Recession? Not from what I have seen…

Searching for a new car can be a real eye opener about the state of today’s Car Dealerships.

A typical ’80s Skoda outside a typical ’80s Skoda Dealer

Words and Pictures: Mike Humble 

Once again the time has come to search for a new car, not mine I’m pleased to say – I’m more than happy with my Rover 25 – but for my long-suffering other half. Fairly recently she burst into the house like a tornado, clutching a computer print out of the list of cars she can choose from to replace the trusty Golf Mk5 TDi company smoker she currently hacks around in. Nothing on list set me on fire: Golf Blue Motion, Golf Match, Toyota Auris, Seat Altea, Seat Leon, Renault Megane, Astra and the Skoda Octavia – see my point? 

My other half is not the most informed person mechanically, but she does know what she likes and is a damn good driver having spent many an hour in the past tearing around the likes of Donington Park and Mallory Park in various Lotus cars. Sensibly, the Renault and Toyota were dismissed straight away even though she had no idea what an Auris looked like. The problem is, she is very brand orientated, the merest mention of the Blue Oval badge or anything Korean that rhymes with beer is certain to make her pull various grimmacing faces. In the past, we have always had a decent car or two on the drive including two Land Rovers, Saabs,  a Passat and an Audi A4 Sportline Avant. 

Going through the list, I had to go to great lengths to convince her that Skoda no longer make a rear-engined car with wonky handling and that a  Seat is not just something you sit on to eat your dinner. Funny how things change over the years, once upon a time, driving and owning a Skoda Estelle or an FSO Polonez was the only thing less appealing than drowning. In today’s market, I don’t think anyone makes a really bad car. Skoda and Seat are now fully honed products with VAG backing and marques such as FSO, Lada and Yugo have long been recycled into bean tins and razor blades. Mind you, in the case of MG Rover, it was not so much as bad cars but bad management, adverse press, Parliamentary dithering and general public apathy that caused the inevitable. 

Getting back to new cars, we narrowed down the list to a Seat Leon, Skoda Octavia and the current Golf Mk6. Obviously, we needed to pose as retail customers so we could drive the cars and as, we both jump in and out of each other’s motors, a mutual agreement had to be reached. We visited a nearby Skoda outlet which is also a multi-franchise site including Seat and were met with a site that looked like a bomb had hit it. It took five minutes to find a parking space and almost 20 minutes before someone spoke to us – and that was after I instigated contact.  

The sales person looked nothing like a salesman should look like and I should know. Wearing cruffy shoes with a dirty fleece he made no attempt to get us exited about the cars, take our contact names or any other type of traditional salesman techniques. To cap it all, my missus was that non-plussed, she walked off signalling it was time to go. 

A Vauxhall Dealer was called on to see the Astra, a car of which I personally think deserves to do well. Walking into the showroom the Sales Manager and one of his Sales Executives were dealing with what we in trade know as a screamer, a customer with a complaint. Rather than deal with a situation like this in a private office over a coffee, they chose to vent their spleens in the middle of the showroom floor on a Saturday afternoon. We were attended to by another Sales Executive and I jokingly mentioned that it sounded like his colleagues were having fun to which our Sales chap replied that, ‘we sometimes have to deal with tos*ers like that.’ Needless to say, we walked away. 

Following this abysmal demonstration in customer care, we decided to visit another Seat Dealership within our home area to be met by two Sales Executives, one of whom was a trainee, and who finished off each other’s sentences. Upon asking for a test drive in a Leon TDi, we were offered a drive in a petrol version as they both, and I quote, ‘drive the same’ – amazing but true. Heading north, we visited a very large Volkswagen outlet near Gatwick. The premises were smart, well lit, modern and everything you would expect of a VW Dealer. After walking through the doors, we were given a few minutes to get our bearings before we were spoken to – text book! 

A test drive was arranged in a car of our choice, a Golf Match 1.6 TDi, and that lasted a good half an hour. We explained that we were only at the browsing stage and no pressure was put upon us to ‘do a deal today’ – once again textbook. The Salesman phoned the following Monday for our thoughts and, in a way, I felt sorry for wasting his time as the Golf would be coming from a leasing company and not from a Dealer. Speaking as an ex-Sales Executive, they demonstrated a top-class balance of listening to our needs and matching it to a product. My other half has since ordered a new Golf 1.6 TDi. 

