Reputation, Review Sites and the Automotive Shopper

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The consumer journey to the purchase of a vehicle is a long, and often hard one to track and provide solid management advice towards. As often discussed with clients, there is no one media that will sell a vehicle for you – successful auto advertising is about your dealership’s share of touch points within that path to the sale. More and more frequently, one of those touch points is becoming the reputation and review sites. And those sites are becoming more visible. And yes, there are more of them than ever. It is important to ask yourself, how much of my online reputation, and my response to those reviews, affects whether I ever get the opportunity to speak to that potential customer. When does that review have the most impact – where does it fall in the consumer journey?

We at UpShift Digital, feel that online reputation is an extremely valuable tool – when used correctly – in the automotive consumer path to the sale.  And an extremely detrimental tool if not used correctly. In a project in which we are currently engaged, it is obvious that some dealerships are very aware of how the consumer uses review and reputation sites. However, others have yet to discover how dangerous an unmanaged consumer opinion can be.

The first step in realizing the value of the online review in the auto buying cycle is to understand which customers are at risk with the information they may find. In a 2015 article published by the international marketing-research firm, The Mintel Group, the “constantly connected” consumer, which is just about everyone, has the potential to include a review or opinion in their final decision making. Knowing that most consumers have some idea of what they are going to buy – type of vehicle, new versus used, buy versus lease etc. – a majority of consumers have yet to determine where they are going to buy that vehicle. As we know, dealer loyalty is sadly a thing of the past. Manufacturers would not rely (and incent) maintaining in ASA (‘sales area’) brand penetration so much if it were not. So whom does it affect? According to the Mintel Group article, 69% of American consumers are likely to visit user review or independent review sites before making a purchase. Fifty seven percent of shoppers are using social media sites for recommendations. According to Fiona O’Donnell, Lifestyles Category Manager at Mintel, “consumers are looking to … peers and strangers alike … to validate the choices they’ve made and avoid feelings of buyers’ remorse.” While reviews are most powerful for shoppers 25 – 34, a majority of the entire group of 18 – 54 year olds will agree that online reviews play a part in their decision-making. According to Alexi Venneri, co-founders of Digital Air Strike, social media and review sites are the primary tools used to select a dealership. In a November article from Auto Remarketing, we learn that 50% of car buyers listed a review site as most influential in their dealer decision, compared to only 16% saying the same thing about a dealer site.  A good review will also extend the distance someone is willing to drive to make the purchase.

While the age demographic covers a very wide swath of automotive consumers, it is important to understand who is being affected, from a financial perspective. Seeking the opinion of others is often associated with higher household incomes. That makes sense, since those consumers are looking beyond just price – they are looking for the bigger picture – how will I be treated in the showroom, how will I be treated in the service department after the sale. And, again according to Mintel, those opinion seekers, whether thru user review sites, independent review sites, or social media, state that they are going to spend more money now than they did in prior years on those products, which includes autos. So it seems pretty safe to say that your online reputation is a valuable touch point in driving your customers into your email box and showroom.

In working on our current project, we are looking at several very popular review sites. We are monitoring Google, Cars.com, DealerRater (which is associated with AutoTrader) and Yelp. All of the sites use the same 5 star methodologies. Every dealer we reviewed had some posts on each of the sites. When it comes to responding to those reviews, is when the journey gets very different. The two places that tend to have to most responses are Facebook and Cars.com. Google and Yelp are most frequently ignored. And DealerRater does not appear to allow dealer response, which seems counter intuitive to how the opinion process is supposed to work. There will likely always be situations of less than satisfied customers, but how the dealership responds to those customers may very well overcome a large amount of the originally negativity.

It is very understandable why Cars.com would have the most review responses – it is an auto intender site – everyone on the site is interested in a vehicle and is somewhere in the sales funnel. Facebook is also obvious because, let’s face it, everyone is there. (And interestingly enough almost every dealer we checked had more Facebook reviews than other sites). But why are Yelp and Google not being monitored and responded to with the same gusto? On Google, the most common place to find the reviews are when someone is searching for a dealership by name – that is when your store is showing up on the right hand side of the page as a business directory listing (or within a map is someone is searching dealerships around them). That’s a pretty important place to make sure you’ve responded to every single comment – they may very well be looking for driving directions to head on over. Yelp is a broad category review site, meaning that everything is there from restaurants to shopping locations to your car dealership. The consumer adds your dealer profile, so if you have never looked, you are likely there. According to DMR, a site that aggregates statistics, Yelp has 90 million reviews as of October, 2015. Those reviews are read by an average 142 million monthly visitors, 36% of whom are 35 – 54 and 60% of whom are college graduates.

Perhaps one reason why there were so many reviews not responded to, was that they were for the dealership service department. Do dealers log on to their review sites, and working in sales, think that negative reviews for someone getting an oil change won’t have anything to do with someone choosing that dealership for a new or used vehicle purchase? That is a very dangerous mistake. One of the most important factors in where you purchase a vehicle is where you are going to have your vehicle services. Especially if you are a customer within the dealer’s ASA – that means it is the closest dealership to your home or work. It is a bad idea not to make sure those reviews – good or bad – are acknowledged and responded to, in a way that will be viewed as a positive response to a bad situation.

It is a store decision who responds to the reviews. While it looks impressive if the owner is responding to each customer, it seems unlikely that would actually be reality. However, it may make sense for an owner (or someone representing the owner) to respond to an especially negative review. In most cases a sales or a service representative will be fine. It does seem to make sense to have a different person respond to service versus sales – what would happen if a customer picked up the phone and called the store to speak with who responded – a service customer and a salesperson responded – think how many time that customer is likely to get transferred around the store before getting to speak to someone that can help them. Timing of response is important as well. The sooner you respond to the issue the better. Not only will that help it get quickly resolved, but also it will show the other potential customers reading the review, that issues are handled promptly in your store.

The reputation and review sites appear to becoming one of the most influential and final steps in the consumer journey of choosing a dealer and purchasing a vehicle. Actively managing the major sites, including Google and Yelp, will help your potentials have more confidence in their decision to shop you. And manage all of your reviews – sales or service – good or bad. It is too risky to assume who it is that your customer sees as their peer and trusted advisor.

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