Online reviews help car dealers learn what’s on shoppers’ minds, says Jack Simmons, Internet trainer for Cars.com.

Whether good or bad, the feedback is important, he says, though obviously a dealer wants the former to outpace the latter.

Positive reviews spur sales and give dealers bragging rights. Poor evaluations offer dealers a chance to fix a problem and retain a customer before it’s too late.

“Today, people online talk about everything they do, and so reviews across all areas of business have increased exponentially,” Simmons tells WardsAuto. “Dealers are using best practices to adapt to this consumer behavior.”

He hosts a recently debuted online training series, “In It to Win It,” with a football theme. Program participants’ engagement has exceeded expectations, he says. Topics include how dealers can foster reviews, leverage good ones and address beefs.

Online reviews are important to dealers and vital to consumers, Simmons says, citing industry surveys.

Seventy percent of shoppers said they used online reviews during their car-buying process, and 90% indicated they would use them in picking a dealership.

Simmons recommends dealers build up customer reviews by doing the following:

  • Kick off a reputation-management campaign by appealing to loyal clientele. Send them email links to review sites.
  • Ask every customer for a review, making it part of the deal-closing process.
  • Make sure the entire dealership team knows to request reviews, including service-department staffers. “Ninety-one percent of car shoppers will read service reviews before buying a car from you.”
  • Use postcards, mirror tags, online widgets and sales-floor desk signs to tout reviews.

Cars.com this year began offering dealer reviews on its automotive marketplace website. The company notifies dealers whenever a review is posted about them.

Dealers should respond to all of those, Simmons says. “Some dealers think you don’t need to respond to the positive reviews, but you should express appreciation that someone took the time to write.”

He recommends dealers follow up on poor reviews and promise to fix any problems. “Turn these into opportunities to make things right. This shows you care about the level of service you provide.”

Many Internet users take note when a dealer posts that he or she has resolved a complaint.

Leads are four times more likely to convert to sales when a dealer has reviews on a website, says Cars.com CEO Mitch Golub.

The vast majority of reviews submitted to the Cars.com website pass a screening process that includes scrubbing emails, eliminating offensive language and flagging multiple reviews from an individual IP address.

Most dealer reviews are positive. The average dealer rating is 4.4 out of 5.0. Two dealers, miffed about getting panned, temporarily withdrew from Cars.com’s opt-in program.

One came back five days later, the other seven days later. “They told us that after they got over their anger, they found their stores did have problems that warranted the bad reviews,” Golub says. “And they fixed the problems.”

Although some dealers fear getting knocked online, “reviews are one of the greatest things that have happened to dealers,” he says.

Sometimes it is hard to get customers to write reviews, says Brian Armstrong, e-commerce director, Volkswagen South Towne in Sandy, UT.

To address that, his dealership facilitates submissions by asking in-store customers to write reviews using a portable electronic pad and writing stylus. Participants can rate by stars and pen comments. The handwritten reviews are posted as-is on the dealership website.

“Keeping them in handwritten form increases the veracity,” Armstrong says. “Whatever is written is posted.”

The click rate for the Web page containing the reviews has jumped, he says.

It’s vital for dealers to build review volumes, Simmons says. “If you have 30 great reviews and one negative review, people reading them are going to weigh that. It’s a lot better than having one good review and one bad.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com