JENNY R. SUSSER, PH.D.

POWER & PERFORMANCE SPORT PSYCHOLOGY SERVICES

Car Shopping & the Ill-Equipped

Posted by on Jun 29, 2019

It is time for a new car…fortunately and unfortunately. Most people grunt in common misery when they hear this terrible news. Only a psychologist would twist themselves into a pretzel over how to approach this so I thought you might enjoy the hilarity of the story. It makes me think of an ad for t-shirt I almost bought that said, “Keep Talking: I’m diagnosing you.” Yes, the fear is real people, psychologists can’t help but make sideline assessments when dealing with some people, but I bet you do, too. For me, it is usually a wondering kind of process, I wonder if they have any awareness about things they do or say…

It has been a while since buying a new car and I haven’t missed the process. If you are in the retail business of cars, I apologize for the negative contribution to the negative stereotype, but I am not sure how to represent it better. The problem is a human problem more than a car salesman one, ultimately, a lack of “mental equipment,” so to speak. It makes me wonder if the industry attracts something of the sort? My Lexus RX 400h is a 2006 and has over 200,000 miles. We bought it new, so we have most definitely gotten our money’s worth and it has been a great car. So great, I will probably buy the same one again. But in an effort to do well-rounded research, I looked at another brand (*shudder*). Here is where my professional life messes up the personal. The research shows that women pay more for a new car than men, which puts me on instant alert. The majority of car sales are done by men (typically white men). It is a very male-dominated field and I have plenty of personal experiences being treated poorly at a car dealership to support the research. So, going into this with an open mind was just about impossible. But hey, it was worth a try.

Trying to silence the skeptic is tough, especially when this much money is at stake. Like the good researcher, I spent some time online looking at the competition, the expert commentary, and the reviews. Trying to be mindful of my carbon footprint, I wanted to get another hybrid, and it doesn’t hurt that I have loved my current one so much. There is another car in the same category with a local dealership and so I called to see if they had any available to test drive. I was connected to a salesman, let’s call him “Vincent.” I wonder what image you constructed of this salesman just from his name and job? He was young, mid-twenties and was wearing khakis that were way too tight for his bustling figure, and a bow tie. When I called to inquire about the car, I asked if there were any women sales associates. “No,” he said, “I think there was one once, but she didn’t make it.” And then he mumbled about the receptionist being a woman and then paused awkwardly not knowing what to say or how to transition to another topic. Saving energy, and perhaps some face for him, I asked when I could come for a test drive. First impressions are tough to overcome and this one was less than stellar: clueless about gender issues and maybe even clueless that he was clueless.

I remember being twenty-five, not knowing that I didn’t know anything yet, and really not knowing how much those twice my age knew. He was very “sales-y” and was giving it the college try. He was definitely knowledgeable about the car and the extras but was not the best at reading me. I said from the start I wanted a hybrid because of my concerns about emissions. “The electric part of the motor on this car is for acceleration, not fuel economy.” It was a stern declaration, perhaps meant to be honest, but it sure was a turn-off. It was the only time I wished he had lied. Second impression: not the best listener and a little too married to his agenda to do so. Not madly in love with any part of the visit or test drive, I went home to spend some more time looking for what I wanted to find about the car.

My uncle, a devoted buyer of this second brand, told me they were coming out with a new model next year (which means fall), so I went in search of rumors and secret pictures of cars under black veils. A few websites said the car would be introducing a plug-in feature for the hybrid, increasing fuel economy even further. This was interesting to me, enough so to get me to go back and talk to them. Too bad it was a mistake. Upon arrival, I was introduced to “Steve” a blue-eyed, wet behind the ears, manager barely older than Vincent but with a baggy shirt and pants to hide his bulging figure. Instantly, I felt a twinge in my stomach as he completely discounted my questions about the upcoming models. “No way, there is no plug-in option coming.” I asked if he kept up on the websites that constantly post about his cars. “No,” the condescension was palpable, “I talk to my reps and that is all I need.” Glancing over at Vincent, he looked as if he might be a little sick to his stomach, too.

