car dealerships

Smart Strategies: For expensive, complicated purchases, the bar is high for customer service

New car dealers bear more responsibility than nearly any other industry when it comes to customer satisfaction.

Due to factors that increase stress and magnify the personal value of a vehicle purchase, car dealers must show unwavering patience and engage in transparent communication to ensure their customers have a positive experience. Anything less and complaints will follow.

Industry prone to complaints

Before stepping foot in a dealership, circumstances inherent in the industry increase the likelihood that a consumer will file a complaint with the BBB. While this does not absolve dealers of their responsibility to limit complaints, it is an indication of why dealers consistently occupy a spot in the top-10 most-complained-about industries.

» The product is expensive // BBB files indicate that new-car sales in Kansas City have the highest median purchase price of any industry at $17,000. The next highest is the roofing industry, with a median product price of $8,900.

» The product is new (or nearly new) // In the customers’ mind, this means they should face fewer problems with the product. It has not yet degraded in condition or value.

» The product is technologically complicated // Essentially nothing a consumer will buy is more complicated than an automobile. Cars have 30,000 parts, many of which are now controlled by a computer. They’re so complicated, in fact, that repair work is specialized. Different shops work on different components. That’s 30,000 opportunities for something to malfunction or fail.

» Consumers must rely on the expertise of the dealer // Consumers, in general, already rely on businesses for knowledge of the product being sold. That’s why the FTC closely regulates the claims businesses make about their products. Consumers have their own lives and careers. They’re not informed on every product and can’t always know when a claim is deceptive. The more complicated the product, the less likely it is that a consumer possesses the necessary knowledge to understand when they’re being treated fairly. For the most part, consumers cannot avoid relying on the dealership for its expertise.

» Everyone needs a car in their daily lives // According to the U.S. State Department, 95 percent of Americans own a car and 85 percent go to work by car. The need for reliable transportation is commonly included on job applications. Consumers purchasing a vehicle do so because they need to go to the grocery store, to drop kids off at school and to get to work. Aside from those driven by movie stars, cars are rarely vanity purchases.

Most-reported problems

In practice, this means car buyers are primed for intense dissatisfaction if anything goes wrong. And things go wrong.

BBB has 12 complaint categories. In the Midwest, there are three common complaints against dealerships that relate to issues occurring after the sale:

  •   Service issues: 21 percent
  •   Guarantees or warranty issues: 17.6  percent
  •   Customer service issues: 16.1 percent

Best responses

A previous BBB Smart Strategies article focused on sales practices. (Read it online at

When complaints are about post-sale disputes, they require more in-depth processes. Based on complaints the BBB receives and dealer responses to them, the best dealerships have implemented the following three practices to reduce post-sale disputes:

Document all communication with a customer from the time they buy their vehicles to the time they sell it // They embrace customer curiosity and take time to answer questions. When they do, they document it. It’s useful to see what steps have been taken to resolve a dispute and, more importantly, it’s useful in cultivating a relationship with the customer.

Update the customer // This is a common best practice in any industry but takes on special importance with vehicles. When a customer’s vehicle is having problems, chances are, it’s the most important thing on their mind. By letting a customer fixate on the issue without giving an update, a dealer is running the risk of the customer becoming angry. Contacting the customer, even to give them bad news, is better than letting their nerves overtake their reason.

Educate the customer // Brevity is not always the best policy. As mentioned above, when customers don’t understand a product, they’re prone to nervousness. They feel adrift. They can’t be sure if they’re being treated fairly. The best responses to complaints explain the details of the situation. Better yet, they show the customers with pictures.