I had an extremely disappointing experience with my car company the other day. Though I have every right to call this company out, I am not going to say who the car company is.
Instead, I would like to focus on what happened and how a company can do extreme damage to its brand and to customer loyalty by using bait and switch marketing tactics.
I have owned the same car for six years. I’m a drive ‘em ’til they drop kind of guy. The brand I own is known for its longevity, and my plan was to drive the car for at least another four years — until it turned 10.
However, a few weeks ago I received an offer from my car company in the mail. The offer was astounding — it offered me the chance to trade in my 6 year old car for the original MSRP!
Now, I’m no Good Will Hunting in the math department, but it did not take me long to realize what my car company’s offer meant. Essentially, I would have had driven my car for the past few years for the cost of the payment interest and maintenance/repairs. Not too shabby.
And also, not too realistic.
The basic economics did not make sense to me, so I was skeptical. But I also did not shut the door — perhaps there was some government program or corporate tax rebate that made the offer economically viable? What could it hurt to ask?
I quickly skimmed the entire page and did not see a catch, and I even glanced at the first few sentences of the fine print.
As I said, I was not in the market for a new car, but I had a service appointment coming up, so I figured I would just ask about the offer while I was at already at the dealership.
When The C-Suite Does Wrong, The Front Lines Suffer
As always, I had a good experience dropping my car off at maintenance. Once inside the dealership, I was directed to a gentleman, whom we’ll call James, who was wearing a coat that had a monogram touting the new buyback program.
“James,” I said. “Angela told me I should speak to you about the buyback program.” I showed him the letter I had received from the dealership. His first words were not how are you and were not I’d be happy to tell you about it. His first words were…
“I need to let you know that we will not give you MSRP for your car.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“We take the original MSRP but then we take off for depreciation, like time, wear and tear, and miles driven.”
“So basically, you value it just like you normally value a used car.”
“Yes,” he replied, and I could tell this conversation was not a new one to him.
I pointed to the big MSRP call out (pictured above). “I have to say James, that’s just outright deceptive.”
James apologized, and I walked back to the lounge to wait for my car.
But none of this was James’ fault. In fact, you can tell he and his teammates had been getting hammered by customers about this shady offer — why else would he start his sales pitch with “I need to let you know that we will not give you MSRP.”
The front line was paying the price for the shady practices of the corporate office.
Fine Print is Inevitable; Bait and Switch is Not
Fine print is unavoidable. Consumers can scream from the rooftop, and “experts” can tell you how Zappos doesn’t have fine print (they do by the way, but very little) — it will not change the fact that every business has limitations on what it can do or will do based on the economic constraints of its business model.
In today’s hyper-litigious business environment those limitations often have to be protected by legal disclaimers and the dreaded fine print.
However, here is a rule every CEO and CMO should have tattooed to their foreheads:
Fine print should NEVER negate the basic premise of your offer…
…Or the basic premise of your marketing campaign.
…Or the basic premise of your business model.
Fine print is for the exceptions, for the details that qualify the tangential parts of an offer. Fine print should never be used to say “my core message is a lie.”
In customer service, we often have to deal with the impact of fine print on the people it affects. And that is fine; it’s part of the gig. Sometimes you have to have limitations that impact a small portion of your customer base. We handle these cases the best we can.
Fine print, however, should only be used to protect the company, not to take advantage of its customers.
6 Years of Loyalty Undone with One Letter
I do not generally get upset by these types of situations, but I have to say that after my interaction with James, I could not wait for my car to be done. I always enjoy going to the dealership. They have Wifi and a great room to work in. It’s a nice change of environment with free drinks and food.
But that morning, I just wanted to get out of there.
I do not know if I will hold this incident against the brand, against the dealership, or just wait to see how the next four years of interactions go. I can say this: the letter they sent me was one of the most blatantly deceptive pieces of marketing I have ever received.
I love my car, and frankly, I probably would not have even looked at another car brand when I was ready to buy again. At minimum, this one letter has taken a loyal customer and prompted him to take a look at the competition. I suspect that plenty of others will not even be that forgiving.