Car dealers need an image overhaul; the Web can help

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I’ve interviewed some ruthless stockbrokers and fund managers on Wall Street during my career. One of them is now in prison.Yet they didn’t intimidate me like the thought of buying a car did when I moved to Detroit in 2004.

I did not trust car salespeople. I expected them to bully me.

I’ve learned that’s an unfair and inaccurate bias. But many Americans still believe it. A Gallup poll released this week shows 47 percent of Americans rate the honesty and ethics of car salespeople as “low” or “very low.”

Lobbyists and members of Congress are the only professions that rank lower in Americans’ eyes, according to this poll. Americans see lawyers, telemarketers and stockbrokers as being more trustworthy than car sales people.

It’s not all bad news for those folks who sell cars. Their image has improved since 1995, when 61 percent of Americans rated the honesty and ethics of car sales people as “low” or “very low.”

I’ve met and spoken to hundreds of car dealers and sales staff. I’ve found these folks to be honest, hard-working men and women of integrity. They are true professionals.

But bad reputations, whether deserved or not, are hard things to rehabilitate.

I believe the Internet can help.

The Internet has forced more transparent pricing and allowed dealers to showcase their integrity. For example, many dealers photograph flaws in used vehicles’ and include those photos in their online pictures. Dealers say they do this because it’s the right thing to do to earn trust with the customer.

And then there’s social media. This could ultimately revive the profession’s reputation.

If happy customers are encouraged to post a positive testimonial about a dealership experience on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter or a review page, that’s strong marketing. Even a negative testimonial can be good. It would allow the dealership to engage in a dialogue with the unhappy customer and show other potential customers that the staff takes prompt action to fix any problems.

It’s that kind of word-of-mouth that shapes a reputation. Then perhaps in a future poll we’ll see car sales people trump stockbrokers as more trusted.

You can reach Jamie LaReau at jlareau@crain.com. -- Follow Jamie on Twitter

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