An alarm just went off for dealers. Is anyone listening?
A survey commissioned by the industry group Automotive Retailing Today asked consumers whether dealerships were "forthright in telling me the whole story" when they bought a vehicle.
One in four consumers surveyed said no. And one in three minority customers who were polled said no.
Automotive Retailing Today is a coalition of automakers and dealers that seeks to elevate the public image of dealerships. It deserves kudos for uncovering a problem.
But it deserves a scolding for soft-pedaling it.
Data raise doubts
The group released results of the survey during this year's National Automobile Dealers Association convention. It played up rosy statistics that it said show that consumers are overwhelmingly satisfied with the dealership that sold them their last vehicle.
The group suggested that opinion polls that rank dealerships low on integrity are the result of outdated stereotypes.
But within the voluminous data was this revelation: A large share of consumers didn't think their dealership was upfront with them.
The industry should be pleased with the survey's high figures on customer satisfaction. But those data are not a direct measurement of dealership integrity.
Dealers must face up to the statistics that raise serious questions about the honesty of some of their employees.
Marjorie Kelly, editor of Business Ethics magazine in Minneapolis, could not offer comparable data about other industries. But she says: "An industry that is dishonest 25 percent of the time is dishonest, plain and simple."
|What's at issue|
|Data from a survey commissioned by Automotive Retailing Today show how new-vehicle buyers perceived the way they were treated at the dealership.|
Of all buyers:
91% were satisfied with dealership.
81% thought purchase experience was positive.
73% thought dealership was forthright.
Of minority buyers:
66% thought dealership was forthright.
70% thought salesman was forthright.
76% thought F&I personnel were forthright.
Trust and training
Consumer ignorance could be part of the problem. Dave Robertson, executive director of the Association of Finance and Insurance Professionals, trains and certifies dealership F&I professionals in law and ethics. He thinks the high percentages of consumer dissatisfaction expressed in the survey indicate that dealership employees need more training.
Robertson says more customers would trust dealerships if employees explained the transactions properly.
Ann Pincus, a spokeswoman for the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, says that car salespeople share high levels of public mistrust with people in other occupations, such as lawyers and journalists. Some of the suspicion of dealership employees likely arises from the tug-of-war associated with a negotiated purchase.
"Most Americans are uneasy haggling over prices," Pincus says.
But whether dealership employees are dishonest, are the victims of obsolete stereotypes or simply require instruction, the industry clearly has a problem with customer perceptions.
Such perceptions fuel lawsuits and drive jury verdicts. Don't ignore them.
You may e-mail Donna Harris at [email protected]