Friday, February 16, 2007

Huling Brothers: Living Down to a Stereotype...and way beyond

When I first saw the horrible, disturbing, sad story of how the folks at the Huling Brothers auto dealership had allegedly sold a truck to a mentally ill man in shit-stained pants, then conspired to rob him of the $70,000 in cash he told them he had at his apartment, well, it made me madder than a hornet. There is a special place in hell for those who prey on the vulnerable, and deeper still for those who see someone who is obviously vulnerable and have the reaction of "gee, here's a mark."

But I can't say I was completely surprised. My only experience at Huling Brothers...well, I walked out of it thinking "Gee, what an immoral and inhumane salesperson that was."

I bought my first new car three years ago. I had gathered a bunch of money on a GM Credit Card, and so was limiting myself to GM cars. I traveled to dealerships all over the Seattle area. I became annoyed in many places, but Huling Brothers was the only one where I actually felt angry.

Swankette and I got to the dealership to look at a Buick. (Remember, we were researching GM.) There, we dealt with a guy named Chris, new to Seattle, who was civil, kind, and thoughtful as I test-drove a car.

Clearly, Chris didn't last at Huling Brothers.

I would not be surprised if Darry did, however.

When I turned down the Buick and asked to look at a Chevy, I was walked down the street to the Chevy dealership. They had a deal going where they'd match any advertised price for any Chevy dealership in the area. There was a pretty good deal--a loss leader advertised at a different dealership that I showed Darry. He said: "No way that's for the [better model]. They'd never get you that if you showed up. I can't honor the ad." So I got out my cell phone and called the dealership to confirm. Yep, it was the better model. I told Darry so. "They're lying to you! I won't sell you this better model at that price." That's right...he reneged on their guarantee.

I didn't walk out. I figured that I'd see what he would offer, and if it were close to that price, I'd call it good. So we walked back to The Back Room. Chris sat down with us, and we chatted amicably. For 5 or 10 minutes. Too damn long to wait for a price. Then Darry returned. "All right, goddammit," he said. Probably jokingly, but I already thought he was such an asshole that it was just pathetic.

"Here's what I can offer you."

He then showed me a series of numbers. These numbers did not include the price of the car, or the interest rate. It was the amount I'd pay per month, and how long I'd be paying it. I said that this was not what I asked to see. I wanted to know three things, I said, very slowly so there could be no mistaking it. I wanted to know how much the car costs. I wanted to know my interest rate. And I wanted to know how much I'd pay overall, including interest.

He insisted that he was giving me that information.

I insisted he wasn't. I told him to go out and get it.

Chris was embarrassed, I think...he'd spent at least an hour with us by this point, and since we'd had such a pleasant time, I think he could tell we were annoyed. He slipped out to deal with another customer.

Darry was gone for another ten minutes.

Do car salesmen do this because they think it weakens a buyer's resolve? It doesn't work on me. When I'm in the dealership, I know one thing: I have ALL the power, because I absolutely do not care whether I spend my money at this dealership or another. If you're pissing me off, or making me feel annoyed or tired, you are making me LESS likely to buy a car, not more.

He came back in, and showed us another set of numbers. They were lower numbers, but again, HE HAD NOT SHOWN ME THE INFORMATION I HAD ASKED FOR. I asked for it expressly. I asked for it slowly. I asked for it clearly. I asked for it in an annoyed fashion. He didn't pay attention. He was still showing me the monthly payment. I didn't care. Man, it made me mad.

Next time I go car shopping, I'm taking a stopwatch. I can say: "You have three minutes to get the information I need."

Anyway, Darry was annoyed with me, because he felt what he was showing me was sufficient. He also said that "the financial guy is busy," so I'd have to wait a while. He left again.

Three minutes later, so did Swankette and I.

We had to walk a couple of blocks to her car, and as we walked, we heard a desperate voice behind us, calling our names.

We looked to each other, and said: "Don't look around. Don't look. We're outta here."

But we were detained at a red light...and Chris caught up to us. He told us the price we could get. It was good enough, but I said I'd have to think about it.

The next day, I bought the same car for about the same price (a little less). Somewhere else, of course. It wasn't a perfect experience, but I never felt fucked with, so it was superior to Huling Brothers.

That night, the manager at Huling Brothers called me. It was a marvelous conversation.

HIM: Have you purchased your car yet? Because I can get you a good deal...
ME: Yes. I bought my car today.
HIM: Really? What kind of car did you get?
ME: [triumphant pause] A Chevy.
HIM: Really? Where?
ME: Not from you.
HIM: Why?
ME: Because Darry is an asshole.

