CARFAX, Cops, and Car Dealers: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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.

The Movie

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.

I’ll be sending links to this post to DCH Millburn Audi, and to the NJ State Police.

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.


Juries, Courtrooms and Linear Thinking

Three years ago I filed a lawsuit. It was my first, and hopefully last, experience as a plaintiff.

I sued a professional—there’s no point in revealing the profession. I sued him for malpractice and negligence, with a specific damages calculation. He, of course, said it was my fault.

This week, after a four-day trial, it went to a jury.

I’m not a lawyer. Don’t even play one on TV, though I’ve done seminars and speeches for some.

So other than jury duty (always rejected), I hadn’t seen courts close up and personal before. Here’s what I learned—one data point, one person. For what it’s worth.

The treatment of jurors impressed me. The judge spoke seriously about gratitude for their civic responsibility. The parties rise and stand every time the jury enters and leaves (which is frequently).

But most of all, the judge admonished them, “If anyone approaches you about this case—call 911. Ask for the Sheriff, and have the Sheriff call me. Any time of day or night.”

The power of the judge scared and impressed me. He made an almost autocratic decision, unilaterally. Then he changed it the next day, calling himself out on his own potential fallibility—I was impressed. A powerful blend of brains, charm and the need to make more calls than an umpire; almost all very well done.

The rules of evidence are extreme, and powerful. Lots of very relevant material never made it in, because it didn’t pass several tests—hearsay, standing, expertise, etc. The intent is to limit the bases of decision to distilled-clean facts, precisely stated.

The presentation of data relied entirely on the cognitive skills of the jury. They listened to days of bland recitations of data, numbers and legal concepts, without physically seeing the documents being described. Data, abstraction, words, concepts. That’s what you’re fed as a juror.

The charges to the jury were complex; a tax-like form with “if yes to 2a, then go to 6; else, go to 3,” which covered several issues of liability, damages and mitigation.

Finally—to the jury. Both sides expected a decision in less than an hour. It went four hours, despite one juror postponing vacation, others their work.

The verdict? Breech of contract, not guilty—but malpractice, guilty. Was malpractice a proximate cause (not “the,” just “a”) of damages—no. Therefore no damages due.

Both sides found this a confusing, almost contradictory, verdict—at least,that is, from the point of view of the legal issues that had been so exquisitely, carefully crafted by the legal teams and the judge. And of course the jury doesn’t get the chance to share its thinking—just the results.

Yet I think there’s at least one explanation—an emotional, human, commonsense logic—that makes a lot of sense. It goes like this:

We’re not thrilled with any of you. We want our professionals to behave better. We’re also worried about excessively litigious behavior—and besides there’s blame enough to go around. Judge, lawyers and court system—we don’t like sitting for days on a case that should have settled; and we don’t like being fed abstractions.
So if your legal constructs don’t allow us to express these deeply held opinions, we will squeeze the constructs, not our opinions.

I have absolutely no way of knowing their thoughts, of course. Surely I could be wrong. But I could see myself thinking that way in their shoes, and I respect it.

It’s another arena of life where society wants us to be rational, cerebral people, solving life’s problems with our brains; while our human hearts drive us through to a clearly seen and desired end, ever-reminding us that we’re not just brains-in-bodies.

It was humbling—for both of us. But I now believe justice was served, and served well. It just wasn’t served on the same platter the system had provided.