Harry’s on the Hill, a family-owned GMC-Buick dealership in Asheville, N.C., recently removed a 23-foot-tall “Muffler Man” statue known as “Chief Pontiac,” which had fronted the business for more than 50 years. And the story of this removal might teach us all a little lesson in customer relations.
During the 1960s and 1970s, a company called American Fiberglass produced thousands of large statues as publicity devices for roadside businesses, many of which were muffler shops. These Muffler Men took the form of lumberjacks (the first Muffler Man was a model of Paul Bunyan), cowboys, spacemen, Indians like Asheville’s Chief Pontiac, and even bikini-clad women that reportedly bore a suspicious resemblance to First Lady Jackie Kennedy.
While known as an Asheville landmark and loved by many, the Pontiac statue had in the past received some criticism as an example of cultural misappropriation. In reality, though, the removal of this statue was prompted by an extreme and pretty ugly customer experience.
Sabrina Arch, a Cherokee woman, visited Harry’s hoping to buy an SUV. When she couldn’t reach an agreement on price, she told the Harry’s salesman that she was going to take her business elsewhere. She later sent him a photo of the SUV she bought from another dealer. He replied with an obscene and racism-tinged text message. The salesman later claimed he had meant to send the message to a colleague but copied Arch by accident. Not good enough. Harry’s fired the salesman and apologized to Arch.
GM stopped making Pontiacs in 2010 anyway, but in the wake of this fiasco, Harry’s on the Hill decided it was time to let Chief Pontiac go. In a Facebook post, the company denounced the salesman’s conduct and promised that “everyone who visits Harry’s on the Hill will be treated with respect and dignity.” The company also announced that it would be removing the statue as “a relic from a different era.”
As it turned out, the statue’s removal revealed that it was badly deteriorated and in need of repair. American Giants, a Virginia company that specializes in restoring Muffler Men, will repair Chief Pontiac. Reportedly, the statue will later be installed at the Pontiac-Oakland Museum of Pontiac, Illinois.
Far be it from us to mediate cultural conflicts. But one clear takeaway from this incident has to be a lesson in customer relations: Train your people to respect the customer; and, like Harry’s on the Hill, tolerate nothing less.