The Used Car Lot

via Flickr Commons

I can already hear the groans.  I know very few people who enjoy going to a dealership or a used car lot to buy a car.  It seems so much more civilized to purchase from a private party.  But, if you need financing or want to test drive multiple cars at once or just appreciate how a car sales place will guide you through the insurance and registration part, you will have to deal with one of the most notoriously tainted negotiation processes you are likely to encounter in your life.  Even buying a house is more civilized than the gauntlet many car salespeople will put you through.

My car was past its prime.  I didn’t have the time or patience to drive all over the place looking at cars being sold by people; so, off to the dealerships I went.

I contacted them in two different ways:  either I stopped by after viewing inventory online or I used a virtual method (chat/email/form) after viewing online inventory.  Let me preface this by giving you some background: I used my librarian skills to do research on the various vehicles that fit my needs and narrowed it to looking at small, used, economical hatchbacks and then narrowed it further by excluding some manufacturers based on reliability reports.  Also, I’m a car person raised in a car loving family.  I spent my childhood in garages handing my father wrenches and getting lectures on the proper way to adjust a carburetor.  I’m familiar with the lingo, the sales tactics and generally feel at home in any kind of vehicle related place.

I went in wondering if I could learn anything about customer service that could be applied to the library world and wondering if anything had changed since I last bought a car from a dealership.

This is what I found:

Even after being very open and specific about my needs and exactly what I was looking for in my next vehicle, every single person except for the salesmen I eventually bought from tried to steer me to a sedan because even if they had a hatchback it didn’t satisfy other requirements like price or mileage.  I spent 5 minutes explaining to one salesman why I was unwilling to purchase a higher mile car.  He still didn’t get it and just continued to argue my reasoning.  I found myself actually arguing with salespeople over the reasons I wanted a hatch.  What I learned:  Listen, listen, listen.  What we offer our customers is free so we naturally tend to offer them alternatives to what they asked for but perhaps we should preface this with a statement like the following:  I understand you are looking for a specific book on subject X which we don’t have ;but, perhaps while you are waiting for your ILL to arrive you’d be interested in these other books which might include coverage of your topic.

They lie.  I’m sure they wouldn’t call it that; but, they really do lie.  They tell you one thing knowing another thing is true.  Or they tell you a song and dance about their manager which is really just part of the dance.  Learned:  We like to think we don’t lie to our customers; but, I can think of some specific times we evade the truth about policies or procedures.  There is a discomfort with telling a customer we discard books or we do something for our own convenience rather than theirs (a whole other post!).  Question:  If we have policies or procedures that embarrass staff or otherwise put them in the position of feeling like they have to evade answering, are we providing good customer service with these policies and procedures and are we setting our staff up to fail?

They tend to treat you like you don’t know anything.  Learned:  ask the right questions so you don’t have to assume what the customer knows or doesn’t know.

I was surprised that little had changed.  I got the run around.  I was made to wait.  Two places held my car keys hostage under the guise they were going to assess it for its trade in value.  I told the one guy, “Please don’t assume I haven’t noticed you still have my keys.”  His face turned red and he replied, “Let me go get them for you.”  At which time, the manager came out to talk to me.  I had to ask for my keys.   This sort of behavior is infuriating.  Are we infuriating our customers?  At my current library, we tend to avoid this result of a customer interaction.  I have worked at libraries that had fury inducing policies.

Finally, I landed in the hands of Al who answered my questions and was generally a pleasant guy to spend a couple of hours with while we test drove cars and filled out paperwork.  He returned my keys as soon as the mechanic was done assessing it.  He listened to me and worked within my constraints (I too can be a pain in the butt.).  I was honest with him and I felt that he was honest with me.  The only car salesmany thing he did was to open the windows of the first car which had a distinct mold smell. 

So, lets recap.  Lessons learned on the used car lot.

  1. Listen. Listen. Listen.  Let the customer know they have been heard.  This not only helps the customer get the resources they need; but, it’s also effective in defusing the angry customer.
  2. Avoid policies and procedures that put your staff in the position of feeling they can’t be honest.
  3. Ask the right questions before assuming what your customer does or doesn’t know whether its about resources, library policies and practices or anything else.
  4. Do you have policies that you know are irritating when they don’t have to be?  Do you have policies that could be changed but are in place for staff convenience at the detriment of customer service?  Change them.
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