It doesn’t matter if your name is on the building or if you’re “just drawing a paycheck,” your dealership’s online reputation is quickly becoming the most important attribute of your long- and short-term marketing strategy. Even if you’re located in a small town and currently have no online reviews, as an automotive dealer, your future will literally depend on the user-generated content (UGC) that makes up your online persona. We call this your “online reputation.”
Everything I’ve read about managing one’s online reputation has been centered on ways dealers can game the system. Short cuts, if you will, on how to turn a plethora of negative consumer reviews into a stellar report card in just days. Generally, these tactics center around a single ratings web site or the creation of phony blogs that sing the dealer’s praises. Gaming the system with the help of dealer ratings sites or random blog posts provided by someone who also happens to be on the receiving end of a check from you every month is not really reputation management – it’s damage control. Moreover, it’s dangerous, as consumers are not stupid, and their opinions do not exist in a vacuum. There are simply too many angry customers and too many places for them to vent for you to “manage” your online reputation via a single web site.
Eight steps from bad to great
Over the years, I’ve worked with more than a hundred dealers to help them cultivate and create exceptional online reputations, and none of these efforts were quick or easy. Throughout all of these endeavors, I have been able to isolate an eight-step plan that can take any dealer from the bottom to the top with their online reputation (provided they don’t try to short-change the process).
Step 1: Gauge the online buzz about your dealership
Start with Google. It’s simple: just Google your name or your Make (plus your city) and you should quickly see a multitude of consumer ratings and reviews about your dealership. Google, besides being the most visited web site in the world, also aggregates user reviews for their Local Search product. (You may have noticed the map results that appear when you complete certain business searches.)
Once you drill down into the Local Search results and also review some of the free (organic) results, you will likely want to pull out your hair. If you still have a few strands remaining and you didn’t get your fill about what the world really thinks of you, you can also Google your name with modifiers like “rip off” or (excuse my French) “sucks.” After that, you may want to see what you look like on Bing, Yahoo! and some of the dealer-specific ratings sites like Edmunds and DealerRater.
Step 2: Determine the veracity of the negative comments
Are the online complaints recent? Are they true? Moreover, do these conditions still exist? It is vitally important that you take all complaints seriously. As dealers, it is sometimes common to discount the occasional bad CSI review as a one-time event or just an over-demanding customer. While that might be okay for a report that only you and the OEM see, a bad online review can potentially reach millions. (Don’t believe me? Go to YouTube.com and search for “United Breaks Guitars” to see how people have viewed one consumer’s creative complaint about United Airlines.)
By the way, if you answered yes to any of the questions above, then it doesn’t matter what you do online, you have to take the drastic offline measures in Step Three before you will be able to positively affect your online reputation for the long term. (If you get nothing else from this article, please know this: you cannot be a rat-bastard offline and be a saint online… consumers just won’t let that happen.)
Step 3: Retrain, repair, retool, replace or rehire
In order to truly eliminate the issues that led to the negative reviews in the first place, you might be required to take drastic measures. If you are in a senior leadership position in your dealership, you need to be prepared to replace or rehire certain positions in order to solve the legitimate concerns. While this should be your last resort, if your efforts to repair, retrain or retool fail, then this becomes the most important step.
As I wrote much less eloquently in step two: no matter what you do online, you cannot escape who you are offline. There are too many consumers, with too many places to tell their story; and you cannot control the conversation forever. The dealers who will win in the end are those whose great online persona matches their great offline persona.
Step 4: Verify the three or four most influential review sites in your market
While every market is a little different, Google is the most influential review site in every DMA, bar none. Besides being the biggest web site used for in-market consumers researching auto dealerships, Google also aggregates reviews from various sources – making it (sorry JD Power) the most important web site for your dealership to monitor and affect.
Besides Google, you’ll want to pick two or three other web sites that provide reviews and are influential in your market. You’ll leverage these in Step Six to drive positive mentions for your store. For some markets, the other review sites might be generic like Yelp or Angie’s List, while for others they could be dealer-specific sites like Edmonds, KBB or DealerRater.
