Brands are a fluid concept that can be destroyed in an instant. Brands make promises that should be kept by the people that deliver the experience. When the brand experience falls short of the promise, Customers feel disappointed, frustrated, and frankly, hacked off!

For example, I recently purchased my new car. Having seen the adverts, undertaking the research online, and comparing various reviews, I narrowed my choices between a GMC Yukon or a Lincoln Navigator. Therefore, the next step was a visit to the local dealers.

Let’s take a look at my two experiences and see what we all can learn about fulfilling the brand promise for our Customers at the Customer Experience level.

First: The Yukon Experience
On visiting the Yukon dealer, my wife Lorraine and I were greeted warmly. We explained what we wanted and we were walked into the back area of the dealership to be shown the latest car, amongst all the puddles and dirt.

Brands and dealers are going to great expense to show the car off in the best environment.  However, this particular dealer was not.

The test drive was good as it enabled me to get a sense of what the car felt like. Therefore, we can learn that playing with the product is a key part of decision-making. Now that I had a better idea about this part of the puzzle, I needed to know the price.

When we returned from the test drive, I asked our sales rep, how much the car cost.  He said, “It’s clear that you are at the beginning of your buying process. I would prefer to give you a price when you have seen all of the other cars you intend to review.I want to be the last guy you talk to about the car you want.”  I told him that I understood that but from a practicality standpoint, that didn’t work for us. So I asked him again, how much?  He refused. I was amazed. I said, “If we walk out of the dealership without the price, we will not return.”  He said, “Okay.” So, we left–with a bad opinion of the representative, the dealership and the brand at GMC.

What we can all learn from this: I find this amazing I even have to say this next sentence. When a Customer asks you how much a product is, tell them. In this case, refusing to tell me a price showed me that the dealer representative was simply trying to coax as much money out of me as possible. This approach does not inspire trust for a major purchase.

On to the Lincoln Experience
Our next visit was to our local  Lincoln dealership. Our experience there was quite different.  The salesman informed us he was not paid a commission, which told us there would be no high-pressure sales techniques. When we asked for the price after the test drive, he gave it to us. However, he wrote it on the back of his business card, which I didn’t think was very professional.

What we can all learn from this: Paying salespeople on commission drives the wrong behaviors. But paying people on Customer satisfaction also doesn’t ensure success, as what followed was a catalog of errors.

What Happened Next?
After discussing the matter with Lorraine, we decided to buy the Lincoln. But the only “offer” we had received from our Lincoln dealer was written on the back of a business card. We asked for a more formal quote, details of what the warranty would cover, and the payments as we decided to lease the car. We expected this to be forthcoming, so we were surprised when we were informed that this wasn’t possible and he’d given us all the figures. I asked to read the contract as I am wary of car contracts and was looking for the loopholes. He said it was a standard contract, and he couldn’t email it to us. He did tell me that I could come “collect” it. Then he said a phrase that always means the opposite of what someone really thinks. He said, “With respect (which really means they don’t respect me), these contracts are signed hundreds of times per day.” To me that means he was saying I should just trust him and not ask such annoying questions! Lincoln is a premium brand; I expect a premium experience and this was now falling far short of my expectation.

Furthermore, all correspondence with the sales representative took place with his personal Yahoo email account, with neither the dealership’s name nor Lincoln as a domain name. This is a miss as it gives this premium brand an amateur feel, i.e., less-professional.

What we can learn from this: When a Customer asks you for detailed information regarding the transaction for a major purchase (read: expensive!), provide them a professional quote detailing what they are getting and what it covers.

Despite our frustration, we placed the order (reluctantly) as their price was the lowest by far of any other quote we received. However, we received no letter of confirmation or thanks for ordering the car–no sign of appreciation or documentation of any kind. We were quoted six to eight weeks for delivery. What followed next was missed dates and failure to contact us when promised regarding the delivery (We escalated the matter to Lincoln Navigator via Twitter, and that did the magic trick in applying pressure!).

When we picked up the car the salesman acknowledged we had issues but asked that we still gave him a high Customer satisfaction score as this is what he was bonused on it. He was clearly gaming the system. When the survey came through I marked it honestly. Some parts good, some parts very poor. What happened next was amazing. the salesman wrote to us complaining that we had given him a poor score! He protested that it wasn’t the dealer’s fault it was Lincoln. I explained they were one and the same.

Suffice it to say, we were not overly impressed with our experience at Lincoln either. Nor our subsequent treatment by their Finance arm in setting up the lease payments, another whole story in itself.

What we can learn from this: Do NOT game the system. When Customers give you a low score, do not write to them and complain! The finishing touches of an experience send us subconscious signals that let us know we just paid for a prestigious service from a prestigious brand. Without these touches (a formal quote, a contract delivery, a thank you note, or even a delivery date in writing), you lose some of the prestige promised by the brand which leaves Customer feeling disappointed with the Experience–and the brand.

Buying a car is just like buying any other commodity; it’s just more expensive than most! Therefore, the value lies in the experience that you have at the dealers. It is so sad to see how great brands can get it so wrong. The money  spent on advertising, promotion, product development, brand building, and infrastructure can be destroyed in the experience with the Customer.

What has been your best or worst car buying experience? What signals did it send to you? I’d be interested to hear your take on the industry in the comments below.