Social networking websites often become open forums in which Internet users either praise or pan dealerships.

“It ranges from saying, ‘I’m recommending you to everyone I know’ to, “You suck,’” says Aaron Strout, chief marketing officer at Powered Inc., a brand-building firm.

Dealers and other business people dread the latter, but he sees it as an opportunity to fix a broken relationship.

“If a customer is saying something bad about you, wouldn’t you like to be a part of that conversation?” Strout says. “It is a chance to find out why someone is upset and possibly turn critics into advocates or at least stop them from badmouthing you.”

Whether it’s good, bad or ugly, customers always have discussed dealership experiences.

“It’s just that now they’re doing it online,” says Jared Hamilton, the head of DrivingSales.com, a firm that leverages the marketing power of the Internet. “And because they are online, a dealer can see it and do something about it.”

That applies to social networking websites as well as specific sites for Internet users to rate dealerships. Hamilton says even good dealers should expect to get an occasional rap.

“When I see five stars down the line it indicates to me that it’s gamed,” he says at an Internet conference his firm hosted in Las Vegas. “What you want to do if you get a poor review is engage, showing that you care.”

There’s always going to be unsatisfied customers you can’t please, “like the guy that wants a new car to replace the used car he bought,” says Tony Giorgione, digital director at United Family Dealerships in Las Vegas.

He even goes so far as to tell some people right from the start of a complaint call, “Look, I’m not going to give you a new car.” That typically lowers their expectations and often clears the way to a resolution, he says.

There’s no need to fear negative feedback from bloggers, either, says Angie Sherrell, vice president and general manager of GS Marketing Group Inc., which works with Toyota and Lexus dealers.

“It’s just a matter of dealing with them effectively,” she says. “Dealers need to think about listening and learning.”

But a slew of negative online comments will hurt, just as a bunch of them will help, says Adam Simms, general manager of Toyota Sunnydale in Sunnydale, CA.

“An open online forum of people reporting on us is going to affect sales one way or another,” he says. “It’s a tough frontier now.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com