A reader to my weekly newspaper column asked me recently why my well-developed bitch streak was constantly targeted at the likes of Tata and Peugeot for poor quality and customer service.
Borrowing a line from my favourite of the Godfather trilogy I replied that it was nothing personal – just business.
But, then I got down to thinking about it a little deeper and realised that it is, in fact, very personal.
Any purchase of a motor car by an individual is a highly personal and intimate affair.
You lay bare your life story, your finances, your every little expense and piece of income, your relationship status and indeed, everything but your sexual preference and blood type is declared to both the dealer and financial institution before your application is accepted or declined.
This, of course, takes place after the very emotional selection process that you undergo – what car, what price, what colour, what extras, what pros, what cons…
It's tough making an informed decision when the individual giving you the information really just wants to make that sale.
The company behind the brand being sold on the dealer floor simply wants to make the sale, notch up another entry in the sold column and another contribution to the profit centre of the mother ship.
So, yes it's all personal when you lay down a few tens of thousands in hard-earned borrowed rands for a vehicle you really hope is going to serve you well.
Emotion gives way to business
When something on that car breaks or simply stops functioning – the effect is a highly personal slap in the face of the buyer.
But, the personal abuse does not just stop there. It's only the beginning of a maddening, complicated process of to and fros when customer satisfaction turns to customer complaint and when car company or dealer stops being personal and goes into officious business mode.
Out the faulty window go the warm and fuzzy promises softly whispered in the courting phase between salesman and potential buyer.
Suddenly the engaging, “I’ll be your best friend for life” attitude of the sales consultant changes and you are given the standard pre-programmed responses that have been formulated by the boys in marketing at head office.
It's like going to a restaurant, ordering a plate of food and when it arrives it tastes absolutely lousy. The response from the waiter or manager is a simple “well, that is the recipe we use and unfortunately we cannot do anything else for you. We can offer you something extra on the side, but you’ll need to pay for it.”
Cheap versus cheap and crappy
This is not unlike the mantra dished out by Tata to its many complaining customers who knew they were buying a cheap car, but did not realise they were buying cheap, crappy cars.
From poor build quality to even poorer after-sales customer service, long waits for parts and repairs, Tata has been duping car buyers with probably the most inferior car products on the market.
Complaining customers are faced with arrogant responses from a car company that has secured last place in leading international quality surveys.
It's not just the Tatas of the world that are arrogant about the crappy products they churn out.
Every manufacturer from BMW (complaints over the poor response time of the on-call emergency service) to Audi (bad service advice from dealer level) and even Kia (unscrupulous salesman absconding with customer’s deposits) have had complaints leveled at them for a variety of reasons.
But, here is the critical point: the pre-purchase process is personal, the sale of the car is personal, the handover and the emotions of ownership are all personal. Why do the car manufacturers not treat every customer complaint in that same personal manner?
Why do they resort to a businesslike approach with official company responses or pull out the 6 000-page disclaimer document on the warranty?
Communication is key
A refreshing counter to this impersonal businesslike approach are the numerous kudos directed by satisfied customers to brands like Lexus, Subaru and even Hyundai.
The overwhelming consensus was that even where delays or problems occurred, the customers were kept in the loop – they were communicated to at all key points.
Additionally, the service experience was found to be efficient with problems promptly rectified and customers declaring that the dealerships concerned went out of their way in creating a feelgood environment.
It's not rocket science. Happy customers mean lots of warm and happy thoughts about the brands and products, which all translate into customer retention and ongoing sales.
Take care of the personal and the business gets taken care of by itself.
That’s that lesson that Tata and any other manufacturer not providing good customer service or acceptable quality product needs to understand.