One definition of a prostitute is someone who sacrifices their good name in order to make a buck. But what do you do when someone else is driven by the sale but it is your reputation that suffers as a result?
This is the risk run by any company that relies on a third party to sell their product. Franchisees, car dealers, distributors and affiliates are independent businesses that trade off of someone else's reputation. If a regional airline, for example, offers bad service it is not their company or their brand that is damaged, it is Delta, American or other brand name that appears on the side of the plane.
This is the case with car dealers also. And I recently had an experience at Fiat of Manhattan that was nothing short of mind-blowingly bad.
I walked in, very excited to get a little Fiat 500. I told them that I was prepared to make this the easiest deal of their day. I even told them that I already looked up the price on the Fiat website and was willing to pay it. No haggling required. Four hours later - that's right, FOUR hours later of being put through the ringer, guess where we ended up - right at the beginning, at the original price I offered to pay.
In the process the branch manager insulted me, took me for a moron and would try to raise the price hoping I wouldn't notice. Lies, deception, fast talk and every other tactic usually reserved for a stereotypical used car dealer were employed. I'll save you all the gory details including the tale in which I was told, "I just talked to my boss and he said I can offer you the price you want," which sounds good except she never left her seat the whole time we were talking.
The result: I felt frustrated, angry and dejected. My excitment was gone. Even when I went to pick up the car - my excitement restored, they made me wait an hour and a half despite the fact I called in advance and they told me what time to come in. Instead of asking me if I was excited and pumping me up to take possession of my new Fiat 500 - they made sure to tell me that I "made them work hard" and they weren't making any money on me - a clear indication of their priorities.
It was clear that this dealership is motivated by one thing and one thing only: the sale. Worse, it's not their name that hangs on the door. Whoever owns that dealership suffers nothing except maybe I wouldn't recommend the dealership to anyone. The name that suffers is Fiat.
So why didn't I just buy the car somewhere else you ask? The dealership has a deal with parking garages in Manhattan, offering really cheap parking. If other dealers in the area offered something similar (I checked, they didn't), I would have bought the car somewhere else. But given the price of parking in NYC, this was a big deal. Such a big deal, in fact, that even getting a bad deal on the car still works out cheaper than paying full price for a garage.
The dealership is cleaning up. Manhattan residents who want a Fiat 500 have little choice but to buy the car from this one dealer even if they know they can get a better deal or get treated better somewhere else. The dealer even bragged about their sales numbers, claiming to be the top Fiat seller in the North East. Which is very good for them. Sadly, it is the Fiat brand and the customer that are suffering...not the dealer.
To be fair, I tweeted that this dealership was ruining the Fiat brand and someone from FiatUSA has already tried to contact me to find out what happened. I have not talked to them yet, but I will try to.
It is what happens next that really tests the theory of what is more important, the sale or the reputation. Fiat's initial forray into the American market with the 500 after a 30 year hiatus was disappointing and they are working to make up lost ground. The question is, given that indeed this one dealership may be moving more cars than any other in the region, is that more important to Fiat than the damage that this dealership may be doing to their brand and their reputation? Time will tell.
Whenever we use a third party to represent us, we must hold them to our standards, not theirs. They must earn the right and work hard to maintain the right to use our well earned reputations and good products to make their money. In return, they must promise and adhere to, protect and advance our good names. However, if the parent company fails to hold their dealers and affiliates accountable, regardless of the sales numbers, then they will end up looking like the pimp in this game. And that leaves the rest of us feeling cheap, dirty and used and likely never return to that street corner ever again.
Postscript, October 18th, 2012:
I responded, multiple times, to Fiat's request to talk to me. I let them know that I was happy to take the time to talk to them. They never followed through. I never talked to anyone.
Perhaps the reason this dealer is able to get away with what they did is because they, like the parent company (which is Chrysler), reacted to the negative press and not to the concerns of a customer. Seems to be a trend these days.