Why did Cars.com, an online automotive marketplace, buy DealerRater, a website with 3 million reviews posted by dealership sales and service customers?

Are there risks to a dealership’s brand if individual salespeople get great reviews? How can reviews, good and bad, affect dealership operations? And in reviewing reviews, what distinguishes a well-done one from a ho-hummer?

Former DealerRater CEO Gary Tucker, who now heads telematics company Zubie, answers those questions – and more – in a WardsAuto Q&A. The interview was conducted before he switched jobs.

WardsAuto: What compelled Cars.com to acquire DealerRater?

Tucker: The driving force is that DealerRater is an established product that’s well-liked and appreciated, and Cars.com is looking for ways to help dealers and has an established network of 400 representatives calling on dealerships every day. On its own, DealerRater’s sales force was 16 people.

The short answer is to create more value for Cars.com.

WardsAuto: We interviewed former Cars.com CEO Mitch Golub when Cars.com first started posting consumer reviews of dealerships in 2011. He said at the time there was some pushback from dealers. Has that changed?

Tucker: It has changed and continues to change. There is consumer momentum. We get 72,000 reviews a month. Some dealers don’t fully understand the impact reviews have on their business.

WardsAuto: What is that impact?

Tucker: For one, little old DealerRater can drive a ton of SEO (search-engine optimization) attention. There’s a long reach of content. The transparency of third-party reviews drives culture changes in the dealership.

The reviews can spotlight people at the dealership, not just the dealership. The salespeople that win the best traffic deliver the best experience and get the best reviews. It’s a positive Darwinian force. The best salespeople get more and the worst salespeople get less.

The next evolution is how consumers will pick their salespeople online. The OEMs are very motivated to have shoppers connect with a good salesperson before the dealership visit. We call it the last mile: The connection between the shopper and the salesperson. When that goes wrong, it really goes wrong. The No.1 reason for leaving the dealership involves treatment, not product. 

WardsAuto: What does a salesperson do wrong? Is it a matter of not providing information or is it personality?

Tucker: More than anything, it involves the customer experience. How do you make people feel? It’s everything from rudeness, to dispassion to lack of product or inventory knowledge to leaving the customer alone for long stretches of time.  

WardsAuto: This putting the spotlight on the salesperson; is that something that’s happening because of the changing nature of auto retailing or are you driving it?

Tucker: We’ll be part of it, but I’d be exaggerating our role to say we’re driving it. Consumers are. That’s what makes it unstoppable.

WardsAuto: Where did it come from?

Tucker: From the consumers’ ability to do original research. Whether it is a dealership or a restaurant, there is an increased consumer expectation of what you’ll experience when you get to a place you’ve researched online.

WardsAuto: But I’ve never seen a restaurant review that recommends asking for a particular server. Why is that relevant to a dealership?

Tucker: Because when you buy a car, the vehicle is similar to or the same as someone else’s. Essentially, they are all good cars. The differentiator is how you are treated during the buying process. At a fine restaurant, the service can matter, but you are there for the food. In that case, the product is the differentiator.

WardsAuto: Doesn’t focusing on reviews of individual salespeople create organizational and workflow issues for a dealer. It could create a scenario where customers are asking for a particular salesperson who gets backed up.

Tucker: I would hope the dealer would have a way of managing that, but what a great problem to have: people wanting to buy cars from that dealership because of the way Jim the salesperson treats people.

WardsAuto: Wouldn’t a dealer be more interested in branding and promoting the dealership as a whole, rather than the individuals who work for it?

Tucker: We asked people using DealerRater, “When making a referral, are you referring the dealership or the salesperson who sold you a car?” Seventy percent said, “The salesperson.” In the changing auto retailing world, there are dealers who are helping their salespeople build their own personal brands. There are others who feel “It’s all about my name being on the building; we’re going to promote my name.”

WardsAuto: But the fear I would have as a dealer is not that I wouldn’t get credit but that salespeople touted on DealerRater walk out the door and take their cultivated reputation with them.

Tucker: You have to have a good brand. You have to have a great facility. But people have to like buying a car from your store. That’s where the salespeople come in. But if someone leaves one store and goes to another, his or her DealerRater profile at the dealership they left comes down.  Pretty soon you are reading about the next great salesperson who hired in at that dealership.

WardsAuto: Do reviews have shelf lives?

Tucker: The experience I had at your dealership 24 months ago isn’t really pertinent, whether it was good or bad. It’s probably not indicative of the way things are today.

WardsAuto: The dealer might say it is, especially if it were a 5-star review.

Tucker: They don’t say that if it’s 1-star.

WardsAuto: What’s more important, a review’s content or the star rating?

Tucker: Content is far more important.  We researched it. Stars don’t really convey a story, content does. A reviewer’s story, whether it is about a sales experience or a service-department experience, continues to draw the attention. The more color in the story the better.

Our research also indicates if you have an occasional 1-star review among a bunch of 4- and 5-star reviews, it will attract more customers to the dealership. If a dealer responds well to a 1-star review, it attracts more customers than a 5-star does.

The dealer platform allows dealers to respond either publicly or privately to reviewers. Research shows if a dealer takes ownership of a problem and tries to fix it, people respond very positively. But it blows my mind how many negative reviews have zero responses.

WardsAuto: I’m reluctant to say I was recently on the Mr. Clean website. I was painting my living room and wanted to know if Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser was good for prepping walls. Some reviewers called it a great product, some said it fell apart in your hand. To each complaint, a company responder said, “Sorry to hear that, give us a call.” That was it. As a review reader, I felt shut out. I wanted to read something more than that. Have you found that to be the case with DealerRater?

Tucker: I would say that just as the compelling part of the review is the story, so is the response.

WardsAuto: What about whack-job reviews in which someone goes off on an unjustified rant? Are those harmful to a dealership?

Tucker: Consumers have a reasonable outlook. You can’t B.S. today’s consumer, especially young people. They’re not easily swayed by a review that is obviously over the top. In a social-media world, you are going to see some unfair reviews.

WardsAuto: Do you read the reviews on DealerRater?

Tucker: I probably read them every day.

WardsAuto: What makes for a good review?

Tucker: It contains something personal about the experience, some expression of emotion, something that enhances someone’s understanding when they read it.

WardsAuto: Lot of changes in the industry, right?

Tucker: So much has changed. One thing that hasn’t is that cars are sold one at a time, face to face. Maybe in the future there will be a different way. But we’re not there now.