A typical modern Car Dealership - but are the staff as polished?

One thing has crossed my mind: these current times are so hard in Car Dealerships but the attitudes we saw didn’t reflect this. If I was still involved with car sales (and I may yet again) I would be fighting for business. There is an old sales cliche that goes ‘people only buy from people’ with the exception of the aforementioned VW Dealer, the level of presentation and customer focus was complete rubbish. Dealerships and their staff need to be more polished than ever to sell cars – even in the days when I was on the pitch and the market was buoyant, we were geared up to offer a damn good level of customer care and professionalism whilst still making good money for ourselves. 

Some of the so-called Sales Executives at the premises we visited couldn’t be even bothered to seek our business and only one asked for our names and introduced himself. Evidently, they must be selling that many cars they don’t need any more business. If that’s the case, I want a job there right now. My personal thoughts are that a lot of Sales Execuitives and Managers are showing defeatist attitudes – that isn’t exactly going to drive the motor trade out of recession is it?

Mike Humble


  1. Another common sense story from Mike. We too had a similar experience when replacing our 75 last month. Silly me for thinking Dealers would be glad of business in today’s economic climate.

    I did burst out laughing at the Skoda picture. There used to be a Reliant and Yugo dealer in Northampton called simply John’s Motors. The salesman was John himself dressed in oily overalls which might have been worn by Wesley Pegden from Last of the Summer Wine. The premises were knee-deep in dust and dirt, a far cry indeed from today’s glitzy neon palaces.

  2. The last time I bought a car was for the Mrs too. The one Dealer which had a human (rather than an anorak containing BO spouting about credit deals) to deal with won the business – in fact we bought 2 cars in one go – kind of his and hers.

    Mind you, when it came to servicing, they were, of course, a disaster.

    The Mrs’ car is now due for replacement so we may go there to buy again, but not for servicing.

  3. I bought a Chevrolet Epica to replace my aging Rover – and, against the odds given that they have since given up importing it, I still like it.

    However, the Dealer has been awful from the day I test drove it, through the day I collected it and ongoing through the pre-purchased Service Plan. It was a year old last month and they sent me a computer-generated letter asking if I was happy – so I wrote back and told them.

    Response? Nothing. Roughly what I’d have expected, to be honest.

  4. From what I have seen from the comments above and my own purchasing experience, quite a lot of current Dealers seem lazy and below par. In my days of selling I always used to introduce the customer to both the Service and Parts Managers in a bid to gain confidence at the point of a vehicle handover regardless of it being new or used.

    One fond memory I have from a few years ago was of a couple who bought a new Vectra from me. My partner and I were sitting in an Indian restaruant eating one evening when said couple came in and sat nearby. They recognised me and thanked me for the car, not meaning to crowd us they sat down and continued with their meal.

    I asked for the bill about an hour later only to be told by the Manager, who incidentally is a friend, that our meal was to be settled by the other couple! I couldn’t believe it.

    Many aquaintances and friends have often asked why I don’t work in car sales anymore and the answer is simple. Most Dealerships and Managers don’t match MY standard of how I would expect people to be treated and dealt with. Well, that allied to working every Saturday and rotating Sundays.

    Car Dealers are always the first ones to bleat when times are tough, but they spend most of their times in the good days lining their pockets and wringing their hands. Don’t get me wrong, some Dealers I know offer a top-class level of service and, when things do go wrong, the Managers get it dealt with quickly rather than hide in the office and leave the Salesmen to shovel up the muck.

    In a nutshell, the motor trade has come on a long way in recent years but it’s now very much a buyer beware environment especially with everything finance-related being governed by the FSA. However, the same old tales of burying heads in the sand when things go wrong or slack attitudes continue to blight many reputations. Is it really so hard to try and do the job right?

  5. I love the Skoda picture in your article! I drove a Rapide once in the ’80s and, although I wasn’t man enough to admit at the time (I was 24 and driving a hot hatch) apart from the dodgy plastic dash etc., it was a hoot to drive.

