Posted by: Jo Duxbury | 30 July 2011

Customer service 101 for car dealers

Anyone who’s following me on Twitter is probably bored witless with my ongoing search for a new car. Two years ago (I know… I am not an impulse buyer) I started looking into upgrading my trusty Golf. After a ton of research (thank you Google) and viewing loads of YouTube reviews, I shortlisted a few models. The Twittersphere has been really useful – how else would I get near-instant helpful advice from the editor of CAR Magazine and other in-the-know petrol heads? I so appreciate their assistance.

I thought that deciding on a model would be the hard part, and actually buying one would be fun. Wrong. Firstly, there is the associated ‘I’m-about-to-be-ripped-off’ feeling that I guess nearly every woman feels when she walks into a dealership. But my online research and hours spent in the souks and markets of Arabia and South East Asia prepared me well for negotiations.

What’s been so disappointing is the lack of customer service I’ve experienced with at least five dealerships (most being part of the massive CMH Group). My impression is that cars sell themselves in this country, with minimal effort from the sales staff. I’ve felt like it’s been up to me to follow up constantly; that they are not interested in selling me anything, despite my budget being around a quarter of a million rand.

Perhaps car dealerships don’t need to make an effort. Perhaps they are doing quite nicely, thank you very much. But for those who are genuinely interested in improving their customer service, here are some simple ideas:

  1. Return calls. And return them promptly. This is really not difficult.
  2. If you have an email query facility, monitor it, channel the queries to the right people and enforce a service level agreement – e.g. respond to queries within 24 hours. So many enquiries submitted on dealership websites and Carfind/Autotrader disappeared into cyberspace.
  3. Keep your online inventories up to date. It’s very annoying to spot a great car only to find it’s no longer available.
  4. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Even if it’s ‘I’ll call you back in 30 minutes’, make sure that you actually DO call the customer back within that time. Or call them to tell them you don’t have the answer just yet but will get back to them as soon as you do (and then follow up!).
  5. Be honest and don’t string customers along. You’d think this was obvious. For 10 days I’ve been trying to get a quote out of a salesman at a dealership in Pietermaritzburg for a vehicle that I was very keen on. He repeatedly promised to get back to me but didn’t. When I escalated my query to his dealer principal this morning, I found out that the salesman had actually SOLD the car 10 days ago and had just been stringing me along. And used car salesmen wonder why they have a bad reputation. Just be honest. (The DP concerned has promised to discipline the sales guy, have him call me and explain/apologise, and do what he can to make things right with me – let’s hope these are not empty promises too.) UPDATE: Nope, those were empty promises too. I’ve since found out this dealership (Datcentre Pietermaritzburg, you are now named and shamed) has a not-so-great track record with customer service to say the least.
  6. Know your stock. On at least three test drives, I knew more about the vehicle than the salesperson did.
  7. Read car owner online forums and complaints sites like HelloPeter. Know what is being discussed on them and be prepared to answer questions about complaints and issues. Swearing blind that there are no known gearbox problems on a car when the internet is littered with owner complaints about them really doesn’t build trust.
  8. Lose the arrogance. Treat your customers with respect and value their business. Don’t make them feel like you are doing them a favour by talking to them.
  9. Don’t back-pedal at the last minute. Suddenly reducing the trade-in value or adding extras to the cost just as the deal is about to be sealed is super-dodgy – again, keep your promises. (An extra R1,000 for floor mats on a R250K car? Seriously? Don’t get me started on the rip-off that is extras…)
  10. Communicate! One dealer emailed me one afternoon to say he had a new vehicle press car for the weekend and did I want to take it out for a spin. I replied immediately, saying ‘yes please!’. Then… nothing. After sending him two further ‘hello??’ emails, I got a response TWO MONTHS later. Another dealer who also went AWOL told me ‘I had no news for you, that’s why I didn’t reply’ – to three emails from me over a month! It’s really not hard to keep in touch with customers – even if there is no progress, a quick mail to say ‘I’ve not forgotten about you – I am just waiting for more information still’ or similar will go a long way.
  11. Have customer-friendly hours. Dear Cape Town dealerships – why do you close at noon on a Saturday?! Staying open until say 3pm would be so handy. Or offer to take the vehicle to the customer during the week for a test drive.

What do you think? Am I a demanding customer, or does the South African motor industry need to pull up its socks?


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