24 March 2011

Two Vets Walk into a Car Dealership ...

A couple of weeks ago, Household-6 and I decided to go shopping for a new car. By coincidence, an Army buddy happened to walk into the same dealership at the same time. My wife and I ended up buying a car that day. Our randomly selected salesperson was helpful, courteous, and observant. My buddy wasn't as lucky.

Household-6 and I had walked in cold, and taken our chances as to what kind of Sales Guy might be walking the dealership floor. My buddy, as we were to later learn throughout an excruciating afternoon, seemed to have made multiple mistakes: He called ahead, he let a salesperson know what the make and model in which he was interested, and asked "his" Sales Guy (let's call him "Sales Guy II") to prepare some facts and figures prior to his arrival.

Sales Guy II didn't do his homework.

Like most citizen-soldiers, my buddy is a straight-shooter. He was disappointed that Sales Guy II hadn't prepared for their discussion. He ended up walking out. Later on that afternoon, he called Sales Guy II to discuss the matter further. He ended up talking to Sales Guy II's manager. Call him "Sales Boss Guy."

I know this, because my spouse and I were still at the dealership when he called.

Note to Sales Guys and Managers everywhere: Your cubes do not have doors. Other customers can hear you. We can hear you making fun of soldiers and veterans, puffing up like it was a post-game locker room mating dance, after you get off the phone. "Sure you're a soldier--I've got the bullet holes to prove it!" We can hear you tell your potential customers: "The customer is not always right. That's what I tell my sales people."

These conversations went on for more than an hour.

The only thing that kept us in our seats was that "our" Sales Guy was helpful, courteous, and observant. I've worked in sales a little myself, and I know it's a tough gig. I wasn't going to take bread off one guy's table just because his boss and co-workers are louts.

I got to meet that boss when I inquired as to the dealer's advertised $500 discount for military personnel. Sales Boss Guy wanted to put his grubby mitts on my military ID, to "make sure it was real."

He was the same guy who told my buddy that the customer isn't always right.

I called my buddy and told him what we'd overheard, and that he should probably take his business elsewhere. He ended up going to a different dealership just down the road. In retrospect, maybe I should've done the same.


During a previous purchase of a new American-made car, Household-6 and I thought the whole experience was somewhat hokey. We'd purchased a Saturn, back when that company was still in business. When we went to pick it up, our new car was ready and waiting for us, positioned in a room labelled as a "launch pad." The staff stood by to deliver applause, if we so desired. It was cheesy and a little goofy, but it worked. From the start, we felt great about our purchase.

This time, we find the whole car-purchase process devoid of joy. We're still buying American, but we're given little reason to celebrate it. Because we had to special-order our new vehicle, we wait six weeks for delivery of our new vehicle. We get pushed off to a rainy Friday afternoon. Household-6 and I each take a half-day off work to complete the transaction.

After we arrive at the dealership, we are herded into a "customer lounge," one so crowded and hot that we could do nothing but stand and wait. We are waiting on Finance Guy.

While we wait, Household-6 points to the shadow box display hanging on the wall next to where we're standing. It's a folded American flag, with a "Red Bull" certificate stating that it had been flown by Task Force 168 during its 2004-05 deployment to Afghanistan. It's a thank-you to the dealership for their patriotic support.

Sure they're patriots. They've got the bullet holes to prove it, don't they?

After we're finally stuffed into Finance Guy's little office, he suddenly balks at taking a loan check from USAA. (I mention USAA by name here, because it's an insurance and finance company with origins in the U.S. armed forces.) He says it's the dealership's policy "not to release a vehicle until a loan-check clears the next business day."

It is Friday afternoon. I have taken a half-day of work off, and so has my wife. Now, he wants me to come back tomorrow. I could write a personal check, and Finance Guy would apparently take it with no question--but he's got problems with a USAA check?!

