It’s not often you get the kind of lesson on how to treat people that I did the other day when I bought a late-model Honda Civic.
As a rule, I don’t care to shop for cars. When I’ve gone to dealers, I’ve already read everything Consumer Reports has ever said about models I was interested in. But so often a salesman will tell me that the magazine is wrong about this or that model or make some claim about the car or the cost I knew to be untrue. Dumb move. Anyway, as a long-time if retired journalist, I tend to be skeptical of what people tell me, especially so of politicians and sales persons.
Last fall, my wife Toni heard a discussion on NPR about why it was a good time to buy a car. No, she wasn’t trying to do our part boosting the economy. We had this 14-year-old Lexis that with nearly 200,000 miles still ran well, was comfortable, with electronically adjustable seats, heated for cold weather. But the occasional repairs and even routine service were just more expensive than what we were paying on our 10-year-old Civic. Besides, we very much liked the idea of buying a car that got great mileage. As Toni said, “I feel we’re now living our values, and we drove off in the 50-mpg Toyota Prius.
The dealer even offered us what the Kelly Blue Book said the Lexis was worth for the trade-in. Of course, with high-mileage cars at a premium we didn’t expect or get much of a discount from the sticker price. Well, that was in October. What I most liked about this new Prius was what happened at the gas pump. A fill-up usually cost no more than $20, whereas filling the tank in the Lexis could run $50.
Then in the late spring, my son John needed to bid a fond farewell to his 1999 very high mileage Corolla. So with interest rates still quite low, I offered to sell him the old Civic. He was delighted to be in a somewhat newer car. Meantime, I had some car shopping to do again. Which brings me to the point of this little essay.
About this time, I was reminded of my friend, the late Steve Hollander, a longtime English professor, and truly independent thinker, who had what I thought was an original way to shop for a car. Instead of seeking out a salesman, he visited the service departments of a few dealers. He’d visit with the managers about this or that model that he was interested in. That’s how he ended up with Toyotas. Consumer Reports would agree.
Now I had been taking my 2001 Honda Civic to the dealership where I bought the car ever since it was new and on warranty. Over the years, I felt that Doug, the service manager, and Jay his assistant, always treated me fairly and with respect. This time, I asked Jay what salesman he’d recommend. That led me to Anwar, originally from Pakistan. In turn, Anwar put new meaning in the expression “true gentleman.”
We talked about what I was interested in, what I had to trade and what I felt we could afford. So he showed me two Civics, a 2009 hybrid and a 2010 that just ran on regular gas. We took a drive. I liked both. What was not to like? I was really more interested in Anwar. In fact, even before we drove a car, or even went out in the lot to look at what he had, we visited for a while about my most recent book, a community guide on mental illness. He had relatives who struggled with the issue.
When we got around to cars, Anwar merely answered my questions. He didn’t ask whether I wanted to talk to the financial people. He didn’t press me to know which of the two I preferred. He didn’t ask when we could get my son’s car in for an appraisal or when I could make a decision. He just answered my questions. He was so respectful, so deferential. I could see why Jay in the service department suggested him.
Within a couple of days, and after John’s car had been appraised, I was ready to make my decision. It would be the newer car, leather seats, sun roof and very low mileage. It might as well have been a new car it was so fresh and clean.
Now it was time to deal. But I didn’t get led into the financial person’s office. Instead, I called the manager of our credit union, mostly about the interest rate. I have a bias in favor of dealing with the credit union. He referred me to Amber, who handles car loans. Maybe other loans as well. She was so refreshingly casual about it all. Did I say friendly? Like we had known each other for years. Yes, she said. She only hears good things about the Honda dealership. She not only got me a lower rate than what was advertised. She taught me how to negotiate with the dealer. She checked out the value of John’s car, which was hundreds of dollars more than I was able to find on the Internet. Then she let me know what to tell the dealer about finishing up the transaction. I gave Anwar and his bosses the go-ahead. Amber’s advice worked.
The next morning, I called Doug, the service manager. “Don’t worry, Larry. I’ll have your back.”
He was telling me I was getting a fair deal, and that he’d see to it that he’d take care of this car, just as he had the older Civic I had sold my son. Indeed, a few days after I took delivery on the newer model with the leather seats, I was having trouble making sense of the owner’s manual and its explanation of the odometer gauges. I drove into the service area, waived at Doug and he stopped whatever he was doing, joined me in the car and showed me how to check for mileage after each fill-up.
Now I know that there are car salesmen and women as gracious as Anwar at other car dealers. Maybe at my Honda place, too. I know you can be treated well at other financial institutions. I’m sure other service managers are friendly, helpful and fair-minded. That’s been my experience at the Toyota/Lexis dealer over the years.
But I’ve also been treated elsewhere as just another customer on the assembly line of the sales or service department. Nothing special. No appreciation of the anxiety I might feel about a major purchase. We’ve had a serviceman or two here at the house who gave rudeness a bad name. One guy who came from Sears to fix a problem with the dishwasher treated my wife and me like children. Later, and I’m sure quite by accident, by fiddling around with the controls, I fixed the problem myself.
As I write this, it’s been less than a week since I bought this 2010 Civic. I never get in the car without remembering Anwar, Amber, Doug and Jay and what a pleasant experience it was to be treated so well. Ask me in the future what car salesman, what service department, what financial institution you’d like me to recommend. On every count, an easy call.