Car dealers are getting better, but there’s still a ways to go

Toyota Prius - Sea Glass PearlEver since the economic collapse of the auto industry that started in 2008, dealers have been undergoing changes in how they do business. Dealers understand that they’ve got to become stronger in customer service to build loyalty and can’t just stick to old upselling methods. They’re accepting that women make the majority of family car purchase decisions; that young people are holding off purchases longer than Baby Boomers did after first getting their drivers licenses; and that there’s a lot more car shopper interest in green cars such as hybrids and electric vehicles (EVs). There has been a lot of concern expressed that dealer staff haven’t been supportive and informed enough about EVs – mainly because it’s a longer selling process and isn’t as profitable as typical gasoline-engine cars. Those sales reps are very tied into closing sales quickly in how they make their living – and they could use more training and education in answering consumer questions.

As I wrote about not long ago in Green Auto Market (and its then-sibling blog Green Machine Digest), I was one of those green-interested car buyers. Well, a few days ago, I had a painful reminder about what I don’t like about the dealer experience and what does work for me.

Last year, I said yes to an aftermarket car alarm system for my 2013 Toyota Prius. Was I duped into it? Not necessarily – the Prius is an attractive car in California and there’s probably thieves looking for them as profit center, or so I thought. Actually, they’re not appealing to car thieves, according to a study by the National Insurance Crime Bureau – the Prius theft rate is much lower than the typical car. There’s a couple of reasons for that – one is that the Prius has several unique parts that can only be used in other Priuses, which cuts down the stripped parts market potential (and which makes for a big part of the car theft market). Another reason is that the Prius doesn’t have a key – it uses a remote fob to open its doors. That also cuts down the appeal to car thieves who usually don’t get their hands on the Prius key fob.

I discovered the problem with my alarm system while attempting to start the parked Prius on Friday afternoon. As I pushed the start button, the left and right turn indicators simultaneously flashed and the engine wouldn’t start. I attempted to open the door, and the alarm went off – loud enough to get stared at by several people wondering why I had jumped out of the car desperately attempting to stop the alarm by pressing buttons on the key fob. Somehow it did stop, and I tried it again only to find the same thing – flashing lights on the panel and loud honking when I opened the door.

I called the dealer where I’d bought the car and had gone to for routine service a few times. The alarm system guy was gone and wouldn’t be back until sometime Saturday. I explained that I couldn’t start my car and drive home; all I received from the service department staffer was a phone number for the vendor who provides them with the alarm system. Nobody answered the phone at that office. So, I called Toyota corporate roadside assistance. They sent out a tow truck who got me to another Toyota dealer close to where I’d gotten stalled out. My choices were explained to me by the service department – have their service technician dismantle the alarm control box or go to my original dealer and have them deal with it. I told them to unplug the alarm system and I would have it fixed later or just live without it. Strangely enough, after the alarm control box was removed the beeping sound quieted down a bit when locking and unlocking the doors – another annoyance I can live without.

The customer service experience was positive at this Toyota dealer – including offering me a free shuttle trip home so that I wouldn’t have to wait around at the dealership for the repair to be completed. The service department assistant manager was very knowledgeable about the security system and about the Prius overall – which is one of the benefits of working with automakers and their dealer networks who have years of experience to go by.

The original dealer sales rep was very good with me about sitting in the car and answering my questions last year while I was shopping for the car – and giving me all the time needed to make the acquisition decision. The problem started with going to the Finance & Insurance rep and having to sift through the sales tactics. I do regret the alarm system purchase decision, but not the other ones. I do love my Prius and will look at the plug-in hybrid version later on. I do want to own an all-electric or plug-in hybrid EV, but the ownership costs and charging station accessibility need to improve. I would hope that the dealer experience goes in a similar direction.

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