Perception Can Be Reality — and Liability
Perception Can Be Reality — and Liability

In my attorney general (AG) days, it was a running joke that taking legal action against dealers had no downside, regardless of the merits of the case. We joked about generating newspaper headlines that might read, “Attorney General Rips Off Car Dealers.”

The belief was that, no matter what cause of action or how flimsy the evidence, filing a case against a car dealer would always be a victory for the public. Dealers could always be found liable. As a professional working in the P&A segment, you can’t help but be concerned. Let’s take a closer look at how car buyers view our industry, how that perception affects the number and severity of legal and regulatory actions, and how it can be improved.

Casual Dismissal

The same perception of automobile dealers held by AGs and prosecutors can be said about private plaintiffs. It has risen to an article of faith, for example, that a spot delivery is always fraudulent, a so-called “yo- yo” deal. At one of the auto finance roundtables the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) held several years ago, I spoke with a highly-regarded consumer attorney who testified that he never saw a case of a spot delivery which wasn’t fraudulent.

I knew this attorney and discussed his assertion after his testimony. I asked him how many spot delivery transactions he had seen and he said several hundred. I replied by saying that there are hundreds of thousands of spotted transactions annually. Certainly he was not asserting that they are all fraudulent? He would not recant. I also told him that the Florida AG’s office had examined in excess of 100,000 transactions and determined that fraudulent spot deliveries were a very small percentage; in fact, a far smaller percentage that I had envisioned. Yet, today, spot deliveries are still casually referred to as “yo-yos,” which is both pejorative and inaccurate.

The CEO of a major vehicle company once remarked to me that, if a dealer ever appears in front of a jury, the case is lost and the damages will be substantial. “Just about everyone thinks that they have been ripped off by a car dealer,” he said.

Litigating issues in court is difficult for dealers because of the entrenched bias against them. This bias is the consequence of the number of complaints filed by consumers against dealers and the chronic evaluation of the trustworthy status of car salesmen.

Actions and Complaints

Dealers remain a favorite target for regulators. For many years, the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), a consumer rights organization, and the North American Consumer Protection Investigators (NACPI), an association of state and local consumer protection officials, has produced an annual listing of the Top 10 consumer complaints. The author was a participant with NACPI for many years.

Thirty-seven agencies received a total of 281,639 complaints for the year of 2014 to rank these industries regarding the number of consumer complaints. The rankings for 2015 are currently being compiled and will be made available in the coming months. So here are the Top 10 consumer complaints for 2014:

  1. Automobile
  2. Home improvement
  3. Credit/debt
  4. (tie) Retail sales
  5. (tie) Utilities
  6. Services
  7. Landlord/tenant
  8. Home solicitations
  9. (tie) Health products and services
  10. (tie) Internet sales
  11. Fraud
  12. Household goods

This survey has been taken for many years, dating back to the 1990s, and as long as the author can remember, automobile complaints have been No. 1 on this list. It should be added that these results vary by state. In Michigan, for example, automobile complaints are in fourth place. In Missouri, they aren’t listed in the top ten postings. And, for the FTC rankings for 2015, automobile complaints are in eighth place. However, in Ohio, automobile complaints are No. 1.

Ranking Professions by Honesty and Ethics

For over four decades the Gallup organization has been polling the American public to determine how professions are regarded in terms of honesty and ethics. The 2015 had a surprise for the automotive industry: Vehicle sales professionals are no longer in last place for perhaps the first time in 40 years. The bad news is they are now tied with telemarketers, senators and congressmen for the second to last spot. (Lobbyists have moved to the bottom.)

  1. Nurses
  2. Pharmacists
  3. Medical doctors
  4. High school teachers
  5. Policemen
  6. Clergy
  7. Funeral directors
  8. Accountants
  9. Journalists
  10. Bankers
  11. Building contractors
  12. Lawyers
  13. Labor union leaders
  14. Business executives
  15. Stockbrokers
  16. Advertising practitioners
  17. Car salesmen (tie)
  18. Telemarketers (tie)
  19. Members of Congress (tie)
  20. Lobbyists

Why does this matter? Dealers are weary of hearing about the ever-increasing demands of compliance. But they will continue to be weary, since there will never be an end to such regulation. Being No. 1 in consumer complaints and being viewed dismally in terms of ethics and honesty greatly spawns investigations and lawsuits.