Deciding to look at some “numbers” anyway, I went outside to get my glasses out of my car. I made a quick phone call to say I’d be home soon and walked back into the building a minute later. The manager’s office was in the corner to my right and had glass walls on two of the sides. I could see Vincent sitting in a chair, facing me and Steve, who I could hear as he laughed about “a plug-in model” and what a fool I was. I stopped in my tracks and stood there, almost amused, looking at Vincent, who was looking at me. His face was blank, literally blank. No color, no expression, and almost no life because I imagine he wanted to die in that moment. He had no idea what to do and was completely frozen. As Steve finished his rant, Vincent got up to meet me with some papers in hand. I let him go over them out of pity, really. As he finished, I thanked him and stood up. He said, “So, you’re not going to buy a car today?” It was hard not to laugh at this point because of all the space the elephant was taking up in the room, but I politely said, “Not today. And please let Steve know that he should wait until I drive off of the lot before he makes fun of me next time. You know I heard him?” The blank face returned as all his color left and he mumbled “okay.” I smiled as kindly as I could and left. Last impression: unfortunately weak under pressure.

There are many ways to look at this but the one that seems to loop in my mind is how ill-equipped Vincent was to deal with the mess and the discomfort that followed. His strategy was to simply pretend it didn’t happen. Really, he just went on hoping I wouldn’t mind that he witnessed me hearing his manager call me a fool and so if he didn’t bring it up, it might just go away. Not even an apology or an attempt to throw Steve under the bus, which I would have expected. A little good cop, bad cop could have been a strategy, but instead, nothing. Crickets. A “grown” man with two children and a complete inability to confront an issue that directly impacted his bottom line. He never called again either. I can’t say I blame him for not calling but I am surprised and disappointed that he didn’t even make a peep about what happened.

We are really bad at discomfort, especially discomfort around disagreement or conflict. Technology and the immediacy of things has really changed our ability to wait uncomfortably for just about anything. Add to that the fact that no one really talks to anyone anymore so developing communication skills is a lost art. But this kid had no ability to deal with a moderate, not even terrible, mess. The kind of mess he will encounter time and time again, no matter what he does or who he does it with. He has children, and a wife, and a tendency to freeze in the middle of a conflict. This is unfortunate and actually makes me sad. He is not prepared for his life because he doesn’t have a tool, let alone a powerful tool, for dealing with conflict. It is even sadder to me because you see this everywhere, every day. Most people respond with anger these days as that has become the go-to mechanism for dealing with conflict. Perhaps it is the word conflict, but the truth is, conflict is part of every person, most days. Every single call we make to customer service is conflict in action. How about disagreeing with your spouse about a financial issue? Conflict. Where to go to dinner? Now THAT can me major conflict (hee, hee). We could go on for pages and pages here about ways we confront conflict, but my point is we need to figure out how to prepare ourselves and our people for discomfort and conflict.

One: de-mystify “conflict.” It is a dirty word and sets people on alert as soon as they hear that word. The easiest way to do this is to use the word more and in better contexts. If it became something that was commonly tied to resolution instead of problem, our relationship to it would change.

Two: manage physiological reactions. If you have followed me at all, you know I always talk about the Sympathetic Nervous System and how it hijacks blood from the brain for physical survival, disabling the frontal (thinking) lobe. Deep breath, pause, ask a question, and seek perspective is the chain of command to recover your executive functioning. Most people get caught up the reaction to the threat and never recover from it…or simply freeze until the threat disappears (or kills you).

Three: create a culture of communication. Yes, this is difficult but so is burying all the negative crap that is created from a lack of communication. And it builds up until there is too much in between and you lose sight of the other…and then you lose the other. Communication needs to happen on BOTH sides, consistently, and when things are good as well as bad. You have to be willing to communicate and so does the other. Steve would have to shift perspective to be willing to hear Vincent say, “Hey man, you can’t talk about clients that way ever, but especially when they are in the building.” And Vincent would have to be willing to say that. And an apology might have kept me in the game, who knows.

How equipped are you?