Jason Wright: What I learned from a small-town dealership

Jason Wright

Jason Wright

Editor’s Note: The author was not compensated for this piece, and the opinions are his own.

Just before moving to the Shenandoah Valley, I had an experience at a dealership near Washington, D.C., that could have been ripped from a horror movie. Yes, it was that frightening.

Imagine one of those dealership goliaths that sell and repair cars, trucks, vans, bikes, stereos, scooters and skateboards. I even heard they were looking to add a FroYo counter.

It was the kind of place where you felt like a number because you actually were a number. As in, the 4,269th car of the day. Forget knowing their customers’ names, they were so massive they didn’t even know the names of all their employees.

Few smiles. Few pleasantries. No joy.

Instead, plan for plenty of time in the waiting room and just a few seconds to swipe your card before they “Next!” you out the door.

My series of unfortunate events with the dealer took weeks to rectify. I wrote letters, sent emails, made calls and parked at the sales manager’s desk. When it was over, I remember thinking I’d been treated better by playground bullies in the 3rd grade.

Last week I found myself back in another dealership for repairs. It was Muhlenberg Ford in Woodstock, and while it’s just 100 miles away from D.C., it felt like another galaxy. 

As I drove off, I considered the differences between the small-town dealership and the big city goliath.

They didn’t up-sell me services I didn’t need. They didn’t terrify me with threats that if I drove away without replacing some $300 widget, I’d soon be dead in a ditch at the edge of town.

And when I paid the tab, they didn’t just run my card, they explained what they’d done and why.

They also asked about my family – including my daughter who’s serving an 18-month volunteer church mission in Brazil. They complimented a photo my wife had recently posted on social media.

They laughed. They smiled. They looked like they actually enjoyed their work.

All true.

But as I chewed on both experiences, the more I tasted the real difference. It’s not about the smiles, friendliness or bottom line on the invoice.

It’s about the eyes.

Too often, big businesses look just over your shoulder at the next opportunity, the next customer, the next sale. You’re not just a number, you’re part of a profit-loss equation. And they’ve got you already. 

Next, please.

It’s as if an invisible clock is timing each transaction, and if they make eye contact, they might miss the daily dollar target.

I get it. The bigger the business, the bigger the bills. They’ve got employees to pay, investors to please and construction loans to cover. They may have health insurance and other benefits to provide.

But should the pressure of such rich obligations excuse such poor customer service?

Never.

Team members at successful businesses treat you like a friend, look you right in the eye, prove their value and resolve concerns. That doesn’t mean they give away their products or services and can’t earn a profit. But it does mean that if you’re at the proverbial counter, you’re the most important customer of the day.

And their eyes will never look past you until you’re satisfied.

Maybe my most important realization as I recalled my big city experience was that it had nothing to do with the size of the dealership or the number of customers. And it certainly wasn’t about the town population. It’s all about the people inside.

Kudos to Muhlenberg Ford for keeping their collective eyes on the most important prize – you and me. Their example of treating customers like friends is superb for anyone in business.

Actually, it’s a pretty good example for the rest of us, too.

(This week’s reader shoutout goes to Jennifer Funk. Thanks for reading!)

Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 11 books. His latest book, “A Letter to Mary,” is now available for pre-order wherever books are sold including from Amazon.com. He can be reached at http://www.jasonfwright.com.

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