I spent almost forty years running my own small business (a project my mother correctly observed at the outset would “give me a headache”). I am if nothing else attuned to working for others, not that I necessarily always cultivated the best practices. Like most people however I learned from my mistakes. The duration of my tenure as a businessman at least enabled me to discover what I should be doing even if I hadn’t always the skill or foresight to do so. Being such a well educated veteran it raised my hackles today to reacquaint myself unfavourably with several irksome details of running a business. I’m the first to admit that their sum total hardly amounts to anything more than a trifling inconvenience but this hasn’t sufficient persuasion for me to abandon the account.
My first reminder was this: Don’t assume that people will do what you ask them to do. This particular point was driven home to me in more than one instance. The primary illustration was the advice of the car dealer that the car which I had ordered months ago was not exactly as I had ordered it (specifically the wheel size was smaller than I had stipulated). It bothered me to hear this because in the same breath I was being asked to accept the smaller wheels “if I could live with it”. For one thing this naturally defeats the entire purpose of ordering a car; one is instantly catapulted back into the commonplace practice of searching for a car that comes close to what you would prefer though not exactly what you want. The more sinister feature of this foible is that no one had bothered to tell me about this until the very moment that I was at the dealership to conduct the pre-purchase inspection. Nor apparently had the manufacturer bothered to tell the dealership about the unilateral modification. The General Sales Manager with whom I was dealing mistakenly attempted to dismiss the error by suggesting that the salesman with whom I had been dealing (and to whom the notice of the modification may have been sent) was currently away from the dealership (as he apparently had been for the past six weeks) and may in fact never return. This left me wondering who if anyone was monitoring this salesman’s business communications during his absence.
Just to step back for a moment from this conspicuous concern, when we first entered the dealership showroom we were greeted by a tall young woman who asked what she might do to assist us. I told her I was there to see the General Sales Manager to which she replied, “The name?” That alone perturbed me but I nonetheless responded with equal warmth. “Chapman”, I said, which she then mechanically repeated, “Chapman” and went looking for the GSM. I would have thought that considering the brevity of my association with the clerk, and that I wasn’t being addressed by a Headmaster while in Lower School, I was entitled to be called “Mr. Chapman” but that expectation clearly failed. I might add that her appalling reception had been echoed by the young man whom we had encountered at the front desk several weeks earlier. He too lacked any social polish. I concede that the shortfall is likely a product of poor training more than intentional indiscretion.
After the GSM and I had engaged in lengthy discussions about what was to be done about fulfilling the initial contractual arrangement (a solution which at the suggestion of the GSM involved commandeering the wheels and tires from another car on the showroom floor), we were then shepherded to a clerk to finalize the Bill of Sale. This fellow I knew from previous experience (when we first placed the order) was someone lacking in attention to detail, a fault compounded by what I can only conceive is blanket laziness. He had for example failed to note on the initial Bill of Sale that a $500 deposit had been paid by me on account (though he attempted to trivialize the omission by suggesting that I “needn’t worry” about the detail which he assured me would be picked up eventually). He repeated this theme today when I reminded him that he had not noted on the Bill of Sale that I was to get an alternate set of wheels. Again he jokingly surmised that I could simply refuse to close the deal unless the correct wheels were installed. This of course was small comfort to a lawyer who is trained to expect performance of the terms of a contract. I let is slide on this occasion but only because I later reiterated the arrangement when I sent an email to the GSM in hopes of providing at least some written evidence of the deal we had earlier concluded. I did however give the clerk a bit of push-back when I insisted that he ensure that there was no dealer ID on the car or the new plates. I punctuated the point by stressing that this was the third time I had mentioned this point to various members of the dealership and that already I had noticed that there was a dealership sticker on the back of the car. I also had to remind the clerk that I had asked him to buy new plates rather than simply remove and reinstall my old plates (as the clerk had first suggested when he thought to ward off the installation of the dealer ID, a tact which I informed him wouldn’t work if it was he who installed new plates and I was therefore not part of the overseeing process). Another thing which disturbed me about this clerk is that when he was talking in my presence to another clerk about the arrangements for the delivery of the new vehicle, he not only referred to me as “the customer” (he clearly couldn’t recall my name and had no intention of looking for it on the Bill of Sale) but also spoke to the other clerk about the delivery of my “truck” (which to my admittedly narrow and obsessive thinking is inappropriate to describe a Cadillac sedan).
