In Which Scott Adams Shows Us That Even the Smartest Buyers Are Liars

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
in which scott adams shows us that even the smartest buyers are liars

“I do see people buying Chevy trucks all the time, but I call them victims, not customers. That’s different than what I’m trying to do.” Thus spake Scott Adams, known to most of us as the creator of the “Dilbert” comic strip. As someone who has made his living as a commercial UNIX sysadmin, I’m not much of a “Dilbert” reader, for approximately the same reason that Jodie Foster probably doesn’t read The International Journal Of Pinball Table Collectors. There’s only so much trauma that anybody should be forced to relive.

I do, however, read Mr. Adams’ blog, mostly because I’m fascinated by his particular approach to understanding the current Presidential election. In a pair of recent posts, he has taken a break from discussing the “Master Persuader” strategy to complain about the process of buying a new truck from a Chevrolet (or Ford) dealership. Mr. Adams describes himself as a “certified genius,” but as you will see below, the old dealership chestnut that “buyers are liars” applies to even those of us who find the WAIS-IV to be a trivial challenge.

How Not To Buy A Chevy Truck is the title of Adams’ first blogpost on truck purchasing. I’ll excerpt the most relevant part below:

Try looking at the thousands of options for each truck. Then notice how little you know about each option. The infinite options guarantee that you will feel bad about whatever you pick. Science says people get anxious when they have too many choices. Chevy gives you infinite choices for features, and most of those choices matter, because trucks are tools. So there’s no real way to be happy about buying a truck because you’ll always think you could have done better picking options. And you would be right. No one can pick the right feature set out of a million options. So buyer’s remorse is guaranteed at step one, before you even start.

As a former truck salesman, I can say with confidence that Adams is revealing both his position on the autism spectrum and his fundamental unfamiliarity with the mindset of the average truck buyer here. He looks at an option sheet and sees the mathematical extrapolation of potential option combinations — but, I would call his and your attention to the Zen, saying, “In the mind of the beginner there are many possibilities; in the mind of the expert, there are few.” The average new-truck buyer has a very specific idea of what he (it’s almost always “he”) wants from his next truck. He has probably owned several trucks and his preferences are set based on his experiences with those trucks. When he has regrets, it’s not from the memory of a particular RPO code that he unfairly neglected six years ago, but rather it is usually the failure of a particular option or choice to perform up to his desired expectations.

A typical example of the above would be buyers who chose the 302 V8 in their 1990-1996 F-150s over the straight-six; on paper, the V8 was a better choice for not much more money, but — in practice — the 300-cubic-inch I-6 was more durable and just as fast (or slow) in city traffic. A lot of people bought the V-6 in the ’97 F-150 expecting that same durability and torquey nature, only to be sorely disappointed, sending them back to the V-8 in their ’02 F-150 purchase. What can I say; an army is always best-prepared to fight its last war.

Mr. Adams looks at a half-ton order sheet and sees combinations. The typical truck buyer looks at that same sheet and sees paths to specifying a truck that will work for certain purposes. By “the typical truck buyer,” of course, I mean the sales manager at the dealership who orders for stock. He may have particular biases — many of you will recall my stories about my sales manager who had a deep and perverse passion for Medium Willow Green — but, in general, he understands his market and what the buyers in that market want. Go look at all the F-150s for sale in a particular region, and you will see that they are all specced-out about the same way.

I would also point out there is nothing unreasonable about offering millions of option combinations. In fact, this is standard practice for most manufacturers of cars and trucks around the world, whether we’re talking about Volkswagen in Germany or Honda in Japan. Only in the United States do we have this idea that there should be a strictly limited menu of choices — and only lately has that been the case. The root cause of this choice-paucity is the fact that this country is enormous and importers from Max Hoffman on forwards tended to be very conservative people when it came to specifying and purchasing vehicles that had a chance of rusting on showroom floors. The original Honda Accord, for example, was delivered in just a few colors and trims because those were the only colors and trims that the importer was confident of being able to sell across the country to all sorts of people. I cannot overemphasize just how cautious those original foreign-car importers were. I don’t blame them. They were stuck with the product if the dealers didn’t want it.

This notion of limited choices sat very well with the coastal elites who made Honda, Subaru, et al popular, because most of them didn’t particularly like cars and they deeply distrusted the idea of having choices in those cars. If you’ve ever shopped for something complicated about which you did not care in the slightest, like a modern washer/dryer combination or a refrigerator or an HVAC system, you can sympathize. The Berkeley adjunct professors out there didn’t want to build their Accords from the ground up using a menu of a million choice combinations the way a Japanese Accord buyer could (and still can). They wanted to walk in, ask for “a Honda,” and leave half an hour later knowing that their car was in no way inferior to the Honda in their neighbors’ driveways. Naturally, the domestic manufacturers all eventually followed suit with their automotive offerings.

