It began with a trip to an Audi dealership. I liked what I saw, and was ready to buy. Then the dealer ran the CARFAX report.
I’d had a side-bump accident two years prior that popped the driver-side windows and door panels, and knew that would cost me some trade-in value.
But I wasn’t prepared for, “CARFAX says the front airbag deployed. That’ll cut your trade-in value by $3,000.”
I knew that was a mistake – I was there, and no airbags had gone off. There wasn’t even front or rear damage. But, the dealer said, “Sorry, we don’t write the reports.”
I said, “OK, I’ll go fix this – I’ll be back.” And thus began my quixotic adventure.
NJ State Police – the Bad
CARFAX was easy. Despite their apparently being phone-phobic, I quickly got in touch via email with a real person, literate, prompt, and customer focused. She confirmed the problem came straight from the NJ State Police accident report. The trooper who filled out the report had made a mistake. “If you can get the police to change the accident report, we’ll immediately alter the CARFAX report,” she said.
Fast forward: five personal visits to the Totowa NJ State Police substation, and as many calls. The police were usually polite (only one cop yelled at me), but never came out from behind the bullet-proof glass window. And their response was always the same: leave the information here and we’ll get back to you tomorrow. They never did.
I gave them insurance reports, which indicated no front end damage or airbag repair. I gave them a signed statement from the repair shop owner, who stated the original airbag was still in the car, so it could hardly have deployed two years prior.
Finally they got me in touch with the trooper himself (via phone, 3 days after having left a message). Very politely, he said, “Look, as far as I know you could be in cahoots with the repair shop. And though I don’t remember this particular incident, I pride myself on being very careful and not making mistakes. So I very much doubt I made a mistake here. And so I’m not going to change it.”
What about the flagrant physical contradiction of the original airbag still being in the car? “Sorry, how do I know I can believe what you’re telling me, and anyway I haven’t got time to check it myself. So I’m not going to change it.”
I spoke to his commanding officer. “It’s really a decision for the individual officer, I’m not going to overrule him,” he said. Never mind that business about the laws of physics.
CARFAX – the Good
At this point, I went back to CARFAX out of frustration. I described the situation, and they not only empathized, but clearly took me seriously. “If you can send along the kinds of reports you indicated, we can add a contra-note on the file.”
So that’s what I did. And that’s what happened. Underneath the “airbag deployed” checkbox on the CarFax report there is now a line saying, “Airbag deployment reported in error. Other independent documentation shows the airbag did not deploy.”
In plain English: the police blew this one and won’t admit it.
Thank you, CARFAX.
(By the way, if you’re curious, here’s what a sample CARFAX report looks like).
Car Dealer – the Ugly
Car dealers all resent the bad reputation they have – but they keep on earning it. Three things were clear to me when I walked out the door of the Audi dealership:
1. I knew I was going to get the CARFAX report changed to reflect reality
2. They doubted anyone could beat CARFAX or the cops
3. They figured they’d never hear from me.
And so they defaulted to an old rule-of-thumb in the car sales business: there are no “be-backs” (as in, “I’ll be back”). I had said I’d be back, therefore I was an obvious liar, and a no-sale, and there would therefore be no point in wasting a perfectly good 60 seconds on a phone call to me.
And so I defaulted to an old rule-of-thumb of my own: when people disbelieve me or refuse to give me the time of day, I do business with their competitor. I like my new Hyundai.
What’s sad about the car dealership is that if the salesman had placed one simple call to me – “Hey, how’s it going with the CARFAX thing?” – it would have kept me engaged. I would have returned, and I would have bought. So by refusing to invest 60 seconds in a phone call, one salesman lost a good deal, a nice commission (I am not very price-sensitive), and a shot at a lifetime (profitable) customer.
The NJ State Police, by contrast, are downright scary. The trooper was polite, and clearly competent. But he had been allowed to elevate the importance of his “personal honor” to the point where a) he valued his ‘track record’ over the truth, and b) the organization had no recourse when he made a mistake.
“Honor” without accountability is a disastrous combination. You end up with all the para-military trappings, and none of the justice (aka customer focus) legitimizing it.
I’m an older, educated, white male. Imagine if I’d been a young, black guy. (And if you have trouble imagining, you’re not paying attention.)
On the other hand, CARFAX is a legitimate customer service hero – at least in this case.
For one thing, they show that you can deliver great customer service even via email contact – you just have to be smart, dedicated – and care about end-users.
But most importantly, they showed a commitment to truth and honesty, even if it meant going up against an important information provider. They (correctly) realize that their long-term success depends on the credibility of their information, not on sucking up to a powerful but circle-the-wagons self-absorbed police organization.
My suggestion: reward providers who do good for customers – they’re the ones working to make business work for society.
And for those who are selfish, short-term oriented, and anti-customer – call them out.
PostScript: As a result of sending links to the NJ State Police, I heard from an internal “Integrity Control Officer” assigned to investigate concerns brought to the force’s attention. He listened to my story, with some skepticism but with an open mind.
In addition to interviewing me, he spoke to the insurance company, and requested a photo of the car taken by the adjuster (why hadn’t I thought of that?). He was satisfied by both that there had been no airbag deployment; he therefore officially instigated a reversal of the mistaken accident report.
I thanked him for his objective work, and we emailed a bit about how to prevent such incidents happening in the future. He spoke to the trooper and his supervisor, and told me that “I think we are all on the same page now.” I choose to believe that. Case closed.