I calmly tell him to talk to his boss, to ask for a waiver to the alleged policy. He tells me that demanding things is no way to get things done. I begin to take offense. He takes offense. Among other things, he complains that I have requested the dealership's logo not be affixed in any way to our new car. I tell him that, given his dealership's earlier attitude toward citizen-soldiers, his organization is on probation with me. I imply that I might be doing him a favor in not having his business logo on my car.

From zero to 60 seconds, he weaves and speeds from "there are a few bad apples in every organization" to "I'll personally stomp anyone here who says bad things about soldiers" to "See this tie-tack? It's a National Rifle Association emblem. I'm a patriot." He ends up leaving his office for a few minutes, allegedly to talk to a boss. After he returns, my wife and I buy a new car.

Right before we sign the papers, Household-6 asks about that $500 military discount we were promised by Sales Boss Guy. Finance Guy calls and checks. "I saw the photocopy of your military ID in your folder, but I didn't know what it was there for." The discount had never been applied to the purchase price.


What my wife and I don't tell Finance Guy? That Mr. "The Customer is Not Always Right" Sales Boss was also the same person who, after our first visit, appeared on our television doing a car commercial. According to the commercial, "Sales Boss Guy" is actually the dealership's General Manager.

A few bad apples, indeed.

In a military unit, the Head Apple is responsible for everything his or her organization does and fails to do. That goes for maneuvering, supporting, and provisioning troops in combat, and that goes for training them to be effective and professional in their jobs.

The latter includes unsexy tasks such as eliminating discriminatory practices and attitudes within the ranks.

I'm quite pleased with our new car, and not at all pleased with the attitudes we encountered during its purchase. This particular dealership has reportedly spent thousands of dollars to provide teddy bears to the children of deployed Iowa National Guard soldiers. I'd be happier if, in the future, they spent a little money and attention on customer service and diversity training for their management, sales, and support staffs.

In other words, when 3,000 Red Bull troops come home to Iowa later this summer, armed with a year's worth of tax-free income and combat pay, looking for a square deal on a new American-built car or truck, I'd recommend this simple sales strategy:

Put your mouth where your money is.


  1. I understand why you didn't, but I wish you could name the dealership, so I'd know whom to avoid. We are one of the families that is socking away that combat pay and will be getting a new (to us) vehicle after the homecoming.

    I knew that not everyone supports the war(s) on terror, and I even knew that there are quite a few out there that flat out don't support servicemembers. I just don't know if I was acutely aware of it until these last few months. Nothing like having your spouse and his comrades casually referred to as 'murderers' to spur your patriotism.

    On the other hand, I know this isn't Vietnam, so maybe I should keep my trap shut.

  2. Take a picture of the bumper then use your detective skills... :)

  3. I don't know why you would buy anything if they had that attitude. There are tons of dealerships available to purchase from. If they don't support our family values I am not interested in supporting their business.

  4. I guess I always take the approach of your friend, asking everything be prepared before I arrive. I just hate wasting time at dealerships.

    I have always been very forward about our military status. I have stood in the showroom with a cell phone in my hand, calling USAA to see if they can get me a better deal than the salesman is offering. Of course, I already have my USAA voucher in hand, but you can still negotiate your loan rates. This is a business transaction, plain and simple.

    Now, all that being said, I have been stunned at times by the lack of support for our military. Such is the way, apparently, when you live in a community in which our Soldiers and Airmen make up such a small percentage of our immediate residents. There is no active duty base here. It is a different world here, in Iowa.

  5. I wish you would of told the name of the dealer ship as well. I also know there are dealerships that treat soldier/citizens very well and also the families. I had a good friend and a great soldier of the 34ID who made the ultimate sacrifice (Didn't make it home from deployment) and left behind a wife and two boys. Once this incident hit the media, a local dealership in the town of where my friend had lived donated funds towards the family (I believe scholarships for the two boys, if I am not mistaken). Ever since then, I have always purchased my vehicles from that dealership. Supporting the troops is a great thing. Supporting the families, especially when a solider has sacrificed his life is something that puts a tear in you eye and a lump in your throat and really speaks out on what type of place/person/establishment they really are.

