There was a standing joke among car dealers that if you walked in to your dealership one day and Dan Rather was waiting for you, just run the other way as fast as you can. Even good dealers fear investigative reporters because no matter how well your dealership is operated, you could have a “bad apple” rogue employee.
It was October of 2003, and it was a Monday morning. Email was not nearly as popular then, and while I was getting ready for a meeting, my fax machine started to run. I figured it was another junk fax, but when I reached over to grab it, the first thing I saw was the NBC peacock to the top left and the words Dateline NBC across the top. I froze in fear, my heart was beating at least twice as fast as it was supposed to, and I started to read the letter.
The subject line said in all caps: UNDERCOVER INVESTIGATION.
I gathered myself together enough to continue to read as sweat beads rolled off my forehead. The letter went on to tell me that NBC’s Dateline program was doing a story about car dealer sales tactics. It continued to tell me that the previous Saturday (two days before) NBC sent not one, not two, not three, but count them FOUR people to my dealership to purchase cars and all four were wearing hidden cameras. It was my worst nightmare, unfolding right before my eyes. To make matters worse, we had an unusually busy Saturday, selling over 80 new cars.
The letter listed the customers’ names who had the cameras on and let me know they would be reviewing the tapes and getting back with me. I asked my assistant to come in and asked her to pull files on the four customers and bring them to me, and at noon I wanted everyone who spoke with these folks in my conference room. That included salespeople, sales managers, finance people, etc.
What was interesting to me was that I had seen many of these undercover reports before, and usually reporters or network employees did the shopping. In this case, Dateline NBC solicited and found people who actually wanted to purchase vehicles.
When I met with my staff at noon, I pushed them hard for details on how everything went; from when the customers were greeted to when they drove away in their new cars. The end result of the deals was three of the customers were super happy, but the fourth one was not. In fact, the last one didn’t actually purchase because of credit issues.
After the meeting, I felt somewhat better. Just to be sure I was getting the right information, I called each of the four customers and identified myself as the owner of the dealership, telling them I just wanted to make sure they were completely satisfied. As expected, the three customers who bought were extremely pleased. Also as expected, the bad credit customer was not happy. I tried to explain that we did all we could to get the loan approved, but some things (like your credit) we cannot control.
I decided to be proactive and called NBC in New York to speak to the producer of the report. She returned my call, but was somewhat cold and sounded like she had already made up her mind that all car dealers are scum, this in spite of the fact that she had not seen the tapes of the visit to my dealership. The anxiety came rushing back and I was pretty sure this was not going to have a happy ending.
After speaking with my attorney and some DFW TV station managers, and even a local anchor for the NBC affiliate in DFW, I came to the conclusion that I did not want to speak with Dateline again. I felt there was a good chance I could make it worse since I could not get any kind of relationship going with the Dateline producer.
After much research, I hired the services of a global public relations firm called Hill & Knowlton, who had 90 offices worldwide, but the only office I was interested in was the one in New York. They assigned two people to me who had experience with situations like this and had worked with Dateline before.
They started firing off faxes to the producer at Dateline, asked to see the tapes of the four customers, requested immediate face-to-face meetings, presented them with all the customer satisfaction awards we had won, all our community involvement, and overall gave them proof that we were one of the most respected dealerships in the United States. We had recommendation letters written by local elected officials, the President of Ford, people in the media, even some state elected officials.
As the weeks went on, my reps from New York finally got what we were looking for, which was what NBC’s intentions were. As we figured, Dateline was keying in on the customer with bad credit for their story. What bothered them was my finance manager told the customer that Ford Motor Credit has declined the loan, but if they wanted to pursue the deal, we would have to go to a secondary finance company, but the interest rate would be the state max, which was 18%.
Dateline was appalled about 18% interest. What they didn’t understand was we could not control that. They were certain that we were ripping the customer off. We sent NBC documentation from our secondary lender stating that the rate would be 18% and that my dealership got paid nothing for handling the loan. I kept repeating to the PR firm how unjust this whole thing was. NBC shot at me four times in the same day, on a busy Saturday, and this was all they got? How about doing a report on the three completely happy customers?
About the middle of November 2003, my PR firm was notified that they had closed their investigation and were not including us in its story. Let the celebration begin.
On December 5th, 2003 Dateline NBC aired the story, which was titled: Car Sales-Tricks of the Trade. I was glued to the TV the night it ran. A Honda dealer in Dallas, a Ford dealer in Charlotte, and Ford dealer in Las Vegas, and one more dealer I can’t recall got absolutely destroyed in the piece. It was bad, really bad. NBC did include some footage of my lot, but they did not show the name on the dealership thankfully and nobody but me knew.
One dealer, in particular, was seen forging a document, others put extreme pressure on the customers to purchase extended warranties. You can read the statement put out by NBC here:
Of all my years in the business, this probably caused me more stress than anything that ever happened. If you get included in a story like this, even if you did nothing wrong, you look guilty.