DANA POINT, CA –Complaints can lead to enhanced customer loyalty if car dealerships handle them well and resolve grievances before they pass the point of no return.

“If a dealership proves it can solve problems, it will retain more customers,” says Peter Ord, a trainer and business developer for DealerSocket, a customer-relationship management firm.

“Customer complaints are almost a blessing in disguise,” he says, contending that most people with beefs appreciate a dealership taking them seriously. “None of us are perfect. Customers understand that.”

If dealerships know how to patch things up with miffed customers, 70% will not take their business elsewhere, Ord says, citing National Automobile Dealers Assn. statistics.

Although auto makers for decades have conducted dealership customer-satisfaction surveys of car buyers, many dealers now use CRM systems and email to do their own surveys, usually ahead of manufacturers sending theirs out.

That way, if customers register complaints, the dealership knows first, and can potentially resolve them before the auto maker’s survey arrives.

“If the dealership survey comes back at a less-than-satisfactory level, the dealership can do a “so-sorry” campaign,” Ord says.

That appeasement effort consists of quickly acknowledging a complaint, assigning an employee to resolve it and sending the matter up to management if things aren’t progressing.

“Sometimes, a free oil change is enough to resolve an issue,” Ord says.

The purpose of dealerships doing their own surveys is not just to beat the auto makers to the customer. It’s also a matter of a store measuring its performance and identifying possible operational problems that need fixing.

Moreover, satisfaction surveys and plans of action to address reported dissatisfaction help dealers protect their reputation. That’s particularly important at a time when the discontented can express themselves to large audiences on social-media websites.

Online dealer reviews exert much influence. 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.

Ninety percent of shoppers using reviews say they are helpful, says Kathy Kimmel, director-training for Cars.com. She recommends a 4-point approach to review success:

  • Monitor and collect feedback and share it across the dealership.
  • Quickly acknowledge and reply to negative feedback and correct any underlying issues at the store.
  • Share positive reviews with prospective buyers. Reward staff for success.
  • Ask satisfied customers to post reviews.

Andrew DeFio, general manager of Hyundai of St. Augustine in Florida, makes it a point to guide pleased clients to dealer-rating sites.

“Andrew tells them it’s important to the dealership for them to share their feedback,” Ord says at a DealerSocket best-practices conference for clients here. “It’s half the battle. If you handle unhappy customers – and you should – you should also handle happy customers.”

Dealers shouldn’t expect every customer to submit glowing reviews on every site. In fact, a barb here and there helps credibility.

“If all reviews are good, it looks gamed,” Ord says. “But you want more good ones than bad.”

People who return positive satisfaction surveys should get a “thank you” response and a request that they share their warm feelings on dealer-rating sites, he says.

He advises dealers to send surveys to more than just buyers. Prospects who end up not buying should get questionnaires, too.

“Why didn’t they buy?” Ord says. “Was it the price, the sales person or the fact that the dealership didn’t have the car they wanted? We should find out.

“Ninety percent of the time, unsold prospects never get surveyed. You don’t know anything about them. So there is a big opportunity here.”

Whether surveying buyers or non-buyers, keep it short, Ord says. “A lot of people feel oversurveyed.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com