Published in Automotive News Nov. 3, 2014
When a customer writes a bad review about service at R.C. Olsen Cadillac, Randy King keeps his cool.
"I know a lot of people say you should respond to every review," said King, the store's digital marketing manager. "I want to leave it as hands-off from the dealership, so it seems more genuine."
A review site should be a safe place for customers to voice their opinions, King said. "It's not for a dealer to water down customers' input."
So King doesn't comment on reviews online. But he does reach out to disgruntled customers. He calls them to try to resolve the problem. Sometimes, the customers will adjust their ratings. Other times, they won't.
As service reviews proliferate online, dealers are trying to grasp the most effective method to manage their online reputations. Some ignore the problem altogether, and some are largely hands-off.
Others actively manage their reviews by encouraging customers to write them, calling disgruntled customers and aiming for a rating that's high -- but not too high.
In fact, a cottage industry of vendors has sprung up to help dealers manage the often bewildering world of online reviews. The vendors are adept at intercepting some bad reviews before they are posted.
"I can't even describe how much of a difference [online review management] has made," said T.J. Gullo, e-commerce director at Gullo Toyota of Conroe in Texas.
Service reviews make up a substantial chunk of online reviews. Of the 1.6 million reviews of auto dealerships on DealerRater, 23 percent reflect service experience, DealerRater CEO Gary Tucker said.
But while online reviews grow, many dealerships aren't encouraging them or managing them.
EXteres Corp., which provides online marketing and reputation-management services to dealers, found that 36 percent of dealerships have 15 or fewer reviews on Edmunds.com, DealerRater, Yelp, Google, Cars.com and Citysearch combined. Last year, 53 percent of dealerships had fewer than 15 reviews.
To manage reviews, R.C. Olsen Cadillac in Woburn, Mass., and the Power of Bowser dealership group in Pleasant Hills, Pa., work with Dominion Dealer Solutions.
Holz Motors in Hales Corners, Wis., has an agreement with Digital Air Strike. Magnussen's Auburn Toyota in Auburn, Calif., and Gullo Toyota of Conroe have partnered with eXteres.
In Wisconsin, Holz Motors had just a few reviews at several review sites before working with Digital Air Strike.
Without the review management help, "if someone posted a bad review, I might not even see it," said Don Zielinski, Holz Motors Internet sales manager.
Now, the dealership has almost 300 reviews on Cars.com and over 900 on its website.
Reputation management companies email surveys to customers after their dealership visit. If the customer rates the dealership at least four stars, vendors direct them to a review site, such as Google, Yelp, Cars.com, DealerRater and Edmunds, or the dealership's website in some cases.
If customers give the dealership three stars or fewer, either the survey ends or directs them to a "feedback" page.
Dealers receive alerts when customers post negative reviews on third-party sites or on a review page. Some vendors and sites hold negative reviews for a specific length of time or place them on a feedback page so dealers can mediate.
"We can interrupt negative reviews by seeing [feedback] before [customers] post it elsewhere," said Erin Gallawa, communications director at Magnussen's Auburn Toyota.
Avoiding five stars
Dealers disagree on what a genuine rating looks like.
If there are comments with ratings, Megan Erney, advertising and public relations manager at the Power of Bowser group, said a five-star score looks legitimate. Power of Bowser's goal is 4.5 to 5.0 stars.
King doesn't mind a negative review, as long as positive reviews dominate the page. It makes the page seem more genuine, he said.
R.C. Olsen Cadillac wants happy customers, King said. But it's not aiming for five stars. That would look illegitimate. His overall goal is 4.0 to 4.5 stars.
And even with long, angry reviews, "rambling on makes the customer look worse more than it does us any damage," he said.
Customers may be skeptical of a five-star review, said eXteres CEO Richard Winch. His goal is 4.7, depending on the site.
But the work isn't done after securing a high enough rating with a few reviews, Winch said. More reviews lead to better search engine optimization.
Search engine optimization, or SEO, helps websites gain traffic by placing them toward the top of the list of search engine results. So, if customers search for a dealership near them, the store with the best SEO will show up high on the list.
Gullo Toyota of Conroe had a 3.5- or 4.0-star rating on Google and about 20 reviews before working with eXteres.
"Reviews that were two years old were still showing on the page because we didn't have enough to push them down," Gullo said.
Now, with more than 140 reviews, Gullo Toyota of Conroe has a 4.5 star rating.
"You will [still] have negative reviews, but they're surrounded by positive reviews," Gullo said.
Search engines look for a flow of reviews, Winch said. The value of having many reviews "is something today that is missed by dealers," he said. "That's one facet that I don't think they consider."
Whom to trust?
But even for a dealership that has a long list of reviews, fraudulent claims can cloud the effects of review management.
DealerRater has a specific integrity process, Tucker said. The company uses technology to flag duplicates and spot spam trends, but DealerRater also uses human monitoring. Employees follow up with customers and research their review content.
"We're very protective of our overall [review] environment," Tucker said.
Edmunds.com is protective of reviews on its website as well. After discovering 2,200 fake member accounts last year, Edmunds holds off on publishing reviews until staff members have individually screen-ed them for evidence of fraud, said Mark Holthoff, director of customer support.
Winch agrees with King's practice of treating the review page as a haven for customers.
"The best practice is to definitely engage with customers who had negative service," Winch said, but "do it offline."
The Power of Bowser group and Gullo Toyota of Conroe, like R.C. Olsen Cadillac, call dissatisfied customers and ask them to modify the review after they have resolved the problem. But unlike R.C. Olsen, they comment on the reviews online.
Erney of Power of Bowser said, "Customers appreciate a response to their review because it lets them know that their concerns have been heard."