THE TOUGH CUSTOMER- Customer for life? Not without the free tires, he says

Automobile dealers are among the businesses experiencing the worst of the current financial crisis. Ford and GM are frantically talking about a merger in order to stave off bankruptcy, and car buyers are not exactly flooding into automobile showrooms.

All this makes UVA graduate student David Shultis particularly flabbergasted about what happened to him a few weeks ago at Brown Toyota. 

Shultis and his wife purchased a new Toyota Scion from the Pantops Mountain dealership in late 2005, and, in doing so, were enrolled in Brown's "Tires for Life" program.

"Just have your recommended maintenance performed at a Brown dealership," the dealership says on its website, "and you'll never pay for tires again."

The program, the site says, is to show "appreciation for your business," and is the dealership's way of "saying thank you for choosing Brown... in hopes that you'll become a customer for life."

Well, as far as Shultis is concerned, thanks for nothing.

"We had all of our maintenance done at Brown," Shultis writes. "When the tires needed to be changed, they refused to pay for them."

Shultis ended up paying Brown more than $500 for new tires.

According to Shultis, the dealership's service manager told him that he was not in compliance with the tires for life contract because he did not order all recommended maintenance.

Shultis says he faithfully used Brown's for all his auto maintenance needs. He even brought his Scion to Brown to get a knocked-off mirror replaced. However, according to the dealership, getting all one's service there and performing all recommended service are two different things.

For example, the recommended schedule calls for a $69.95 dose of "Basic Service" every 5,000 miles, which includes an oil change and tire rotation, among other things. Shultis apparently ordered all the oil changes, but not the tire rotations, at least during his first 25,000 miles of driving.

At 15,000 and 45,000 miles, the schedule calls for "Intermediate Service," which costs $199.95. Shultis says he got this done at 21,000 miles. Unfortunately for him, that is outside Brown's window of meeting the requirement.

Shultis claims that numerous times when he brought his Scion in for service since those early missed tire rotations, he made a point of confirming with the service department that he was in compliance with the tire program.  And he notes that routine maintenance at a dealership is typically more costly than at a local auto repair shop.

"Why else would I keep getting service performed on my car if the Tires for Life program was not being upheld? More importantly," Shultis continues, "why didn't they warn me that I missed important car service maintenance points?"

Brown's marketing director, Jamie Schwartz, doesn't see it that way. She contends that no service personnel, who have computerized access to each customer's service record, would have given such assurances.

Shultis insists they did, and he points out that he even brought in a non-program pick-up truck for post deer-crash repair as another show of good faith.

Schwartz says that Brown takes its commitment to the "Tires for Life" program so seriously that it will occasionally bend the rules, and she says Brown has given away about half a million dollars worth of tires to its customers.

But there's been no bending of the rules for Shultis.

Brown's Schultz says numerous customers have been thrilled with "Tires for Life" and emphasized that Shultis is simply not entitled.

Shultis is quite angry about the whole episode, and in this sense, the "Tires for Life" program met one of its stated objectives, sort of. Brown's steadfastness has turned him into a loyal customer– loyal to dealerships not named Brown's.


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