There still are some slow learners, but most car dealers got good grades from consumers who reviewed their online customer relations, according to a new study.

Fifty-six percent of dealers received four or five stars, 10% three stars and 34% rated only one or two stars. That’s based on a review of more than 1,000 written reviews from active car shoppers posting their views with CarGurus, an automotive research and shopping website.

Poor communication and deceptive business practices dominated the negative reviews. Friendly service and upfront, timely communication were cited most often by happy customers.

“The results show dealers in general have good reputations but some of them haven’t fully embraced the online channel,” CarGurus CEO Langley Steinert tells Ward’s.

For dealerships that scored poorly, a common theme is a failure to respond to customer emails promptly, if at all.

In the Internet age, “people want instant gratification,” or at least fast answers, Steinert says. Dealers whom online raters scored well responded to online inquiries “quickly and accurately.”

“In this age of online information transparency, reputation matters more than ever,” he says. “Dealers who have embraced this new online paradigm are winning customers.”

He adds, “For most car shoppers today, the dealer relationship begins online, and that has changed the game for consumers and dealers alike.”

Dealers at the front of the class treated customers with basic courtesy. “A lot of it is motherhood and apple pie and being nice,” Steinert says.

Dealership staffers who apparently could use some remedial learning tend to avoid providing online answers, saying instead, “Come on down to the dealership and I can give you all the information.”

But that fails to resonate with many Internet users, particularly young car shoppers “who want to do a lot of their legwork online,” Steinert says.

From the CarGurus study, the top five consumer complaints about dealers scoring low are:

  • Lack of response. Particularly annoying were failures to answer emails or phone calls about an advertised car.
  • _The old bait and switch. Consumers cited instances in which a car featured on the dealer’s website did not match anything on the lot. They also found it vexing when they went to a store and were told a car they expressed an interest in had “just been sold.” They felt duped into visiting the dealership, then pressured to consider other cars.
  • eCommunications disconnect. Consumers cited frustrations in getting accurate, prompt answers from dealer staff via email. Others cited inconsistent communications between the dealer’s online staff and showroom staff. In some cases, what was promised in an initial email contact proved to be inaccurate once the consumer visited the dealer’s location.
  • Bad manners. Consumers cited instances of rude, arrogant or uninformed service. Others indicated they do not like feeling pressured to buy.
  • 5Wasted time. Miffed consumers report getting the runaround and driving to the dealership only to find the car no longer available, with no prior notification. In some cases, they complained of waits despite appointments and of being asked to fill out lengthy paperwork before shown the car they wanted.

Top five reasons customers gave high ratings to dealers:

  • Friendly, professional service. Courtesy and respect are crowd pleasers. Many consumers with good dealer experiences commented on staffers who were sensitive to their needs. They commended specific sales people and expressed future loyalty.
  • Fast response. Many positive consumer reviews praised dealers for their quick response to online inquiries about a car.
  • Forthright, accurate answers. Consumers were grateful for dealers’ willingness to provide detailed answers via email or phone rather than pushing for a location visit.
  • Clean stores, clean cars. Many favorable reviews commented on dealership cleanliness and the appearance of used-car interiors.
  • Good prices. Consumers who felt they had purchased a car at a competitive or fair price were generally pleased with their dealer.

Steinert is co-founder and former chairman of TripAdvisor, the largest travel website in the world and one known for user-generated reviews of hotels.

The hotel industry has done a good job of monitoring online reviews and taking corrective action, when necessary, he says.

“It is human nature that people want to share their experiences with others. The Internet gives them a bigger stage.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com