How to do — and not to do — business with me

I try to be an easy customer.  I’ve generally done my research ahead of time.  I know what I want, and I know why I want it.   I don’t spend a lot of time with a salesperson considering options and weighing one thing over another.  My time is valuable to me, and I expect that yours is equally valuable to you.  So why should I waste it on preparation I can do at home?

When I go to buy a car, I have a specific vehicle in mind.  I’ve done my research online.  I know about your MotorTrend awards and what Consumer Reports says about you.  I know about your free oil change program, and I know the features and options on the vehicle.  Usually, I’ve prepared myself in advance by lining up my own financing.  The only things I haven’t done are inspect the specific vehicle itself — inside, outside, above, below, and under the hood — and try it out.  I need a salesperson to do that, and within 5 minutes of meeting me, you should have all of this figured out.

This week, I had a truly terrible experience at a car dealership.  My husband was already anxious about undertaking a car purchase, so I was doubly displeased that things went so poorly.  In fact, these folks could not have made the experience any more of a textbook example of How Not to Treat Your Customers if that’s what they’d been trying for!  The reason I’m posting here, even after having a bit of a bitch session with friends on a social network that I frequent, is that there are some valuable lessons in here, in business and in how we treat people.

Lesson One: Your customer is not your enemy.

While some, especially those who sell big-ticket items like vehicles or buildings, may see the negotiating process as a battleground, I do not.  Yes, I’m going to try to get a good deal from you; yes, this may frustrate you; no, I am not your adversary.  The thing is, if I’m buying a product from you, I want you to stay in business.  I want to bring it back to you for maintenance and service.  I want to tell my family members and friends how great you are to do business with.  I want to be proud of my new purchase, not ashamed of it.  And I’m sure you want to be proud of making the sale.  We actually have a lot in common, so please, don’t treat me like I’m trying to bring your business to its knees.

Lesson Two: Honesty really is the best policy.

… and not just honesty, but transparency.  If your customer senses that you aren’t leveling with him, he’s not going to trust you.  Worst yet, he’s not going to trust your employer, which can start a real cascade going.  One dodgy salesman can turn a person off to not just you, but to your dealership, to the car model, and to the brand itself.  Even worse, the customer you just turned off is going to complain about it to anyone who will listen.  He’s going to shout it from the rooftops: Alpha Bravo Charlie CarBrand is a lying, cheating company! This isn’t the reputation you want, especially when the personal integrity of one person can have such a cost.

In our Car Purchase From Hell, the sales team only wanted to talk to us about monthly payment amounts.  While that’s important to us, what I really wanted to know about were the things that go into this.  What’s the purchase price?  Which financial institution did you decide to go with?  Can I find out the term and interest rate on that loan? But if my salesperson uses stalling tactics to avoid telling me the purchase price, this doesn’t inspire confidence and trust in me.  On the contrary, I’m thinking my salesperson is trying to hide something from me, and you can bet, I’ll be looking hard to find out what that is.

The Car Purchase From Hell dealer proudly proclaimed that every used car they sell undergoes a comprehensive quality inspection.  I requested the record of this inspection before closing the sale.  I had to request it three times from the salesperson (Oh, it’s in the glove box; you’ll see it when you take possession.), the third time becoming quite pushy on this point, before we finally got to see it.  Then I found out that one of the items on the list (washer fluid) either hadn’t been inspected before checking its OK box, or the system had a leak: the washer fluid tank was empty.  Now, this isn’t a big deal, in the grand scheme of things.  But it’s definitely an attention-to-detail concern, and where we were in the sale, it became an integrity issue.  What value will I perceive to using your shop for maintenance and repairs, if I can’t trust your mechanics to notice an empty washer fluid tank?

Lesson Number Three: If you say you’re going to do something, do it.

In our case, we agreed to a (very vague) deal where the monthly payment would fall between (using sample numbers) $355 and $365.  When we got to the finance manager’s office — after refusing all the add-ons he tried to sell — the deal had a monthly payment of $371.  This is what ultimately caused the deal to fall through for us.  We were already uncomfortable from other issues, so this made the purchase completely unacceptable.  Don’t offer me one deal, but then change the terms when the sale is about to close.  This is definitely unethical and may well be illegal.

