During the last 11 years, I’ve purchased over 90 cars for the Consumer Reports auto test program. I’ve probably seen it all. Been there, negotiated that. However, my latest experience was notably frustrating, and I suspect, it wasn’t unique.
My usual buying routine isn’t complicated:
- List the exact make, model and options we’re looking for on paper.
- Go to the manufacturer’s website and configure the car.
- Check a running list of all the dealers from whom I’ve bought cars, so I don’t keep going back to the same ones.
- Send the configuration to a couple dealers and ask that most communication be done via email, using a personal account.
- The dealer that follows up with the car and good price gets my business.
Sounds simple, right?
And, just to be clear, the dealers don’t know I’m buying a car for Consumer Reports until the day I take delivery. We do our best to not show our hand until the very last minute, thereby avoiding any preferential treatment or special car preparation.
The process of buying our 2012 BMW 328i started in the usual way. I sent the configuration to BMW dealer “A.” Aside from the corporate automated response, I never heard back from BMW dealer A.
I sent a second configuration to BMW dealer “B” and got a response from “Matt” who said he was looking forward to helping me. I emailed back the next day and said I was in the office and ready to talk about the deal. My email was greeted with silence.
Four days later, I received an email from dealer B, but this time the communication came from “Doug” explaining that he would be my salesperson. I wrote back the next day and said I was eager to get the process started. I also asked if he got the configuration I sent to the dealer through the BMW consumer website. Doug wrote: “I did see it—just not sure if you want RWD or xDrive? You are from MA, so I am thinking you are price shopping among regional dealers?” Bad start. I configured the car as rear-wheel drive and filled out the contact form with my Connecticut address.
So, I had to write back and clarified (again) what I wanted. Doug then wrote: “As you may know, the new 3 Series comes in three separate lines, Luxury, Modern and Sport, and it looks like you have specified the Sport line. This is a car that will have to be ordered...” The problem is that I configured a “Luxury” line. I was beginning to wonder if he really saw my configuration.
Doug then sent me a link to a car he had in inventory that had the Technology Package, which I didn't want and was not included in my configuration. He wrote back: “I can help you order to your specifications or you can keep an eye on [our online] inventory.”
I don't have time to ‘keep an eye’ on the dealer’s inventory. That’s crazy!
Frustrated, I wrote back to Matt hoping he could save the day, but I never heard back from him.
The next day, Doug wrote: “The car you want will need to be built, and I am glad to help you with that.” He said it would take 6-8 weeks. I recounted this story to one of my colleagues who then picked up the phone and called the dealer—which, perhaps, I should have done after the first email.
It turns out, they had the exact car we wanted IN STOCK. Why didn’t Doug know this?
A different salesperson (the one who took the call) then got involved, and he got the sale. I never met Matt or Doug. I later learned that Matt left the dealer soon after my initial email.
For decades, Consumer Reports has pushed car companies to make better products. And today’s cars and trucks are far better than I ever thought they’d be. I think the next frontier for the industry is to improve the dealer experience.
For example, when I go to a manufacturer’s website, configure a car, and then send my preferences that include the trim line, color, and option choices to dealers, I don’t want to start the sales process over by having to tell the salesperson what I want. This has happened to me more times than I can count, from low-end to premium brands.
And why do many of my dealer inquires go unanswered?
If you’re in sales, follow up and do what you say you’ll do. Don’t make the customer do all the work so you can sell a car. And even in this era of online shopping, using an “old fashioned” phone may not be a bad idea.