In the result the entire experience with the dealership was rather dream-like as we moved imperceptibly from accommodation to accommodation, tainted meanwhile by incompetence, lack of social skills and a general feeling of being merely a number in a factory-like production mill. Certainly the dealership can tout its ability to be competitive for pricing and that of course is no small matter. But as always there is a price to pay for any advantage. The repercussion can include not getting what you wanted, or least having to be extremely vigilant about getting it; and having to forgo the privilege of more than token politeness. Because the experience left me feeling so wary and impersonal, I resolved within minutes of leaving the place that I would never return for routine maintenance. Of course I know that the sales people could care less if they ever see me again but I have no inclination to feed their system any further. The bottom line is that the failure of the dealership and the manufacturer to observe the detail of my order contaminated the integrity of the entire business association. Frankly it is small consolation that I will have pilfered wheels from another vehicle especially one which is last year’s model and the wheels were not intended for the package I had ordered. Naturally I own that these technical caveats are bordering on neurotic. Nor did it lubricate the friction of it all to be told I could simply abandon the order entirely. Given the planning that went into the orchestration of this transaction and the limited time within which to refresh it, the option wasn’t embraced by me as liberally as it was offered by the dealer. Notwithstanding all else, one in my position feels the obligation to behave reasonably and to rise above what for most people are undoubtedly minor adjustments. Accordingly the deal was made and I was invited to pick the car up the next day.
The next day I received an early morning telephone call from the GSM in which he asked to postpone the scheduled rendez-vous 24 hours to which of course I agreed (particularly as the GSM stated he didn’t want to rush the transaction for fear of missing any detail). In view of my likely reputation for pickiness it would have been unthinkable of me to have rejected the proposition!
To be honest I don’t think I’ve ever had a car purchase transaction which hasn’t had some element of frustration. The list of new cars I’ve owned includes a Ford Mustang (2), Pontiac Grand Prix (2), Oldsmobile Cutlass (2), Buick Electra, Buick Riviera (2), Buick Enclave, Oldsmobile Toronado (2), Lincoln Town Car, Lincoln LS (2) and Lincoln MKS (4). The record of annoyances of those deals includes the following: one car wouldn’t go into reverse; another was built lopsided; another dropped out of gear at 100 km/hr; another rattled constantly; another suffered constant computer shut-downs; another etc., etc. etc. Owning a new car is to be reminded of the adage that nothing is perfect. Given the truth of that maxim, I have reluctantly dropped my head out of the clouds sufficiently to rationalize the balance of reasons for being satisfied with this particular escapade. Pointedly the GSM most recently said to me that he fully expected that I would be able to answer every question on the subsequent marketing survey “Completely Satisfied”. I didn’t bother to tell him that I don’t do surveys. Just as well for him, I suppose.
I cannot resist the urge to tell you what happened since we took delivery of the car on Wednesday morning. First let me say that, as I sit here late on Thursday evening after having driven the new car for most of yesterday and today, I am indeed “Completely Satisfied”. In spite of the number of times I have endured this initially painful process of buying a new car (and learning how to work the various functions), invariably the tribulations have been quelled. There must be another aphorism there somewhere! For starters, the GSM in spite of the obvious pressure he suffers to run a large, high-volume operation, continuously maintained a firm hand on the tiller. I grew increasingly to admire his business acumen and dedication to detail and performance. He like most people with real talent never paraded it but his direct and summary actions spoke volumes. He is a man who clearly has no patience for taradiddle. I have to thank him for having salvaged the deal which – again to his credit – he immediately recognized was in jeopardy when the seemingly small detail of the wheel size surfaced. My initial sense of manipulation dissipated on Wednesday once I saw the new car cleaned up, polished and sporting the very handsome replacement wheels (which were an unquestionable upgrade from what had of necessity been ordered but not delivered). The outcome was one of those desirable ones where an error becomes a blessing.
I must also thank the new young salesman who tentatively took the reins from the GSM to complete the bureaucratic details of the transaction (the exchange of keys, payment of funds, signing papers and the like). Granted the GSM nurtured him along right to the end, adding advice and once diverting his poorly calculated tactics, and ultimately reaching the goal. This salesman distinguished himself as a pleasant person, someone who in any commercial enrolment is an asset even if the performance details require some refinement.
And finally the car itself. Mr. Cadillac knows what he is doing! On more than one occasion I wondered if I were sensible to abandon what had been an exceedingly pleasant experience with the Lincoln MKS. The Cadillac more than passes muster. I really enjoy driving it.