That attitude never transferred to trucks because truck buyers tend to be interested in trucks. When I was a car salesman, I had countless people come into the dealership and tell me, in an exhausted tone, “I just want a car.” Nobody ever told me that about a truck. Many of them came to the showroom armed with knowledge about package combinations and technical details … in 1994. I assure you that the current truck order system suits most buyers just fine. Very few of them are “victims,” to use Mr. Adams’ phrase. They might end up being victims of the F&I department, but anybody who looks at a major light-truck dealers’ lot and feels victimized by vast vehicle selection needs to get a grip on reality.

The next complaint Mr. Adams has is that he can’t get good advice from truck salespeople at the dealerships. In this, he’s at least partly correct. We now live in an era of “system sales,” where the first person you meet at a dealer is almost always a grinning idiot who is content to make $25,000/year. You have to go a couple of levels up in the system to meet anybody knowledgeable. But even when you get to the “truck guy,” you need to have a firm grip on what you want your truck to do. Most truck managers at dealerships can advise you on how to tow a boat, how to get to a remote campsite, or how to specify a truck for snowplow/utility-body/flatbed duty. What they can’t do is listen to the desires and thoughts of a “techie” and somehow distill that into a truck. Rather ironically, that was the job that I had to do when I worked at a Ford dealership. They called me “The Professor,” because I’d admitted in a moment of weakness to having taken 600-level courses, and they gave me all the fruits and nuts, so to speak. I think that if I sat down with Scott Adams for half an hour, I could get him the truck he wanted. But that, obviously, didn’t happen.

What did happen? Ford reached out to Mr. Adams and offered to help him get a truck.:

What happened next tells you we are in a bait-and-switch confusopoly economy. Keep in mind that Ford was highly motivated to help me, and they hooked me up with the best contacts in the company to make it happen, both at my local dealer (an expert truck guy) and within management. They all coordinated to satisfy me. I’m betting no customer ever had so much help buying a truck.

Sounds good so far …

So I described the truck I wanted. This is how it went.

The first truck I wanted (Raptor) isn’t made this model year, but I could wait months and get the 2017. I didn’t want to wait that long.

Did you see the key word in the second sentence? It’s RAPTOR. Scott Adams wanted a Raptor. I can’t blame him. Raptors are badass. But did you also remember that he’d been shopping for a Chevy truck previously? Does Chevrolet offer anything that is remotely like the Raptor? Anything that could be confused at a distance for a Raptor?

No, they do not.

When I read that sentence, I immediately imagined my mentor, Old Frank, stubbing out his smoke, saying, “Buyers are liars.” He didn’t always mean that buyers would lie to me, the well-intentioned salesperson. He meant that buyers would lie to themselves. Scott Adams was frustrated by his inability to get the exact Chevy that he wanted — but as soon as he switched to Ford, he chose a truck that was nothing like any particular Chevrolet product. What that tells me, as a former salesman, is that he would have been satisfied with any number of possible Chevrolet trucks, including some that were on a lot somewhere. He’d just brainwashed himself into thinking that he needed a particular Chevy truck.

Once he started looking at Fords, he was free to abandon the idea to which he’d become emotionally attached — that Chevrolet didn’t have the exact option combination he needed in stock — to pick something totally different. He could have just as easily decided to want any one of 100,000 Chevy trucks in stock across the country. So the true conclusion of Mr. Adams’ two columns about truck purchases is that he, the buyer, is too fickle and difficult to work with a system that, in truth, works very well for about two million people every year. But just in case you needed confirmation about how he’d deceived himself, changed his mind, and in general failed to approach the situation with the analytical thinking for which he is justifiably well-known and well-liked, he closes the second column with this:

It took so long to find a truck that my requirements changed. I don’t think I need one now.

Scott, my friend, I’m afraid that you probably never needed one.

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2 of 144 comments
  • NN NN on Aug 15, 2016

    Thanks, Jack. Articles like this are what has kept me coming back to this site for 10 years. Brilliant links and analysis, and I also really like Adams' blogs on the presidential race. Fascinating indeed.

  • Sgeffe Sgeffe on Aug 18, 2016

    Almost a week late to this party, and didn't go through all the comments first, but a few observations, and apologies if these points have been addressed: 1. I like the comic strip, but have never gotten into it or followed it closely, since as a county Systems Analyst, I can see the strip play out in real life on a daily basis! 2. If it wasn't for the "four trim levels, take 'em or leave 'em" model, you could have an Accord Sport with a decent stereo! (Duh!) 3. Being in IT, I know all about requirements change, scope creep, and all the other indecisiveness, along with the "eyes on the prize" mentality where the little things are missed in pursuit of the brass ring. Goes with the territory!

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  • Inside Looking Out I see it as gladiator races - only one survives in virtual world.
  • Crown They need to put the EcoDiesel back in the Grand Cherokee. I have a 2018 and it has been the most reliable vehicle I ever owned. 69,000 miles and only needed tires, and regular oil and fuel filter changes.
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