Savvy dealers manage online image
Good feedback can sell service -- but heed bad reviews
Tonkin Wilsonville Nissan in Oregon noticed a rise in online reviews in 2008. Soon, contacting each reviewer became a daily routine for General Manager Bill Jones.
At least every other day, a new customer comes in after reading a good review, he says. So the dealership uses online reviews as a sales tool, referring to them in e-mails to customers, on its Web site, even hanging printed copies on the wall.
"Reviews have replaced word of mouth," says Jones, 59.
Once, customer comments about a dealership -- good or bad -- would circulate among a few people. Now, through the Internet, they reach thousands of potential buyers. From contacting customers themselves to paying third parties for help, dealers are devoting time and money to managing their online image.
Online comments at the 16 dealerships in the Ron Tonkin Family of Dealerships have increased dramatically in the past few years, says Andy Warner, the retailer's e-commerce director. Five percent of his online business comes from people who have read a good comment, Warner says.
A survey by DriverSide.com, which helps consumers find dealerships and garages for repairs, found that 89 percent of consumers consider online comments when deciding where to take a car for service; 62 percent said positive reviews helped them decide.
At Wilsonville Nissan, good online reviews help sell at least one car a month, Jones says.
A dealership's Google Place Page is the first place many consumers encounter reviews. A Place Page is a listing that includes a photo, the dealership's address and reviews.
Thousands of dealerships have a Google Place Page, says Michelle Morris, director of North American Auto at Google.
Consumers can review dealerships on sites including DealerRater.com, Citysearch, MyDealerReport.com and Car Dealer Check.
New marketing tool
Customer reviews loom large in the Ron Tonkin Family of Dealerships' online marketing, says Warner, 32. They are mentioned in the initial e-mail a customer receives after contacting Tonkin and prominently featured in paper copies in the dealerships. Service reviews are in service reminder e-mails.
"It differentiates us from Pep Boys" and the other independent repair shops, Warner says.
A few months ago, Tonkin became certified by the fast-growing dealer review Web site DealerRater, which claims 30,000 reviews.
Postings of negative reviews of dealerships that pay DealerRater a monthly fee to be "certified" are held for two weeks. Dealers are allowed to contact the customer and try to resolve the matter and perhaps have the customer post a positive review instead.
Negative reviews of uncertified dealerships are posted immediately, although the dealer can post a reply. Positive reviews of both certified and uncertified dealerships are posted immediately.
DealerRater has about 1,900 certified dealerships, up from 600 at the end of August 2009, says President Chip Grueter, 33. DealerRater does lots of marketing to ensure that its site appears high up in online search results, he says.
Dealers also can use tactics such as paying Google to appear in the sponsored ads at the top or on the side of search results to put reviews before consumers. Soliciting reviews is also effective because sites that get frequent new content -- such as a review posted by a customer -- appear higher in searches, Grueter says.
Gillman Automotive Group in Houston signed up with DealerRater six months ago after it noticed that smaller dealerships with more reviews appeared higher in search results than Gillman dealerships.
"It's scary to have an open forum, but that is the way the marketing is moving, so we need to be in the game," says Stacey Wimbish, president of Gillman Cos. Gillman is working to boost the number of online reviews of its 14 dealerships, she says.
Getting lots of reviews is the best way to diminish the importance of bad reviews, says Sean Peoples, executive director of business development at Edmunds.com.
"If you get enough mass, it will come out to be good if not great," Peoples says.
Edmunds provides vehicle reviews, pricing and availability. The dealership reviews will be more prominently featured in a redesigned Web site in December.
Negative reviews lend credibility, Matt Lamoureux, DealerRater's vice president of business development, told dealers during a "Manage Your Online Reputation" webinar. But "make sure you have 90 percent positive reviews," he added.
Responding immediately to negative reviews is crucial, wherever those reviews appear, dealers say. "If you don't address a concern, it continues to fester," notes Jones of Wilsonville Nissan.
Friends and tweets
Dealerships also need to manage their image on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Matt Kosmowski, the 24-year-old Internet director at Hiley Mazda and Hiley Volkswagen-Audi in Huntsville, Ala., hired someone just to manage social media.
"More and more people are going to the Internet for car shopping," Kosmowski says. "You have to set yourself apart by more than just price."