As big targets for being sued and paying substantial legal damages, dealers need to actively reduce and control the complaints which are filed with government agencies and attorneys. Dealers also need to improve the perception that they are not trustworthy.

This litigation problem will worsen — and may worsen significantly — when arbitration will no longer be available for installment financing and lease transactions. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) will be taking such action probably in 2017. Every consumer attorney will seek to transform a single complaint against a dealer into a class action, and many of them will be successful in doing so due to the wealth of complaints filed by the public and the unfortunate perception that dealers aren’t honest in their business transactions. Attorneys love to refer to developments of this nature as “opening the floodgates of litigation,” and some welcome the opportunity for new business.

Top Ten Suggested Remedies

Dealers need to take action to rebut these false impressions and prepare for the future. Here are 10 short and long-term strategies which may help with these challenges:

  1. Complaint management program: Dealers should scrupulously redress all consumer complaints before they are filed elsewhere. They should have a complaint protocol at every store.
  2. Mediation: In place of arbitration, dealers should consider implementing a mediation program.
  3. Be more self-regulating: All dealers should be active participants in their trade organizations and 20 Groups, and they should advance fair, legal and ethical practices.
  4. Brag: Dealers contribute substantial sums of money to charities and local community interests. They also are enormous advertisers in the media. The media should be encouraged to report about all the good purposes to which dealers contribute.
  5. Compliance and ethics training: Training and ethics programs should be implemented by every dealer. These programs include NADA University, NIADA’s Certified Dealer program, AFIP, and NAF’s Consumer Credit Compliance Certification Program. Customers should see signs, placards and notices about this training at the store, on websites, and in other dealer materials. When interacting with dealers, consumers should be acutely aware of these dealer efforts.
  6. Trade associations: Our industry trade associations (e.g., NADA, NIADA, ACVL, NVLA, state ADA’s, NAF, NABD) should continue to professionalize the image of dealers everywhere, and all dealers should support these organizations.
  7. Act more like Congress: As indicated above, congressmen are tied with car salesmen on the list of least trustworthy professions. Unlike car salesmen, however, congressmen get reelected 96% of the time. Customers rarely, if ever, return to the same dealer at that rate. How does this happen? Voters take possession of their congressmen (e.g., ‘“He’s my Congressman.”‘ which is in contrast with the entire Congress. It is similar to other statements such as “He’s my attorney or doctor.”) Dealers need to personalize their services so that a customer may be tempted to say ‘“He’s my dealer.”‘ or ‘“He’s my salesman.”‘ Consequently, customers will be far less likely to file a formal complaint and will return to purchase other vehicles, as well as recommend that dealership to other people.
  8. Emulate Florida law: A wise law was inspired thinking by the FADA and it prompted the Florida legislature to pass it several years ago. Section 501.98, Florida Statutes, requires that, at least 30 days before bringing any claim against a motor vehicle dealer for an unfair or deceptive trade practice, a consumer must provide the dealer with a written demand letter stating the name, address, and telephone number of the consumer; the name and address of the dealer; a description of the facts that serve as the basis for the claim; the amount of damages; and copies of any documents in the possession of the consumer which relate to the claim.

In other words, Florida dealers will have a chance to resolve a consumer complaint before a case is filed. In the absence of arbitration, this law is all the more important. All states should pass such a law.

  1. License all sales professionals: Professionalizing the sales force and having a mechanism to eliminate people who are ethically challenged would improve the public perception of our trade. This licensing could be quite simple and inexpensive. Once obtained, licenses should be posted at the store.
  2. License all F&I professionals: Finance managers should have the same status as real estate agents or titling agents. Finance managers should be required to understand their ethical and legal duties. Reasonable cost-efficient testing and licensing, paid for by adding the cost to dealer fees born by customers as part of the transaction, should be the objective. The license of the finance manager should be posted for customers to see.

It is not an easy task to blot away past perceptions. However, in an increasingly sophisticated and litigious marketplace, not improving one’s reputation and preparing for the legal future would simply be unwise. Govern yourselves accordingly.