I then went off on all of his sins, the way I felt mistrated, the way he reneged on the ad deal, the way he wouldn't answer any of my questions, the way we were left three times to fossilize in the back room. I was careful to compliment Chris...I told the manager that he's a good guy, and deserves a pat on the back...but I didn't want Darry to get a dime of my money. The manager apologized profusely. He said: "This isn't the kind of thing we stand for," a statement which has gained a lot of irony with the recent news. He offered me free detailing of my car for as long as I wanted to make things right. I'm not going to drive the 45 minutes to West Seattle to get my car detailed, but I appreciated the offer. I said all I wanted was for Darry to get a talking to.

I should point out that nobody named Darry has been implicated in the car sale to the mentally ill man or in the subsequent robbery. For all I know, he was talked to the next day, reformed his life, and now provides cars at cost to orphanges. But I do think that the aggressive, screwing-him-is-better-than-helping-him attitude I was subject to that day says something about a broken culture at Huling Brothers. For several years, they have received more complaints to the BBB than any car dealership in Seattle.

Given my experience, how can I be 100% surprised to read these quotes about Huling Brothers?
Aggressive sales were lauded -- a longtime Huling Brothers salesman who closed the deal with the mentally ill customer told police he was celebrated as "a star for a day." He even tried to sell the man a second car the next day, police said, but the customer's money already had been stolen.

"Anybody in the right circumstances would try to rob him," the salesman told police.

If a business spends each and every day playing a game of trying to get as much as possible from a customer like me...if that end justifies any means and any mistreatment...rather than trying to provide goods and services at fair prices and fair profits, it's not that far before they get to the depths Huling Brothers eventually fell to.

I'm glad the former owner of Huling Brothers paid back the $100,000 to the mentally ill man. That's class. But I don't believe, as he does, that this problem can be written off to a few rogue employees. I think the culture helped to make this happen. And I hope this morality play causes every car dealership--hell, every business--in the United States to look deeply into the mirror at its own culture.


Anonymous said...

Since the vulture salesmen at Huling Brothers love money so much, I suggest locking each one in a room that contains a million dollars and nothing else, and leaving them there for about a year.

Joe said...

Everything I've seen says you're exactly right about the "I have to go ask the finance guy" game. Making people wait is always about power.

Set a time limit, and stick to it. Stand up and walk out. Remember, it's a very competitive market and there are loads of "nice" dealers out there who'd just love your money... so why mess around with someone who doesn't respect you?

But it's your last sentence which is really important. Every manager needs to look at what our culture really rewards. I struggle with this myself - sometimes I get people to focus on end goals so well that they take methods I don't care for to get there.

Jim Anderson said...

Huling has some competition in creepiness down in the Olympia area. Every time I drive by All Star Ford, I'm reminded of my first and only visit, and shudder, giving that I left the dealership within ten minutes of arriving.

Joe is right. There are plenty of good (or at least better) dealerships out there. No indignity necessary.

Anonymous said...

I would like to tell TeacherRefPoet that he asked the sales guy three questions. He really only needed one question "How Much Does This Car Cost."

A car dealership should not be your principle form of financing. There is such a thing as a BANK. I bought a brand new car last year, and before I even walked into the dealership, I had blank check-in-hand, and had already determined the interest rate of the loan with my bank and the repayment terms...the only thing left to provide them was the COST OF THE CAR.

Actually...I had ironed out a preliminary price online with the salesclerk...we just had to work the trade in...and he gave me KellyBlueBook for that. I was in-and-out with a brand new car, temporary title license plates in LESS THAN AN HOUR.

I made it very clear to the salesguy that he was not financing my vehicle, I was not a dummy, and that for all he knew...I could be paying cash. It was irrelevant.

TeacherRefPoet said...

Probably true, Anonymous. I hadn't lined up my financing yet (I did about a week after I bought the car). But even so, it doesn't excuse the guy not telling me the information I wanted.

Daniel W said...

Huling Bros was notorious and a perfect example of the rampant corruption in Seattle that extends well beyond auto dealerships and doesn't end with the police department. I have first hand experience and verifiable, irrefutable evidence from the Small Claims victory I secured against Huling Bros to the copy of the 911 call center tape ( via the Freedom of Information Act ) where I reported a doctor whom I had witnessed incapacitating and raping a patient, and the names of other doctors and witnesses of this doctors other, even worse crimes. They were so unprofessional and hostile I threatened to file a complaint, which prompted them to state clearly that they then would not take my felony complaint or allow me to file a complaint against the dept, both of which became true, to my amazement. I've lived in 12 cites including LA and Pacifica ( less than 8 minutes from SF ), also overseas ( 8mos on the border of Lebanon, Western Galilee, Middle East ), never have I seen anything close to the corruption in Seattle. I have 2 neighbors, BTW, that were both ripped off by Huling Bros.