Editor's note: An earlier version of this story, which also appeared on Page 16 of the Nov. 8 issue, had the wrong spelling for Gillman Cos., a dealership group in Houston.
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.