Are you having trouble with your local car dealership? For example:

  • They won’t agree to fix your car under warranty
  • They won’t make a repair to a car you bought from them
  • They won’t honor previously agreed to financing or payment terms
  • They won’t honor a trade-in valuation, a previously quoted price

This article is for you. While we have articles on each of these specific issues, this general article is a good guide for any dealership customer service problem. Follow the process below, and I guarantee you’ll make progress with the dealership.

Step 1 – Ask For The Department Manager

If you’re having a problem with a sales person, you need to speak to the sales manager. If you’re having a problem with service, you need to speak to the service manager. Say “I’m sorry, but I think I need to speak to the person in charge of your department. Who is that person, and can I talk to them right now?”

When you speak with the manager:

  • Ask if they’re in charge of the department. If they aren’t, ask if that person is available.
  • Get their business card, if for no other reason than to prove that you spoke to them and to mention them by name later.

Then, do your best to explain what it is that you want, why the dealership needs to give you what you want, etc.

Step 2 – Be Patient and Polite

Dealership managers get yelled at A LOT – it’s one of the worst things about working in the car business. Every dealership manager has been yelled at more times than they can count, and most of them don’t react to it well. Some managers intentionally obstruct customers that yell at them (that’s what I did when I was a manager – yelling at me was a great way to get nothing), others respond to yelling and threats by yelling back.

Either way, if you want the dealership manager to solve your problem, you need them to like you. You do that by being patient and polite. It works because most people aren’t patient or polite, and you’ll stand out to them (in a good way) if you act this way.

Now don’t get me wrong – patient doesn’t mean giving them days to get back to you, and polite doesn’t mean going with whatever they want – it just means that you treat them with respect and acknowledge that you aren’t their only customer.

Step 3 – Say What You Want, Keep It Simple, and Don’t Accuse

If you’re mad at the dealership because they didn’t wash your car after changing the oil, than you say “I’m mad because my car wasn’t washed after it was serviced, and I thought someone was going to do that. I’d like it washed as soon as possible.” Here’s why:

  • It’s short and to the point. You’re not trying to explain all the little things that made you mad, all the things people said to you earlier to try and make you happy, etc. You’re just giving them the essentials.
  • You’re saying what you want. If you tell the manager you’re speaking to what you want right up front, odds are very good they’ll just say “OK” if it’s something they can do.
  • You’re not using the word “YOU”. You is a bad word here – “you” assigns blame. Blame makes people defensive. Defensive people don’t help you. So, don’t use the word “you.”

Step 4 – Ask For The General Manager

If you’re not getting anywhere with the manager you’re speaking to, you need to speak to the dealership’s GM. They are empowered to do just about anything, and they understand that anyone who asks for them needs to be heard. When you speak to them:

  • Tell them what you want, keep it simple, and don’t accuse
  • Explain that you’ve already spoken to manager X, manager Y, etc. (this is why you want to grab business cards from everyone you speak with)
  • Tell them that you know they’re busy, that you understand they have a business to run, but that you thought this warranted their attention

Almost all of the time, the GM is going to try and work out a compromise with you. It may not be what you want, but hear them out…they’re usually the person most likely to give you want you want beyond a lower level manager.

If the GM isn’t doing what you want them to do, you need to leave them with this:

“I appreciate your time today. Please understand that I’m not going to let this go. I intend to contact the dealership owner, and if that isn’t satisfactory I’m going to try and take my complaint further. However, I’d really like to work this out with you. Is there anything else you can do for me?”

This is literally the last thing you say, and if the GM was thinking that maybe you’d forget it and move on, this will convince them you’re serious. They’ll make you their very best “offer” at this point, or just reiterate what they’ve already offered. Either way, you should seriously consider what they’re offering, because it usually doesn’t get better.

Step 5 – Try and Speak With The Dealership Owner

Dealership owners (aka dealer principals) are hard to get in touch with. Sometimes, they’re big faceless corporations. Other times, they’re family owned businesses where the owner is the GM.

If you’re working with a dealership owned by a corporation like AutoNation, Penske, Group 1, Sonic, etc., you just need to find their corporate website, call them up, and talk to someone in customer service. It’s probably not going to make a huge difference to talk to this person, but it might help. Some corporations track the number of complaints about dealerships they own, and use that to evaluate GM.

If the dealership is a small family business and you’ve already spoken to the owner because he or she is the GM, than you’re out of luck here.

Step 6 – Contact The Auto Manufacturer

If you’re dealing with a dealer that is a franchise (eg they sell brand new cars), you can contact the automaker’s customer service line and complain. Usually, these complaints go right back to the dealership manager, but sometimes they don’t.

Step 7 – Contact Your Local State Regulators

In some states (like Colorado, where I live), there is a dealer board or dealership regulatory authority that you can file a complaint with. In other states, the only entity you can complain to is the state Attorney General or the state consumer protection bureau. You can search on Google to figure out what you have in your state, and then follow their complaint process.

If you have to file paperwork to complain, be sure to send a copy to the dealership’s general manager. If nothing else, it will show them that you’re not going away.

Step 8 – Complain To Local Media

Last but not least, if you STILL don’t have a satisfactory resolution to your problem, you can complain to local media. Just understand that this is the “scorched earth” approach, and that a lot of dealerships will completely disengage with you once you’ve gone this route.

So, before you call up the local news TV stations (that’s your best bet – they often need stories to fill hours of programming), understand that this is usually just about getting even rather than getting what you want.

Still, if it’s a pound of flesh that you’re after, local TV is a good bet. Do your best to come across as reasonable and responsible, and provide them with details and documentation (copies of emails, copies of notes, etc.) so that they can feel comfortable reporting your story without being accused of defamation later.

Summing Up

If you’re having a customer service problem with your local car dealer, here’s what you need to do:

  • Ask for the manager
  • Be respectful (patient and polite)
  • Say what you want and keep it simple
  • Ask for the GM (assuming you didn’t already get what you wanted)
  • Understand that if the GM can’t help you, your odds of getting what you want are low

Finally, my personal opinion is that most dealership GMs are pretty smart when it comes to addressing customer complaints. If they’re not giving you what you want, there’s a better than 50% chance that what you want isn’t reasonable.

Good luck!


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