Used Car Lot

This is a story about how I handled a conflict involving a car I bought from a used car lot. After hearing a variety of horror stories about used car lots, I was actually pleasantly surprised, although I did have a little bit of difficulty right after the sale was complete.

The principle that this particular story illustrates is something that I began to realize many years ago: it helps a lot when it comes to reducing a conflict if you can avoid adding additional conflict into the mix. This is probably one of the biggest mistakes made where conflict is concerned.

Like many of us, I had some real live examples of this as a child watching my parents deal with their conflicts. In more cases than I can even begin to remember, what started out as a relatively minor difference of opinion wound up turning into a full-scale war because my parents did such a good job of escalating the conflict while supposedly attempting to resolve it. This inevitably took place as a result of the various personal attacks and implications they flung at each other out of frustration over the original conflict.

This in turn leads to the simplest and most important advice that I can think of when it comes to minimizing the additional conflict from an already tense situation: avoid getting personal. And the way I have learned to do this is to simply focus on the issue itself, and avoid anything at all about the other person's motivations or character, family background, or anything else.

Back to my original story. After moving to a relatively small town in Northern California, I decided I needed to buy a car. I learned many years ago that buying a brand-new car is somewhat of a silly way to spend a lot of extra money, so a used but hopefully "gently used" automobile was in my future. I immediately discovered one of the drawbacks of living in a small town: the number of choices when buying just about anything is severely limited compared to the larger cities I had lived in previously. I scoured the various newspapers and online forums, but I kept coming up empty when it came to the kind of car I wanted. As a result, I wound up taking my chances at a local used-car lot.

I was really pleasantly surprised because I had heard all the horror stories about used-car salesmen and getting ripped off. I found a really nice secondhand smaller SUV, which I wound up buying. I have had it several years now and it has turned out to be a great little car, so apparently I did pretty well on the used-car lot. There was one glitch, however, at the very last minute.

After test driving and getting an inspection by my dealer's mechanic, I went ahead and completed the purchase. In my enthusiasm for all this, however, I had neglected to remove the little windshield banner that the seller had put at the top of the windshield to help advertise the car while it was on the lot. Much to my dismay, when I removed this, I found a small but very prominent crack in the windshield itself-right where it had been covered up by the sales banner. This did not make me happy.

I called the dealer and arranged to go in to discuss the matter with him. Relatively early on in the conversation he began to become defensive and asked me somewhat loudly if I was trying to say that they had done this on purpose in order to deceive me. At this point I could easily have escalated the conflict by raising my voice and implying all kinds of negative things about their motivation and so on and so forth -- but I did not. I have no way of knowing what their actual intentions were, but I had already come to realize that the car itself was really in quite good shape and was in fact a decent purchase. So what I said was "No, actually, it's the exact opposite. I have heard so many good things about your dealership that the last thing in the world I would think would be that you would do something like this on purpose. It was obviously an oversight, which is why I am looking to get it resolved so that I can leave here every bit as happy as I was before I found the crack in the windshield. I think it's a great car and I am looking forward to telling everyone I know what a great car I bought from you guys."

This was actually a true statement, although it may have been mixed in with a little bit of optimism on my part. But it was an interesting thing to say, and the reaction was immediate. I could tell that the dealer was ready for a fight-and, given the business he was in, I am sure he was quite prepared to give me as good a battle as he had likely given others. But my statement really did seem to take him by surprise, and he didn't know what to say for a minute or two. When he realized I was serious, that I really thought they were a great dealership, his attitude changed somewhat dramatically.

I don't remember all the details, but it was relatively soon after this part of the conversation that he made the offer to split the cost of fixing the crack in the windshield with me. I tried a couple times to see if he would cover the entire cost, but he had really dug his heels in at this point, and it was clear that 50-50 was as good as it was going to get without some kind of massive escalation on my part. The amount of money involved was not all that significant, and the fact was, I had already bought the car and he could have just told me to go away and that would have been that. So I agreed to the 50-50 and went out and got my windshield replaced. They paid their share, I paid mine and I have had a terrific car ever since.

So in this case, the two things that I did to make the most of an otherwise tricky situation were this: first of all, I not only did not do anything to put the other fellow on the defensive, I did the exact opposite. I made it very clear that I thought highly of them, and I expected nothing less than continuing decent treatment since they had already done such a great job of selling me such a nice car. I guess you could say I was appealing to their better self, which might sound somewhat naïve, but in fact it worked.

The other thing I did was I showed some flexibility by accepting the 50-50 compromise offer. Sure, I would have preferred them to pay 100%, and you could make a case for that having been my right, since I didn't plan to buy a car with a cracked windshield. But some of the responsibility was in fact on me because I could easily have lifted the little banner and looked underneath and seen the crack, but I did not; unfortunately, my mechanic didn't either. The sum total of all this was the 50-50 split seemed like a pretty decent way to resolve the situation.

I really don't think I could have done any better than I did, even if I had been a lot more aggressive -- unless I had been willing to go all the way and turn it into a legal battle. Perhaps if I had gone to small claims court, or something like that I would have come out with a larger proportion, maybe even a hundred percent of the cost of repairing the windshield. If it had been a multi-thousand dollar or tens of thousands of dollars at stake, I probably would have gone this route, but in this case, the additional time and effort it would've taken to pursue some legal remedy would have quickly more than consumed any of the modest amount of additional cash I might have gotten.

The bottom line is, I felt pretty good about the overall situation and I still feel good about the dealer. So it worked out pretty well all the way around.