    I hate buying new cars just because of the hassle trying to convince the Salesman that I don’t want finance or mud flaps etc. – it’s a similar experience trying to buy a mobile phone or a dishwasher etc..

  6. An excellent blog – I’m sure it rings true with many of us.

    I have had a few bad experiences with the flashy glass and stainless steel showroom type of Dealers. A few years back I decided I wanted to try out the then new 2nd generation Chrysler Neon (yeah, I know) to replace my company Rover 400. On paper it offered a lot of car at a very tax efficient price.

    The local Dealer also had franchises for Porsche, BMW and MINI and, in spite of my best efforts over 30 miutes or so to attact the attention of anyone, in the end I had to approach the staff for some assistance. On sensing that I wasn’t in the market for either a 911 or an M5, the Salesperson treated me with barely veiled contempt and couldn’t even be bothered to find me any literature.

    Needless to say, I went back to a Rover and I have since only dealt with local family-run Dealers. Sadly, they seem to be a dying breed…

  7. There’s always the remote possibility of getting even. I once worked for a private company where the Chief Executive, a bit of a maverick who went Motor Racing under an assumed name apparently so his Insurers wouldn’t find out, got so fed up with the attitude of a Salesman at a local BMW Dealership that he bought the company and promptly sacked him.

    Incidentally, I once enquired some years ago at a local family-run Skoda Dealership if they had any cheap traded-in Favorits, only to told by the Salesman they they had little confidence in them and usually scrapped them. Now there’s an expression of product confidence…

  8. Brilliant story Chris, that man showed a sense of style with the BMW Dealer.

    Many thanks for some brilliant comments on this blog, another can of worms I fear. On the whole it seems that the best levels of car and service come from the independent Dealer who’s survival is dependant on their attitude rather than pleasing the shareholders of the parent PLC company.

    My other half is trying to pursuade me into writing some form of book about the Salesman’s plight both past and present. If anyone feels the urge to to send me their tales of woe or satisfaction with the car buying or selling experience, please get in touch via the “Contact us” tab on the index to the far left of the Front page.

    If there is any interest, your tales will be there for all to smile or cry over…



  9. Here, in Ireland, cars sales dropped by 66% last year and it was only thanks to a Scrappage Scheme that sales have somewhat recovered.

    However, the effect of all this is that Dealers now only have diesel or low emission petrol cars available for test.

    This means that, if you’re considering buying something ‘out of the ordinary’, the Dealer won’t let you ‘try before you buy’, which is extraordinary when it comes to purchasing a car.

    One place claimed I would get a test drive on the understanding that I would then order the car. His attitude was unfriendly and incredibly snotty and this is actually the place where I get my current car serviced.

    Even more extraordinarily, I was asked by a Main Dealer with another franchise to write to the Distributor in order to complain that there wasn’t a particular car available for testing. This did get a response, but seems amazing.

    The best experience has been with a VW Dealer. The salesman took me on a long drive and also followed up with a call. Personally, I would actually consider dealing with him purely for his interest and service, even though the car in question is above my self-imposed price point.

    With a lot of uncertainty out there, many buyers are taking a lot of time when buying a car, but that is only understandable.

    It seems that, in spite of the major shifts in the car market, far too many Dealers feel that the sales experience is unimportant and that people just want the car. They are sadly mistaken and this excellent article proves that.

  10. What an interesting blog.

    I’ve never bought a car from a Main Dealers, probably because of the kind of horror stories outlined above.

    My most recent car was bought second-hand from a private dealership in Bristol – great service and a no-hassle attitude really helped seal the deal for them.

    I hate it, however, when you’re made to feel you’re doing them a favour by turning up at their Dealership – and then get snotty service.

    I know this has nothing to do with cars, but a colleague recently walked into Currys and was refused the chance to try out a smart phone – despite a big sign in the store saying “ask for a test today”! I suppose the thinking was, well you can ask for a test, but you ain’t actually going to get one…

  11. Interesting… most surveys I’ve seen rate Skoda Dealers above VW Dealers. My own recent experience of a VW Dealer was reasonably pleasant, though I would still only believe half of what any car salesman tells me :-).

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