A growing number of car buyers are using website consumer reviews to decide which auto dealerships to visit.

“Car buyers want to know how a store stacks up,” says Kathy Kimmel, director-training for Cars.com. “Nearly one in three used-car Internet shoppers read online dealer reviews. Ninety percent of shoppers using reviews say they are helpful.”

After reading reviews, 21% of Internet users changed their choice of a dealership and 43% used the information to select a store, says a study by the Cobalt Group, a digital automotive marketing firm.

Forty-five percent confirmed their dealership choice after checking out reviews on dealer-rating sites, such as DealerRater, Carfolks.com and Dealership Ratings.com and MyDealerReport.com.

Some dealers may cringe at getting a bad review, especially from a disgruntled customer with an ax to grind — or even a vexed ex-employee posing as a customer — who now has an open forum to do damage.

But the vast majority of dealer reviews are affirmative. The Cobalt study found 86% of them positive, 10% negative and 4% neutral.

Occasional raps shouldn't induce a dealer panic attack, Kimmel says at a Cars.com Advantage webinar. “You don't need all positive reviews. Consumers put reviews in context. They don't judge a business on one. No business is perfect.”

If a review is a pure rant, “people consider the tone,” she says. “If it is totally negative, people spot and weigh that.”

Many negative reviews carry a positive potential, because they can alert a dealer to problems that require attention.

“Reviews help dealers understand what's working and what needs improvement,” Kimmel says.

The important thing is not glowing feedback all the time, but for good reviews to outnumber bad ones by a fairly wide margin, she says. “Consumers weigh negative reviews in relation to the number of positive reviews.”

Dealers can get thumbs-up ratings by asking for them, says Joshua Fichter, director-operations at Five Star Ford in North Richland Hills, TX.

His dealership asks those of new- and used-car buyers, as well as service, parts and accessory customers.

It is not much different than urging happy customers to fill out an auto maker's dealership customer-satisfaction form, he says. “The only difference is that everyone is seeing what's written, not just the manufacturer.”

Good reviews have spurred some Five Star Ford customers to drive long distances to buy there, he says.

But bad reviews are not lost causes. “It doesn't matter so much if you have a bad review; what matters is if you turn that customer around,” Fitchter says. “They may change the bad review to a positive one, but the most important thing is that they continue to do business with you.”

He suggests dealerships appoint a staffer to keep tabs on reviews, someone who can “watch the process and see patterns.”

Kimmel recommends a 4-point approach to review success:

  • Monitor

    Collect feedback from across the Internet and share it across the dealership.

  • Respond

    Acknowledge and reply to negative feedback and correct any underlying issues at the store.

  • Solicit

    Deliver a positive customer experience, then ask satisfied customers to post reviews.

  • Promote

    Share positive reviews with prospective buyers. Reward sales and service staff for success.

Jeff Wyler Automotive Family, a dealership group based in Cincinnati, actively seeks good ratings from customers, says Kevin Frye, e-commerce director. “Proactively work to get positive reviews or you may get a lot of bad ones.”

Wyler works to build up its online reputation, then leverages that through social-media sites, links and email templates.

“We let our customers sell our dealerships for us,” Frye says. “We are constantly promoting the organization by saying, ‘Look at what others say about us.’”

Failure can come from cheating the system by writing great reviews about yourself or bad reviews about your competitors, Kimmel says. “The rating sites have become savvy about spotting that.”

She notes DealerRater, if it catches a dealership pulling a fast one, will post this warning for six months: “This dealership has written fraudulent reviews which have been removed.”

The main areas of concern are consumers who use bogus reviews to “extort something from the dealer” and “dealers who try to game the system,” says Mark Dubis, Carfolks.com's executive vice president-marketing.

Many sites sell monthly subscriptions to dealers. Carfolks subscribers automatically get notified when a negative review is posted.

“They can contact the customer and fix the issue,” Dubis says. “Then the customer can update the review once the problem is solved.

“If they can't reach a resolution, the dealer can post what was offered to the customer to resolve the issue. Some customers are just unreasonable, so dealers need to be able to tell their side of the story.”

Ratings Game Players

Here are some of the more popular sites containing dealer reviews: