The first email Jeff Dyke, president of Sonic Automotive Inc., opens every morning isn’t from a fellow corporate executive or a manager at one of the retailer’s 96 franchised or used-only EchoPark stores. Instead, it’s a message containing the latest online reviews from Sonic’s customers.
Dyke said he and Sonic CEO David Smith wake each day eager to assess the public dealership group’s results as compiled by Reputation.com, a software vendor that monitors online customer reviews.
“Tomorrow morning at 4:30, sure as heck, I’ll get three Reputation.com emails, and we’ll open them up,” Dyke told Automotive News. “There’ll be 100 in there or whatever, and [we] review them all. Anybody who puts something out there, we’re reading about it.”
Dealership operators weren’t always so obsessive about online reviews.
Before search engines and rating sites, customers who took dealership complaints to cyberspace were more or less shouting into a void. But increasing digital shopping activity and the proliferation of sites such as Yelp, DealerRater and cars.com now require auto retailers to place their Internet popularity among their top priorities. Reputation experts agree that retailers should treat each online review or comment as capable of elevating — or eviscerating — a dealership’s brand.
Reputation.com is one tool dealerships lean on for help with online perceptions. The Silicon Valley software company published its first auto industry report card last August ranking auto retailers using internally generated reputation scores. The study examined more than 16,000 dealerships whether or not the stores used the platform.
Results of the study were taken seriously by industry executives, especially those whose retail operations led the pack. After AutoNation Inc., the largest U.S. dealership group, secured the highest rank among public retailers, the company posted a video of CEO Cheryl Miller accepting a trophy from Executive Chairman Mike Jackson. Around them, employees clapped and cheered.
Marc Cannon, chief marketing officer of AutoNation, said the retailer is proud of its No. 1 status.
“The trophy sits right up here at the executive offices. We work very hard at it. It’s a good gauge of what people think about us and how we’re doing with customers,” Cannon said.
Dealerships work hard to cultivate positive comments online and then promote those reviews.
Many, such as AutoNation, publish customer-centric accolades on their websites. Software vendors now embed positive online reviews directly onto dealership websites to make it easier for prospective customers to find.
Still, given the broad array of channels where customers can post reviews, managing online reputation is challenging. Auto retailers, however, are more willing to adapt than companies in other industries, according to Reputation.com CEO Joe Fuca. Much of that drive, particularly among the highest-rated dealerships, boils down to pride, he said.
For some dealers, “it’s always been part of their culture for high customer satisfaction, which is why I think online reputation has sort of gone along with it,” Fuca said. “This is not a newspaper game anymore. This is not a phone call game anymore. This has become an online research game.”
For dealerships watching out for online reputation, getting positive reviews starts and ends with the customer experience.
At Mercedes-Benz of Temecula in California, employee focus on customer satisfaction is paramount, said Amir Alahwal, business development manager. The store’s general manager has a “maniacal” passion for guest relations, he said.
“Here in Temecula, there are no five-star resorts or hotels,” Alahwal said. “Our goal here is to be the first five-star guest experience provided in the Temecula Valley.”
The dealership offers white-glove services, he said, including concierges and greeters at the store’s entrance. Even the landscaping around the building must be perfect. The dealership keeps a close eye on the satisfaction of its customers first in the store and then online, Alahwal said.
“Responding to reviews is very important, but it’s a bit deeper than that. It can impact your” search engine optimization, Alahwal said. “Just by responding to these reviews, it can push you up higher. Five-star, one-star, it doesn’t matter. It does have an impact.”
Some dealerships go to great lengths to ensure happy customers take to their keyboards.
Brian Bush, vice president of e-commerce for the Tom Bush Family of Dealerships in Jacksonville, Fla., created an incentive program for dealership employees in a bid to boost positive online reviews. He credits the program, which began in 2013, for dramatically improving the retailer’s online scores.
“We were decent before,” with the group’s six stores and body shop averaging a four-star Google rating, Bush said. Today, the group averages a 4.7-star rating.
Employees initially were paid $50 per positive review left by their customer. After a year, Bush decreased the incentive to $20. In 2016, the stores adopted Podium, a vendor that connects to the store’s customer relationship management software tool, DealerSocket, to message customers links to review sites. Bush decreased the incentive to $10 per review, acknowledging that automating the process increases the number of reviews each employee receives.
To lead to an incentive, reviews must be at least four stars and mention the specific sales or service employee who worked with the customer. If an employee gets a customer to post on multiple platforms, the incentive is paid for each review.
Since launching the program, Bush says he’s paid out $137,000 in incentives. One salesman, Steve Garcia at Tom Bush Volkswagen, thrives on the program, to date earning $18,000 in review incentives.
“He gets asked for all the time. He is consistently our No. 1 salesperson in the whole company,” Bush said, adding that Garcia’s sales numbers rise every year. In 2019, Garcia sold about 360 cars. Tom Bush Family of Dealerships, meanwhile, sold about 5,800 new and used vehicles in 2018
“It creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, not only for our store but for our salespeople,” Bush said. “A big part of that is reputation, both online and referrals.”
Technology tools can help dealerships manage their online reputations across platforms. And dealers should aim to stay on top of the various platforms, experts said, lest they end up with an uneven online persona. If a dealership has, for instance, a positive DealerRater score but negative Google and Better Business Bureau mentions, it could confuse and deter customers.
About 80 percent of all reviews for auto retailers are on Google, Reputation.com’s Fuca said. Depending on geographic location, Yelp could represent as many as 5 percent of reviews on the West Coast and as many as 1 percent on the East Coast, he said. But prioritizing a store’s reputation on just one site, rather than across platforms, can damage a dealers’ overall score with Reputation.com.
Erica Danford, vice president of managed services at Dealer.com, concurred that dealerships must be diligent across all sites.
“If somebody had this immaculate reputation in one site and terrible in another … that raises the question of what happened, right?” Danford said.
Meanwhile, dealership reputations can also be split by departments. A dealership can have a very positive online reputation for sales and a poor one for service, Danford said, or vice versa.
“It’s two different sides of the business, but they absolutely have to work in tandem,” she said.
Gary Willenborg, general manager of Capistrano Volkswagen-Mazda in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., said any dealership that doesn’t prioritize soliciting online reviews will get only negative ones.
“For the benefit of your business, solicit every customer,” Willenborg said. “We should be doing honest and ethical business. If not, we should be called out for it.”
Melissa Burden contributed to this report.