Commentary

Did car dealerships improve customer treatment over the years, and consequently do today’s positive online consumer reviews reflect that?

Or did the popularity of the reviews spur dealerships to make those improvements, lest they get publicly slammed for real and perceived mistakes?

I pose that chicken-egg question to Jack Simmons, who heads Cars.com’s online training for dealers. “It’s a bit of both,” he replies.

Dealers certainly recognize the power of online consumer reviews that are so pervasive now. But even before the advent of those reviews, dealers had been making strides in customer relations. Nudging that along were customer-satisfaction surveys that auto makers asked car buyers to fill out. Those date back nearly three decades. Submitted information was and still is for internal use; auto makers don’t release the findings.

“Before the popularity of online reviews of dealerships and of everything else, most dealers had very good CSI (customer-satisfaction index) scores of 85%-plus,” Simmons says.

Comparably, 80% of online dealer reviews award four to five stars. One could argue that online reviews help dealers stay on top of their game, but improvements in quality of service occurred much earlier.

For better or worse, the reviews put dealers in the public eye. Prior to that, “dealers who were less than stellar in the way they treated customers were able to hide it for a time,” Simmons says.

In those days, miffed customers might tell a few friends and relatives about a bad dealership experience. Now, they inform thousands of fellow social networkers. Cars.com says eight of 10 online car shoppers look at those reviews before deciding where to buy.

Dealer reviews started with eBay in a rudimentary way about 15 years ago. Then third-party automotive websites started posting dealership ratings about 10 years ago. Things have really taken off in recent years.

“Customers can do it now without going through an arduous process,” Simmons notes. “They can log on and do it in seconds from their smartphones. And dealers have come around to realizing people are talking about them online.”

Cars.com started posting dealer reviews this year. One of Simmons’ duties is to train dealers on how to get customers to submit reviews, preferably positive ones.

I wonder if some dealers might go overboard in asking customers for good reviews, much like they cajoled buyers to grade their stores well on auto maker satisfaction surveys.

Some dealers resorted to sending flowers, candy and cookies along with a letter thanking customers for their business and adding, in effect, “Oh, you’ll soon get a satisfaction survey from the manufacturer. Please make us look good. Enjoy the snickerdoodles.”

That approach can backfire with online reviews, Simmons cautions. “We never suggest a dealer compensate someone for a review. I recall a dealer doing that, and the customer posted a review saying, ‘Boy, this sure was a lot of work for a free car wash.’

“It devalues all the other reviews that weren’t incentivized. That flawed one can haunt you. A good dealership doesn’t have to beg for good reviews.”

Most dealers and other business people know the Internet lets consumers share their buying experiences with the cyberspace multitudes. “We have to adjust to this world where people relate just about every experience they have,” Simmons says.

No one can seriously oppose consumer empowerment, but what about abusive people using Internet reviews because they didn’t get everything they wanted, whether they deserved it or not?

A business presumably could make all the right moves and still get slammed by the perpetually unsatisfied. It’s a catchy slogan but, truth is, the customer isn’t always right. Try telling that to unreasonable online reviewers, though.

But most review readers disregard online rants, Simmons says. “People are pretty intelligent. They can filter out vindictive stuff. They look for honest assessments, not hostilities.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com