On a recent flight, sitting next to a longtime automotive colleague, I was asked about Reputation Management strategies. Thanks to in-flight Wi-Fi, we jumped on the net and I began to share my opinions. This is always an enjoyable topic to discuss, since the reaction from the audience is usually that of shock, then enthusiasm, and then action! My opinion is that, of all of the opportunities in the dealers’ digital marketing arena, Reputation Management is clearly a situation where “the dealership is on fire”. For many dealers who are ignoring their online reviews, they literally have everything to lose, but also everything to gain.
In 2011, we saw Reputation Management take on an entirely new level of importance for car dealers; with consumers posting more reviews, and Google emphasizing these reviews on the Places pages and on SERPs. What changes will we see in 2012? I’m taking a stab at offering five (5) of my top recommendations for Reputation Management strategies.
1. Get committed to Reputation Management. Any recommendations begin and end with the dealership (at the highest level) committing to managing their online reputation. Dealers who have operated in small, local communities may be the most inclined to understand the importance of this. What was the impact of a detractor 50 years ago? A customer who had a bad experience with a dealership in a small community would share their story at church, at bingo, at the corner grocery, etc. If a dealer was to survive in any small community, they needed to limit (or eliminate) detractors, and encourage more promoters. Today, the Internet makes large markets behave like small communities, since opinions are both easily shared and easily found. Online Reviews are part of the DNA of every dealership in 2012. While the importance of online reputation reinforces the importance of taking great care of customers, there is also much we can learn from the feedback received. Areas for process improvement, problem employees, and new product/service opportunities can all be learned from reading and digesting the content of online reviews. This feedback should be considered in making both tactical and strategic decisions at the dealership.
2. Monitor your reputation regularly. If you are doing this manually, setup Google Alerts, Twitter searches, and regularly check the online review sites (Google, Yelp, etc.) There are also some good monitoring systems out there that can automate this for you. If you use these systems, regularly monitor your dashboards and spring into action quickly, because each day negative reviews from detractors live online, your valuable brand and good name deteriorates. I’ve heard a fair number of dealers complaining about potential “review fraud” occurrences, where disgruntled employees, competitors, or others post negative reviews for the dealer. Some industries have moved more toward sales-driven-reviews, where only recent customers have the ability to post a review. This is definitely the year for review verification. We’ll see how this finds its way into Google’s world.
3. Respond very quickly to negative reviews. Sitting next to my colleague on this flight, we easily found large dealers in his hometown with negative reviews online since last summer. To the online shopper, no response from the dealer means, “the review is the truth”. If the dealer responds quickly, then the consumer will consider both sides to the story. If you find a negative review don’t immediately jump in and type your response. Take a few minutes to cool down, digest everything, and think about how to professionally respond. Taking a defensive or aggressive approach with your response will only escalate the problem, adding fuel to the fire. Instead, show your concern, apologize for the problem and let them know you want to handle it right away. Ask anyone posting negative reviews of your business to contact you directly and thank them for their feedback. Be very brief, take it quickly offline, and whatever you do, don’t get into an online debate for everyone to see (forever).
4. Promote positive reviews. This is also referred to as Review Suppression Plans. This method will be far more effective than trying to control or simply responding to negative reviews, and while the initiative can be a tough one, it is the only way to truly separate yourself from your competitors. Even if you do an incredible job taking care of customers, don’t expect positive reviews to happen without your involvement. You must create a strong internal process to gain these reviews from your customers. When most people have a positive experience, they simply smile and drive down the road. If you’re lucky, they’ll tell a few people. In rare instances, these customers may actually go online without prompting and write you a positive review, but don’t count on it. Since you can’t get rid of negative reviews (you can only respond to them, and improve processes at your store), you must get committed to bombarding the few negative reviews with an onslaught of positive reviews. How can you do this? There are many techniques, including postcards in the store, iPads in the F&I office, email campaigns, and personal outreach. I personally think that an online approach; either during the purchase process or afterwards with an easy click-thru survey will yield the best results. But remember, in general, people will not give you positive reviews without you prompting them to do so.
5. Balance your Reputation Management work across multiple review sites and mobile. It sure would be nice and easy if all online reviews were housed in a single location, but that is not the case. Google, Yelp, DealerRater and many more exist, and you need to balance your approach. Start with measuring which of these sites is driving the most traffic to your website. A simple “Top Referrers” report in your website analytics tool should do the trick. How much traffic comes from your Google Places page? From Yelp? From DealerRater? Your initial Reputation Management strategy should focus on where the most eyeballs are, prior to visiting your site. If you find that several review sites are delivering decent traffic to your site, then balance the strategies across the various sites. Which sites are driving your mobile reviews? I’m a big user of both Foursquare and Yelp, and have both posted and read many business reviews on the mobile versions of these tools. What I’ve noticed is that these mobile reviews are much shorter and to the point. I also find myself more willing to read through them since they are small and easy to digest. Dealers need to pay attention to these short reviews, which often appear in the form of “tips”.
It seems like the world is a bigger place than it has ever been, while in reality, the Internet has made it a much smaller one. Dealers need to manage their reputations just like they did before the digital age, or perhaps even do a better job. Never before has it been so easy for consumers to quickly find out what other people think of your store. If you have “2 stars”, and plenty of negative reviews, trust me…your store is on fire, and any goodwill you think you have will be ashes in the future. Consumers have choices, and they will choose products and people who are more highly rated than their competitors. You have a choice too. Take action today, and don’t be left behind with your online reputation.