  6. I would have walked out if I heard them treating a brother like that. I have totally given up on all American made motor vehicles...including Harleys! the last half dozen American made POS cars/trucks I've bought had major system failures...some within the first week, and again later. I'm talking about transmissions and engines with total failure!!!

    I now have a Tacoma that I will drive until I die.

  7. Thanks, everyone, for your comments and messages regarding this post. Once again, you've pointed me toward new ways to look at this topic! In a future post, I hope to follow-up with a list of possible lessons-learned.

    While there are a couple of reasons I didn't name names or places here, I was surprised when one Red Bull solider guessed via e-mail that, based upon his own car-purchasing experiences in Iowa, it was Dealership X. Unfortunately, it was Dealership Y. That tells me that these problems go beyond just one basket of bad apples!

    I'm particularly interested in exploring ways soldiers and families could react to similar situations. It goes beyond "just walking out." Like my car-buying buddy in the post said, after I'd told him about the behind-the-dealer-scenes scene my wife and I had witnessed: "I may not buy from them, but I still need to let them know why. If I don't say anything, it's on me. If I do, it's on them."


    @ RedBullWife: If you can, zap me an e-mail and tell me more about your "murderers" experience. Back during Desert Storm, I was on a college campus in uniform, and was called "babykiller" (a Vietnam-era slur--and this was the 1990s) by a passerby. Sometimes, I worry that people are ignorant of history. Other times, I worry that some may just be ignorant.

  8. I googled "car dealership iowa national guard teddy bears" to see which dealership it might be. It's heartbreaking to read of this.....

  9. I really tried to find out which dealership it was. I Googled it tons of different ways and spent at least 30-45 minutes trying to find it. I researched articles around the send off ceremony time. I know I know it! I can't find it and I am so frustrated. My children got a bear each when we went to the send off ceremony for my husband and I just can't remember where I saw who donated them nor can I remember who the dealership was. (I wonder what I did with the program for the send off ceremony. Maybe it is in there.) I also sent your article to someone I know who works for an advertising agency for car dealerships. I thought if they knew who the dealership was that they would show them this article and they might think twice about their behavior and PR they are getting. I even though Sales Manager Guy might be canned. They didn't know who it was.

    I am very upset to have taken two bears from a dealership who pretended to care about my husband and my children and who, obviously from your article, don't. It was an extremely emotional day and the bears were a nice touch for the kids. Now it is so sickening that it was all for show and they didn't really mean it. It is disgusting! They didn't donate the bears out of an actual interest in the children of the soldiers. They did it to sell cars.

  10. @ Anonymous: My apologies if my story discolored in any way you your your kids' regard for some cherished stuffed animals. That wasn't my intention at all--for reasons I'll get to in a moment.

    I do appreciate your attempts to find ways to appropriately respond to situations such as the one I described, and appreciate your input and insights. I am struggling with such questions myself.

    Since 2001, the "Bear Hug" project has been conducted by an Iowa National Guard-based service organization I very much respect and admire. It may seem like splitting teddy bear hairs here, but the dealership in question didn't contribute toys directly to troops' families. That said, according to news reports, it did make a sizable donation to the project in 2010, for which it received much public recognition.

    In other words, I hope you and your family will "hate the sin, but still love the bear."

  11. Charlie - Thank you for the information on the "Bear Hug" project. My kids held onto those bears for the length of the ceremony and then went back to the dolls they got from Operation: Military Kids. The dolls are little soldiers dressed in camo with plastic sleeves over their faces so you can insert a picture of your soldier. I think it is a great project, "Bear Hug", and the consideration was very nice on such a hard day. I am just upset that the dealership didn't donate the money because they wanted to do something nice but because they recognized it as a sales opportunity. Maybe the owner of the dealership really does respect our soldiers and he/she just isn't aware of what their staff is doing as much as they should be. Thank you again.


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