Life At The Dealership: A Moral Sales Dilemma

December 15, 2010

When I was Internet Manager for a major car dealer, I was helping a young family of four buy a used car. Their budget was limited, along with their down payment. They also needed a fuel efficient car and one that was inexpensive to maintain. The final requirement was a safe vehicle. After all, they had two young children.

Even though I immediately took them over to a compact, 4-cylinder Nissan Sentra that met all their buying criteria, the dad kept walking over to a gas-guzzling, high-maintenance Dodge Durango SUV with a V8 engine. To make matters worse, the Durango had twice the number of miles as the Sentra. I knew I could get the family good financing terms on both vehicles. I also knew that the gross profit on the Durango was much higher than that of the Sentra. This meant that my commission would be doubled if they bought the Durango.

This was, by definition, a moral dilemma. However, this was not my first rodeo and the road ahead was clear.

Help Me Understand

When it became obvious the dad was not interested in the Nissan Sentra, and instead was seriously considering buying the Dodge Durango, I immediately walked this young family back to the Sentra. I said, “Before we proceed, I want to make sure I understand the kind of car you want to buy. When you arrived I thought I heard you say you needed a vehicle that would not only meet your limited budget, but one you could afford to buy gas for, and one that wouldn’t break the bank every month with maintenance costs.” After a pause I asked, “Is that correct?”

The Mom and Dad looked at each other, then back to me, and nodded. I took that as a “yes” before continuing, “There is a big difference between the Sentra and the Durango. Even though I can get you financed on either one, the Sentra has 30,000 miles, which is half of the Durango’s 60,000. That will directly affect your maintenance costs in the coming years.”

“Don’t you mostly drive around town?” I asked. Both Mom and Dad again nodded their heads. I continued, “The Sentra  gets 28 miles per gallon in the city compared to the Durango’s  14. You may also want to know that a fill-up for the Durango will be over ninety dollars at today’s gas prices (it was $3.50 a gallon for regular gas back then) and less than half that for the Sentra. That makes sense,” I added, “because the Durango has a 4.7 liter V8 engine. The Sentra’s engine is less than half the size: a 1.8 liter 4-cylinder engine.”

You Decide

Years of selling cars—both new and used—told me that people want what they want, and there is only so much I can do to influence their buying decisions. In the case of this young family, I temporarily ignored their interest in an SUV that was directly opposed to their economic wellbeing. However, I also knew that once I clearly outlined their choice, both of us would have to live with the decision they seemed about to make. I would feel bad about it, despite the fact that I would earn more commission from the sale of the Durango, and they would probably have to suffer an economic mess for years to come.

“So,” I said to both the Mom and Dad, “with all that being said, which vehicle would you like to test drive before we go in and complete the credit application?”

They both looked at each other and without saying a word, they walked over to the Dodge Durango. After we took it for a test drive, I was able to get them approved for a loan and they ended up driving it home. I felt sad for them, yet I knew that I had done all I could by clearly offering a choice. The final decision was theirs to make.

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