Buying a new car is rarely a pleasant experience.

  • Car salesmen lie to you on the phone to get you to walk in the door.
  • Car dealers advertise a special in the newspaper and then tell you the vehicle is already sold.
  • They tell you that the discount they advertised isn’t available in the model you want because “that car is hard to get.”
  • They claim to have your car in stock and then try to sell you whatever they’ve got.

Most of us would rather get a root canal than walk into a showroom.

So, what does a dealer do when you catch the salesman red-handed in a bald-faced lie?
Apologize? Show Contrition? Pretend to care?

Berkeley Toyota simply refused to sell my wife a car.

What does this have to do with measurement? Call it the Stein Uncertainty Principle: what you choose to measure changes behavior with unintended consequences.

Toyota has a great reputation for customer satisfaction. They methodically follow up with every customer and have built much of their compensation for salesmen from the customer survey results. Salesmen know that one unhappy customer could affect their rating and cost them thousands of dollars. Does this system make salesmen treat customers better?

NO. Instead, this dealer won’t sell you a car if they think you might be unhappy with them. Catch them lying to you and they won’t sell you the car. Why risk letting anyone with a bad experience actually tell Toyota Corporate about it?

This saga begins when my wife decided that her 1992 Camry was ready for a replacement. The car had served her well for 15 years and over 100,000 miles, but time had taken its toll on the interior and exterior.

We began by visiting Broadway Toyota in Oakland, where I had leased a Prius the month before. We chose the model and color she wanted, but they did not have the car in stock. The Oakland dealer did search and told us that the touring package was only available in a Package 5, which contained the navigation system and was about $3k more. They offered to sell us a package 5 Prius for $1750 off of the sticker price, but said that they couldn’t find any in gray. We asked them to locate the car we wanted and give us a call.

After not hearing from them for three day, my wife decided to call Berkeley Toyota, where she bought the Camry in 1993. She spoke to a salesman named Javier and asked him if they had a gray Prius in stock. He said they had two available and made an appointment for us to come in.

My wife and I arrive 15 minutes later to discover that Javier hasn’t returned from picking up the car. When he finally arrives after 20 minutes, I explain that we were in a hurry; I took off work to come make sure my wife gets the deal we were promised and she needed to leave for class in two hours.

Javier stepped away for a few minutes to talk with another salesman and returned to tell us that it turns out that they sold one of the gray ones on Saturday and that the other one they have isn’t available because it just arrived and hasn’t been checked into inventory. He said that the car can’t be ready for delivery for another three days. When I questioned why it would take so long, he responded that the service department was very busy (this PDI process, according to the customer service manager at Berkeley Toyota, takes about 1.5 hours and can usually be done the same day).

Javier sat us down and asked my wife to fill out a credit application along with an offer sheet. He took the sheet and went into his manager’s office. Javier returned about five minutes later and told us Mr. Rios said his manager noticed that we “were upset or in a bad mood,” and wanted to be sure we would be happy. He then admitted that the gray car been damaged and needed repairs before they could sell it to us. After hearing we were not interested in buying a brand new car that had already been in the body shop, he tried to sell us on a different car.

Of course, we were not happy about coming in to the store to discover the car we wanted wasn’t available. We told Javier exactly what we wanted on the phone, we had already researched the car and we came in to close the deal. We didn’t come, not re-negotiate the deal or be offered a different color. They didn’t have the car they promised us available, so we left.

My wife phoned Mr. Rios a few hours later to ask what the manager might have meant by that comment about us being in a bad mood. She explained that at this point she was interested in ANY Prius with a Package #2 and a dark interior, and she was willing to come back in to discuss another color. Javier said that he would look into what was available and call her back.

Imagine her shock when Javier phoned back a few minutes later (presumably after discussing it with his manager) to say that he “feels uncomfortable selling us a car” since we were so angry and that her husband made him “feel like dirt” on the phone.

We were outraged. They lied to us about having two cars available. They lied about needing three days to prepare the car for delivery so they could fix the body damage. After all that, when my wife was ready to settle for another color to be finished with the agony of dealing with car salesmen, they said we weren’t happy enough to buy a car from them!

Toyota has gotten a lot of press about their customer satisfaction program, including a recent New York Times article, Toyota’s rise to world domination driven by customer satisfaction, we decided to write Toyota Headquarters.

We did hear back from Toyota, who said they would file a report with Toyota of Berkeley and that we would get a call back from them within 3 days. They did not offer any hope for resolution or provide anything we could feel positive about.

The next morning, we got a follow up call from Toyota of Berkeley. The customer satisfaction manager explained that he had heard about the situation and that the dealer was simply exercising their right to choose who to do business with. He agreed that Javier was trying to avoid us knowing about the car needing paint when he said it would take 3 days to PDI. He further stated that Toyota would require them to tell us about the body damage if the repair exceeded $500. He didn’t state that the damage was beyond the $500 threshold, but we speculate that the dealer told us about the body damage after they new thye would have to disclose it when they sold us the car.

He also said that this situation occurred because the salesman was afraid that if he sold us a car, we would respond unfavorably in our customer satisfaction survey. He said that one bad experience reported by a customer could lower the customer satisfaction index, costing the salesman thousands of dollar over the course of a year.  .

Javier dug himself a hole and then claimed that we were in a bad mood and using profane language because he was scared we might trash him in a customer survey.  How is that for Irony? Because of Toyota’s customer satisfaction measurement system, Berkeley Toyota lied to us, got caught lying and then their management refused to sell us a car.

Unfortunately, that won’t ever show up in a customer survey.