Learning about honesty from your neighborhood car dealer


A couple of months ago my wife and I bought a car from our local Volkswagen dealership. We needed a new car after our second child was born, and we ultimately settled on a Jetta Sportwagen, which I highly recommend for any parents out there who need a car big enough to fit two car seats, but are desperately trying to disguise the fact that they’re no longer cool.

After we agreed to buy the car and all the paperwork was signed (mostly by me, as my wife was home with the new baby), the salesman gave me a head’s up that I’d be receiving a survey via email about my experience at the dealership. “We’d appreciate it if you could give us 9s and 10s”, he said, referring to my survey responses.

At the time I didn’t think much of this comment, and just assumed he and his colleagues would benefit from some positive feedback. But when the time came came to fill out the survey — a simple, straightforward electronic form that I can only assume most people go through in a minute or less — I grappled with my answers. Did I really think the presentation and cleanliness of the car showroom, for instance, was “truly exceptional”, which is what the survey instructions indicated that a 9 or 10 response was supposed to mean? The honest truth was that the experience at the dealership was good but nothing to call home about. I had bought a car from another VW dealership a few years earlier, and I found it hard to decide which buying experience left me more satisfied. How could I honestly say that this last one was something “exceptional”?

In the end, I answered as honestly as I could, giving answers that ranged from 5 (which I personally consider fine) to 10 on a 10-point scale. The average was probably between 7 and 8. Unfortunately, this apparently set off major alarm bells at the dealership. Both the salesperson and the the dealership’s head of sales called me on the phone to ask why I’d given such horrible feedback. Their tone was polite but clearly stressed. I answered that I thought I was giving good feedback, and that I must have misunderstood how to fill out the form. Fearing that I must have gotten them in hot water with the head of the dealership or with Volkswagen itself, I offered to fill it out again. The sales head thanked me, but told me their feedback system wouldn’t allow it. I never heard back from them again.

I was reminded about this recently when I listened to a replay of a particular This American Life radio episode, which looks into the lives of salespeople at a particular Jeep dealership as they scramble to meet their monthly sales goals. This really humanized car dealers for me, whom most of us tend to think of as cheap tricksters eager to swindle us out of a buck. The reality is that these people are under constant pressure from the manufacturer, chronically stressed, and not even that well paid. You should give it a listen, but if not, here’s the episode in a nutshell:

[Narrator:] So this past October, in most of the country, car sales were strong– up over 10% from what they were a year before. That’s 1.2 million new vehicles sold that month.

But that doesn’t mean that every dealership in every town had an easy time of it. And today on our program, we watch one dealership, just one, on Long Island– Town & Country Jeep Chrysler Dodge Ram is what it’s called– as they try to make their sales goal of 129 cars for the month.

If they sell 129 cars, Chrysler is going to pay them a big bonus. And they need that money to be in the black for the month. If they just sell 128, bupkis.

And one more particularly powerful segment:

[Narrator:] Joe goes outside to do an appraisal on a Nissan Quest. This also gives him a chance to have a cigarette, one of about 40 Parliaments he’ll smoke today. His wife and kids get on him about the smoking. He’s got six kids– six kids. Two are grown, four of them still at home.

Joe’s the only breadwinner in the family– always has been. So it’s all on him. Even in the best of times, Joe’s a worrier, like his grandmother. He’s 42 years old, but he looks older. In the past year, he’s gained about 80 pounds.

In the parking lot, Joe throws away a half-smoked cigarette, and then looks over the Nissan Quest. Tires are so so, needs some detailing. It’s got a cracked tail light an a bad CARFAX report, meaning it’s been in an accident. $2,000 is fair for this car, Joe says. It’s what these are going for at auction.

He tells me the customers are going to want at least $2,500, but there’s no way he can do that. $2,600 is just too much. He heads back inside–

Joe Monti:
$2,500– that’s everything.

–instantly caves.

Joe Monti:
That’s what I will do.

[Narrator:] He needs the deal. They shake on it. Joe was about 22 when he started in the car business. He had a baby at 18, his son Joseph, and then four more kids– Dean, Chris, Michael, and Adriana, plus his stepson, Louis.

There’s a big lesson here about appreciating all sorts of people doing all sorts of jobs. I myself had quite negative views about car dealers before listening to the program, and since then those views have been turned upside down. But there’s another lesson in here, about where we set the limits of honesty.

Being honest is a bedrock principle of every religious faith and every other source of moral wisdom. If you’re Baha’i, chances are good that you know the following phrase from the Baha’i Writings by heart: “Truthfulness is the foundation of all human virtues.” Without honesty, without truthfulness, we have nothing.

And yet, I wonder what good filling out that survey as honestly as I did actually accomplished. At best, I may have made the VW feedback process marginally more effective, shaving off a tiny layer of survey response inflation. But at worst, I may have cost a couple of honest, hardworking salespeople some serious money.

There’s plenty of gray area in real life when it comes to just how honest we should be. We all know this. To take one example, for the sake of hyperbole: There is no honest way for a man to answer a woman when she asks the question, “Does this make me look fat?” To men, this question is essentially a version of the Kobayashi maru from Star Trek, a treacherous and unwinnable contest designed only to humiliate the opponent. Honesty isn’t anyone’s friend here.

This is an extreme example, of course, but life is filled with lots of these ambiguities. Most often, the temptation not to be completely honest arises in situations when the full truth hurts people’s feelings, butting heads with another important virtue, kindness. When your friendly dinner host asks how you enjoyed the food, have you ever answered honestly with a “Meh, I’ve had better”? If you have, then shame on you, person-who-is-reading-this. Your momma taught you better than that.

I suppose the incident with the car dealership was a different sort of dilemma. Answering honestly didn’t present a problem because that honesty was unkind. It presented a problem because it was such a contrast from other people’s responses (probably 9s and 10s without much thought to it), and probably hurt the sales staff’s performance score. But if everyone answered honestly, this wouldn’t be a problem. Then an average response of 7 or 8 wouldn’t seem so bad; it might have even raised their average. And the genuine feedback would probably help the dealership improve its level of service.

Anyway, once again there are no big epiphanies here, no real answers. Perhaps this whole blog post was just an exercise in stating the obvious. In any case, I am curious to hear readers’ stories and feedback in the comment section (oh, and by the way, I’d appreciate it if you could give me 9s and 10s).


5 thoughts on “Learning about honesty from your neighborhood car dealer

  1. Ha! Agree on most of what you wrote including the “Kobayashi Maru” part. I think if we take truthfulness to an extreme it does in fact butt heads with our other goals in life. People who are wise show extreme kindness without lying… a difficult balancing act for sure but one that is certainly possible.

  2. Having worked in the hospitality business I know about these dreaded surveys. If you don’t feel 9s or 10s are deserved then don’t fill out the survey. The results are often used to justify withholding raises and/or bonuses and could threaten the person’s job security too!

  3. Oh yes definitely it’s a matter of holding or not holding a job, not to mention as you said costing someone money, not that the actual money is huge, but it is definitely a HUGE part of any pay plan for sales people managers etc….. It’s already been said if you can’t answer all 10’s please just don’t do it at all, instead make an appointment with the general manager if you really want to feel as though you are being heard, trust me it will go a lot further then puffing your chest proud about giving a 6 out of 10 amongst a survey of 1000’s. Thanks

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