I'm always amazed at the difficulty with which manufacturers speak to dealers; dealers to salespeople and salespeople to their customers.

It seems that our brains shift from direct response to a cagy, manipulative behavior whenever there's a negotiation brewing. This is especially evident when responding to direct, seemingly simple questions.

“So, Biff how much will that blue Luxo coupe over there set me back?”

Sounds like a simple question, doesn't it? Certainly if you're a manufacturer or a customer you view the question as easy and straightforward. “Fair question,” you might call it.

But not so for the dealer. For the dealer, on the answers to such questions hangs survival itself. A pull here, a push there and such answers can be draped in the kind of muddy ambiguity that hides a bulge of gross profit just beneath its surface.

Wrap those same answers in the cellophane of candor and the result will almost always reveal a bare naked mini-deal. It seems that whoever shoulders the risk of payment or chargeback is at least likely to stand up to the harsh light of a direct inquiry.

Consider a question posed by an owner to his dealer's service department about warranty coverage for needed repairs.

“I'll be away for two weeks, Tony. Take all the time you need to check this baby out from bumper to bumper. I hate returning for little repairs so fix everything before I get it back. You don't have to call me; it's under warranty.”

Sounds right as rain doesn't it? Win, win, win. The customer won't be inconvenienced, the dealer won't be rushed and the manufacturer simply honors its warranty commitment.

Not so fast. Remember to follow the money to uncover who's least likely to behave according to the normal rules of fairness.

In this case the manufacturer is the only one paying, hence, it's the OEM's turn to turn the process.

According to most manufacturer's policy and procedure manuals, warranties (they of course call them “limited” warranties) are not in place to fix cars, they're intended to solve complaints. Simply interpreted, the customer must complain of a specific issue for which the dealership determines a specific cause and applies a specified correction. Some of us know this as the three “Cs” of warranty policy.

If there's no complaint, chances are the dealership is staring at a chargeback if the claim is audited. No such thing as trust in this equation. Our manufacturers may encourage dealers to earn the customer's trust — but when it comes to trusting the dealer with the blank check of warranty payments, wait just a minute.

Don't conclude the customer is always the innocent victim in these vicious triangles. Just try uncovering whether Mr. Customer For Life's garage kept trade-in received all its manufacturer's suggested oil changes and routine scheduled maintenance.

That's when you learn that the pristine file folder of repair orders, that every owner produces effortlessly when they think they have a lemon, never seems to exist when it's time for an appraisal.

That's right, the dealer hides his profits, the manufacturer limits his warranty and the customer fudges on repairs and accidents. Many of us are playing the game of “what-you can-get-away-with” poker in order to get a better deal than the naked truth might support. That our statements are verbal and unrecorded gives the game more wiggle room.

Now you understand precisely why the Internet is so appealing. Each party in the Bermuda triangle of negotiation uses the e-world to force the other into truthful communication by trumping verbal statements with e-mails.

True, a digital chat is not exactly a binding contract, but most folks are as unlikely to type out a false statement as they would be to speak lies into a tape recorder. Clear evidence of a false statement proves us a liar, an unrecorded misspoken word is just good negotiation.

Thus in the absence of facing our opponent in the retail gauntlet, we come clean with digitally recorded declarations and demand of our adversary that they too hug the straight and narrow of cyber honesty. Without the verbal volleyball and the reaction time of face-to-face negotiation, we are left with simple straightforward answers that we are bound to and stuck with.

So when you are feeling like the world or retail is filled with cheats that are better at it than you, remember the truth may be as close as your keyboard.


Peter Brandow is a 25-year veteran dealer with stores in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He is president and CEO of Brandow Companies.