Step 5: Identify your truly satisfied sold and serviced customers
Why do you want to identify those who are truly satisfied? Why not just ask every customer to review you? The reason you cannot ask every customer to tell the world about their experiences is that even if you truly satisfy ninety percent of your clientele (a large number) your negative reviews will outnumber your positive reviews by at least a 2:1 margin. You see, those who dislike you are more likely to review you than those who like you.
The easiest way for most dealers to determine who is truly satisfied and also segregate these customers for a thank you email seems to be by using those furthest downstream in the sales and service process. For example, your cashier should know (if he or she cares about your customers) which service customers are truly satisfied and which are not. Asking this person to place a happy face sticker or some other designation on the RO will ensure you can easily queue up the satisfied customers for step six.
Step 6: Send these customers a ‘thank you’ e-mail with links to the web sites identified in step four
This isn’t a complicated step, and it shouldn’t take you more than 30 minutes a day provided you create a genuine, humble-sounding template for these messages. Give this task to a clerk – someone who receives lists of satisfied customers from your service and sales teams, and who can send emails on your behalf – and you are more likely to see results than if you assign it to an overworked service or sales manager.
Be sure the links to the targeted review sites work and also that they direct satisfied consumers to your page on these sites. You do not want to frustrate a satisfied customer by dumping them on a confusing homepage and asking them to find a way to leave a review on your behalf. (Quick Tip: Using words like “thank you” and “please” in this email go a long way toward driving positive online mentions.) Done correctly – and targeted only to the “truly satisfied” – and you should expect reviews from between 5 and 10% of these customers.
Step 7: Monitor (at least monthly) for new comments
The easiest way to monitor the web for what others say about you is to set up Google Alerts. These are free and can be created to automatically send you updates whenever your dealership’s name appears on the web. Unfortunately, Google Alerts fail to capture every new review, so it is equally important to set up a schedule to evaluate new comments about your dealership on the top ten or so review sites in your market. (You should already have the top four identified from Step Four, so you’ll only need to come up with six other places where people might speak negatively about you that you will have to monitor.)
Step 8: Address all negative comments
Many review sites will allow you to rebut or comment on an online review, while others will not. Whether or not you can directly tie your explanation of a negative situation to the specific review is irrelevant – if you do not post something (perhaps even as a review that immediately follows the negative review) that explains the situation from your point of view, the consumer’s words will be taken as fact by many of the future prospects you will never see.
Once you read a negative review online, it is time to spring into action. However, before you post a quick rebuttal, you need to take a deep breath and gather all the facts (including speaking with the customer, if possible).
If the option is available, attempt to resolve the issue amicably. If this happens, then you have every right to ask the customer to remove or amend their review. If you cannot resolve the issue or get the negative words removed, you need to rebut – in writing.
To eliminate typos and bad grammar, write your rebuttal in Microsoft Word; then let it sit. You need to let your words stew a little so that you don’t come off sounding like an idiot. There is plenty of time to post a rebuttal – it doesn’t have to occur within minutes of the original review.
After at least a few hours (but, preferably overnight), edit what you wrote and don’t sound angry – just explain the situation. Be sure you never accuse the customer of anything and never point fingers – and take the blame if warranted. (Some dealers choose to take the blame even if unwarranted – it makes them sound humble and sincere.) Be factual in your response, and keep personalities out of it. If applicable, offer to rectify the situation to the customer’s satisfaction.
Now, before you post this literary masterpiece for the world to see, let someone else proofread it just to be sure. It is important to remember that whatever you write could be online forever – just like the original comments.
Can you really go from bad to great?
Depending on the number of truly satisfied customers they are able to identify and contact, most dealers can expect to add between 10 and 30 positive reviews in the first 30 days. It doesn’t take stellar math skills to realize that you can very quickly go from bad to great… if you just follow these eight.