for maintenance visits.

Which brings me back to Saturn. My current car is the last of our Saturns, and I’ve been reluctant to turn it around for many reasons. And until recently, I was happy to be one of the last Saturn People standing – even if my loyalties were leaning towards Dave’s Prius. I’ve known for a while that my next car would be a Prius. It wasn’t a matter of if, but when. A series of very expensive mechanical failures made the “when” decision for me.

On Friday, I finally decided it was time. We made financing arrangements and plans to shop on Sunday. I checked around all the Toyota dealer sites, and determined that Toyota of Burien, where we bought Dave’s car, was the only one with Priuses (Prii?) in stock. Having a history with the dealership made it the easiest choice to make all weekend. Dave called down to ask a few questions related to the down payment, and mentioned we’d be there on Sunday to look at Priuses.

On Sunday, we sacrificed our beloved sleep-in day to get to Toyota of Burien early. Our goal was to be wrapped up in time to drive my new Prius to lunch. Upon arrival, we found the place empty – but a receptionist rounded up a sales person quickly. We informed him we were in the market for a Prius, and he escorted us to the lot.

The Prius was locked, and the salesman went inside to get the keys. While he was gone, we determined that I really didn’t need to test drive a generic model, I just wanted to see the stock. The salesman returned and we asked to see the available stock. He blanched and told us that they don’t have any available, but we can test drive the model.

I brought up the Web site, and asked where all the cars were. He began talking about various government incentives (legitimate) but failed to answer the question: Why did you say you have them in stock if you don’t? I finally asked him to leave us alone so we could chat. The salesman literally ran into the building.

Before we could escape, the salesman and his manager came out. I reiterated that we had traveled a long way, and wished they had told us they didn’t have cars on the lot. His answer: Dave talked to Finance, they don’t know anything. Okay, fine. Perhaps you should tell the webmaster? He also brought up the tax incentives, which were driving business. Understandable, but again, I feel lied to here. Finally, he mentioned that there was a waiting list of 160 people.

We left.

As Dave drove, I called another dealership, Bob Bridge Toyota just down the road in Renton and reached a salesman named Dale. I asked him if they had any Priuses in stock. He good-naturedly responded, “Nope,” and asked if I was trying to beat the tax incentive deadline of July 31. Because if I was, he noted, I should try another dealership. If not, he thought he could have something in 2-3 weeks, depending on my needs.

I told him we’d be there in 10 minutes.

We spent about an hour with Dale going through everything from financing to timing issues. He answered every single question correctly, and even suggested an interior color that hides dirt while smiling at our grubby 6-year-old son. The dealership also gave our trade-in Saturn a once over in record time, saving us time later. We put a deposit down and headed across the street in time for lunch.

Based on the service we received today, we’ll be taking my new Prius back to Bob Bridge for service – and yes, it’s still about a half hour or so away from home – and we might be taking Dave’s there, too. Why? Because they were fast, efficient and honest. They didn’t waste my time and they didn’t play games. The salesman was confident and ready to lose the sale if it would benefit the customer. (At least, he allowed me to believe that.) And the only time he got his manager was when I asked him to – so I could compliment his work.

Today officially ends our time as Saturn People and reinforced our customer loyalty to Toyota – specifically, Bob Bridge. Because in the end, it only takes one bad customer experience to screw it up for everyone, be it a personal interaction or changing the brand so radically your customers no longer recognize it.

It’s too bad GM never learned that lesson.

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