This lesson couples tightly with Lesson Number Two: speak the truth.  If you don’t intend to do something, don’t tell me you’ll do it.  Then I won’t be disappointed and frustrated, and while you may lose the sale, I am much more likely to come back and try again when I’m in a better position to make the deal.  But if you promise me one thing, and then deliver something else, I don’t feel very good about the transaction.  I’m not likely to come back to you.

Lesson Number Four: Don’t point fingers at each other.

When I’m a customer, every person who works for your company represents your company.  I don’t know or care that you’re in Sales, he’s in Finance, she’s in Service, and he’s in Management.  I care about coming to your establishment to make a purchase.  Customers abhor being told Oh, that’s not my issue; that’s a [Insert Department Name here] thing.  You need to talk to them. It may be true, but this response isn’t helpful.  A salesperson is my ambassador to the entire organization.  If I ask a question that only Finance can answer, then go ask them, or take me to them.  Don’t just tell me you can’t answer me.  It makes you look dumb, and so it makes your company look dumb.

We heard this response so many times when trying the Car Purchase From Hell that it became laughable and completely unbelievable.  I wanted to say, “It’s amazing that you do any business at all here, when nobody knows anything to answer my questions!”  [Sample question: What’s the selling price here?]

Lesson Number Five: Don’t throw each other under the bus.

As a corollary to Lesson Number Four, I don’t want to see evidence that employees are being threatened, disciplined, or “talked to.”  It makes me very uncomfortable, and it shows me that your business has a very unhealthy culture.  I like to do business with companies whose business practices value the person-hood of their employees and their customers.  I don’t like to do business with companies where the business practices value cutthroat tactics, pressure selling, manipulation, and employee competition to this degree.

When I sat in the office of the finance manager, right when the sale broke down, he rushed out of the office to confront the salesperson with all the mistakes he’d made.  He hurried into the room to get confirmation from us that he’d disclosed this information, that he hadn’t made mistakes.  While I didn’t like the tactics and practices that this he’d used, I also didn’t like seeing him thrown under the bus by management.  The impression we were left with was that the finance manager had washed his hands of us, and expected the salesperson to fix the deal.  There was also a sour taste in our mouths: were we being manipulated into closing this sale to help our salesperson not be so distraught?  He called us twice after we left the dealership, begging us to return and make the deal.

Respect each other.  Respect yourself.  Respect your customers.  Remember that each of you is an ambassador for your company.  If you as a person can’t work with respect, dignity, and professionalism, then the assumption your customers reach is that your employer and the brand you represent do not have these values.  Is this the message you want to give?

Lesson Number Six: It’s business.  Don’t take it personally.

… and don’t make it personal.  There are reasons customers decide to make a purchase, and there are reasons customers decide not to.  This applies to every purchase, from a $0.79 lip balm to a $30,000 SUV.  My choice to set aside the lip balm does not need to be any more personal than my choice to walk away from the SUV.  I understand sales training; I’ve been to some of the same training myself.  I know you’re going to ask me why I decide not to purchase something, and I know you’re going to try to overcome my objections.  I get that.  Just keep it appropriate and professional.   And if I try to short-circuit this process by refusing to tell you my reasons, please accept this and move on; your pressure techniques are only going to frustrate me more.

Most of all, don’t bring my family, my children, religion, your family, your children, or anything else into the mix.  This is business.  I’m not trying to starve your children, and I know you’re not trying to starve mine.  I’m saying no to the deal, not to you.

Great Commandment Lesson: Love all persons.

I know.  I just said it’s business and not personal, but hear me out on this one.  To love all persons means to treat each person with dignity and respect.  Speak the truth; be honest, not deceitful; be straightforward and transparent.  Understand that each person has his or her own struggles; these may or may not resemble yours or those of people you know, and that resemblance may be only skin deep.  Assume nothing.  Ask questions.  Give answers.  Refuse to resort to manipulation and abuse.  Examine your motives.  Offer your trust freely, but work to earn the trust of others.  Never be patronizing.  Be healthy, and show it in your words and actions.  Make sure your behavior matches your words and promises.  Always give the benefit of the doubt.

Or, as it’s said so beautifully in the letter to the Romans:

Go forth into the world in peace,
Be of good courage,
Hold fast to that which is good,
Render to no one evil for evil.
Strengthen the fainthearted,
Support the weak,
Help the afflicted,
Honor all persons.

Doesn’t seem so hard, does it?  Now go, and do these things in your work.

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