Surely You’re Joking


There is a famous book by the Nobel Prize physicist Richard Feynman titled Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. I couldn’t help but think of that title during my last few adventures at local car dealerships. In the first instance, we had our vehicle serviced at a large local dealership. When we went to the service department to pay our hefty bill, the cashier excused herself, went into a back room and returned with a cardboard box filled with paperwork. She then proceeded to search through this pile of invoices until she found ours. Huh? Had we accidentally stepped back in time to 1982? Should we head home to watch the latest video on MTV? Okay, maybe their computers were down and they had to temporarily go old school. Things happen. A few weeks later we returned for another major repair.

Two major repairs in a month, could it be time to look for another vehicle?

Well right you are and we’ll get to that in a sec. But first, at this visit to the service department, lo and behold, out comes the same cardboard box of invoices. Now we’re thinking two things:

  • This dealership really is technologically challenged
  • Should we be trusting their service department with my vehicle?

So, after getting the bad news from the service department, it turns out that it really is time for a new vehicle. We began our search online and find the vehicle that we wanted at another local dealership. We were contacted by the salesman in charge of internet sales and made an appointment to see him. When we arrived, he already knew the exact vehicle we wanted but he needed to “look it up” on his software. It took a good 5 minutes for his program to load, then he began the process by clicking on “vehicle make”. The little hour glass started spinning and finally after about 3 minutes he had selected the make. He then progressed to model, year, and then exact vehicle. Each time he was rewarded with the spinning hourglass. So, it’s now close to 20 minutes to get access to the information on the vehicle that he already knew that we were interested in. This was clearly not his fault, and he did apologize numerous times for the lengthy process, explaining that unfortunately it usually took this long.

Since we had already agreed on a price, didn’t have a trade-in, and had our own financing, we expected that the rest of the process would go fairly quickly. Well, four hours later, we finally pulled out of the dealership. What took so long?

  • The salesman needed to have his manager approve the sale and he could not send his info to the manager’s computer system. He needed to write the information down and they then proceeded to pass pieces of paper back and forth until they had it figured out.
  • We still needed to meet with the finance manager, even though we had our own financing. This took over 90 minutes.
  • Finally, another hour to process the paperwork necessary to register and insure the vehicle.

Maybe the thought has crossed your mind that this is all related to both dealerships selling the same brand of vehicle and these issues are brand related. Not so fast. Last year, we purchased another vehicle, from another manufacturer, same scenario. Price was agreed on beforehand, no trade in, and financing already approved. It took over 4 hours before we drove off the lot. This included a session with the finance manager using an orange computer screen with keyboard commands instead of a mouse and a dot matrix printer. Imagine having to look forward to a day at the office using one of those!

Let’s put this in perspective. You can now complete most online purchases with a single click, your local grocery store can deliver your food in two hours (and remember your regular order), and at most stores, you can pay by simply waving your phone.

All of this points to a major disconnect within the auto industry. On the one hand, major automakers are touting the latest advances in automotive technology (smart cars, fuel cells, self driving cars) as the future of the industry. On the other, the very foundation of their business, the retail customer experience, continues to lag far behind almost every other industry. One can only hope that OEMs are finally focusing on the buying experience as much as the driving experience and we will see some big changes soon. Certainly the OEM that is first in bringing the car buying experience into the 21st century will have an enormous advantage. Maybe that is motivation enough.


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