Car dealerships are trash. I’ll say until the end of time. Being both a customer and a former salesperson, I can attest both to the tactics used on customers and why they are used.
The factor that poisons the customer service experience is the same thing that poisons everything: money. It’s not important that sales people care about the product, the brand, your lifestyle or why a given customer might need the vehicle. None of that matters. All that matters is selling the next car.
This is the absolutely wild story of how my own mother was detained and intimidated at a dealership. Every detail is how she remembered it.
The late ’90s were a good time for my mom. Being a single mother, she took pride in things like having a good job, providing for me and my sister and being able to buy a home all on her own. She had been working hard and wanted to reward herself with a car she actually wanted. Since her high school days in the late ’80s her dream car had been a Nissan 300ZX Turbo. But with two kids, that was obviously out of the question. Her more realistic goal became a Chrysler Sebring. How she went from a 300ZX to a Sebring, I’ll never know, but it’s what she wanted. This was the first-generation Sebring, when it was available as a coupe or convertible. She wanted a red Sebring coupe with a tan interior and a sunroof. And she found that exact car at the local Chrysler dealer.
She went in to buy it and the transaction went smoothly. There was the usual back-and-forth bullshit with the manager but they were able to reach an agreement. She used my grandma’s car as a trade-in.
One thing that irked the salespeople was that my mom literally read every single word of the contract. She says she remembers the finance person and general manager attempting to get her to stop reading it by calling it “legal mumbo jumbo you don’t need to concern yourself with.” She ignored them and continued reading while asking questions. You could see the annoyance on their faces.
Other than that, it was a normal transaction. Or so we thought. The trouble started with a call my mom received 11 days later. As you will find out later, these 11 days are important.
The dealership called — specifically, a woman from the finance department — and told my mom that she needed to come in to sign a couple of things they’d forgotten to get her to sign. Weird...she thought she had signed everything. But wanting to make sure everything was OK, she pushed aside those thoughts and told the woman from finance she would come in before going into work. When my mom arrived it was business as usual. She informed the woman that she was pressed for time as she had to clock in at work soon. Her job was just about five minutes away from the dealership. The woman said she understood, and it would be a few moments. She then disappeared.
Twenty minutes went by. My mom went to find the woman, who was standing around talking to some salespeople. At this point, my mom was pissed because she was late for work and wanted to know what the hell is going on. The woman apologized and said it’d be a few more moments. She disappeared again. As my mom was waiting, she noticed her Sebring out the corner of her eye. When she had initially pulled in, it was an empty parking lot. It was still early in the day.
Now weirdly, there were three Grand Cherokees. New ones, too, she could see window stickers. What was even weirder is how they had been parked. The two on either side of the car had been parked so close that she wouldn’t be able to get in her car and leave. And why was one parked lengthwise behind the car? It’s almost like they were trying to keep her from leaving.
The finance woman and sales manager walked in, startling my mom out of her focus on the parking lot. “Your credit application wasn’t approved,” he says bluntly. At the same time he literally tossed the keys to my grandmother’s car and a pen to her across the table while the head of finance placed a document on the table. “Sign this and you can be on your way.”
“What do you mean it wasn’t approved? Why wasn’t I notified sooner?” she asked. “The contract states you had 10 days to notify me of a denial. This is the 11th day. You’re going to get sued. You know what, I don’t have time for this. Give me the keys and tell your people to move their Jeeps so I can leave.” she told him.
Her slightly raised voice drew the attention of others on the showroom floor. Her bringing up what the contract said about notification of denial angered the manager. “Oh, you can leave, but you won’t be leaving in that Sebring,” the sales manager said. As he said that, my mom noticed that five or six salesmen had appeared almost out of nowhere to block her from the entrance to the sales floor. Outside she noticed that another line of salespeople had formed in front of where she was parked.
“I’m going to call the cops. You cant do this!” she says.
“Go ahead and call them!” the manager said, chuckling “They don’t get involved in things like this. So do yourself a favor and sign this and you can leave.”
She signed the document, which was some sort of acknowledgment of the fact she didn’t get approved/acknowledgment of her getting her trade-in back. She left, angry, scared, and hurt at what just happened.
Her financing had been actually been denied. But rather than notifying her within the time frame spelled out in the contract, she’d been lured to the dealership under false pretenses, then held there and intimidated like she was going trying to steal the car.
I remember her coming home that day. I was happy she was home but surprised and worried. Her coming home early meant that either she got off early and we were going to do something fun, or something bad had happened. Seeing her come up the stairs crying and then throw the keys across the room told me all I needed to know.
The weeks that followed were filled with meetings between my Mom and lawyers, long drives to Orange County and hours waiting in nice office buildings with my sister. My mom was angry and she was suing.
The trial went quickly, lasting less than two weeks. The dealership tried to deny wrongdoing at first and then tried to place the blame on my mom. They were grasping at straws. First, they tried to say that they had made multiple attempts to contact her by both phone and mail within the legal timeframe of 10 days. Of course, no such attempts had been made.
Then, to justify detaining her, the dealer said that she had become irate and attempted to flee in the vehicle when they told her she’d been denied. Their defense was that blocking her from the exits of the building and blocking her car in were done in response to her outburst.
None of this held up, of course. A couple of salespeople and the finance manager caved and told the truth. One — the salesperson who actually helped my mom buy the car — said he grew a conscience, and the finance manager said she felt guilty.
The two salespeople testified that racism was a factor in what had transpired. The sales manager had been known to make certain comments or suggestions about Black customers or other customers of color. The salesman admitted that the manager said something to the effect of “Try to get more [money] down out of her. We all know they never have strong enough credit.” We all know who the “they” was that he was referring to.
The finance manager admitted she had been instructed to contact my mom because she was a woman. They felt that she would have been more inclined to come in and not be suspicious of anything with a woman asking rather than a man.
Ultimately my mom won. Not only was the dealership guilty of false imprisonment, but it also broke California law by waiting longer than the number of allowable days to make contact about the loan application being denied, as my mom had noticed and pointed out from the contract. In the court proceedings, it came out that the dealership had known she was denied on the 8th day. They had till the 10th day to contact her to bring the car back, but waited till the 11th.
My mom won $25,000. There were firings. Years later I asked why she didn’t ask for more, and she said it wasn’t really about the money and she didn’t want to appear greedy.
The experience soured her on Chrysler products entirely and she ended up buying a new Ford Taurus.
The dealership has since been redesigned and is under new ownership. As we know, the practice of detaining customers continues today.