At Harper Auto Square in Knoxville, Tenn., having a great reputation was not a problem. “Customer satisfaction has always been the foundation of my dad’s business,” said Vice President Shannon Harper. His father, Dealer Principal Tom Harper, started the dealer group with a Porsche, Audi and Jaguar store in 1981. Today, Harper Auto Square has four rooftops carrying the three original brands as well as Infiniti, Acura and Volkswagen. And it will soon add a fifth rooftop with the addition of a Fiat franchise. Harper is also the largest dealer of certified pre-owned Volkswagens in Tennessee.
Not long after he assumed the role of vice president, Shannon suggested to his father that the dealership needed to be doing more in the way of online reputation management. His concern was that while the dealership already had an outstanding reputation, there was nothing online showing evidence of that fact. And in a day and age when nearly all car shoppers are researching and visiting dealerships online before ever setting foot in a showroom, this was simply unacceptable.
Harper estimated that 20 to 25 percent of the operation’s total sales come from Internet leads, but he added that, according to surveys sent out by his marketing manager, 98 percent of the outlet’s customers have researched the dealership online before buying from them.
“I looked at the way I do busi- ness with other companies,” he said, referring to steps he and some friends took a few year ago when they planned a trip to Gatlinburg, Tenn., and wanted to rent a chalet.
“The first thing I did was Google ‘Gatlinburg chalet rental,’ and I picked the one that had the best Google reviews,” he explained. “And I said, ‘This is a great advertisement.’ It didn’t cost them anything to do, and (the reviews) were spot-on ... We got exactly what we wanted at a good price.”
After the trip, the business solicited him for a review, a request that spurred Harper to ask: “Why can’t we do that?”
CREATING A DIGITAL REP
The foundation for such a practice was already there; Harper simply needed to work on a way to get the group’s reputation in its community to manifest online. “We had this wealth of goodwill built up in the community. We might as well communicate that somehow [online],” he stated.
The issue, however, was that the operation’s customers were more inclined to write letters to Harper’s stores rather than posting their review online. “We would — and we still do — get lots of letters from local people that are typed up or handwrit- ten, thanking us for (an employee’s) performance,” Harper said. The operation’s customers also were more inclined to contact Shannon or his father directly if they had an issue that needed to be addressed. Unfortunately, that connection between dealer and customer wasn’t reflected online.
“That was always how we gauged (our reputation) — comments from our customers and letters and e-mails,” Harper said. “The trick was figuring out a way to mine this out of people for us online so people can look at those letters over and over and over again.”
The solution was simple enough: “All it takes is just asking people, ‘Hey, our reputation is very important to us, and if you had a good experience with us, we wish you’d tell the world,’” Harper said. The challenge, he added, was getting his sales- people to do the asking.
“That’s the biggest thing — implementation,” Harper said.
That’s why he and his father made soliciting reviews a part of the sales and customer follow-up processes. “It’s just about making it a consistent process 100 percent of the time,” said Harper, adding that most of his sales- people are keenly aware of the value of online reviews, especially those written about individual sales consultants.
“It’s a pride thing for them,” Harper added. “They like to go on DealerRater and make sure they have five-star reviews. They see the value in it. They know that they’ve sold cars off of it.”
Early in the implementation process, Shannon said the dealer group offered some incentives to remind salespeople to make review solicitation part of their sales and follow-up process. “We had some contests within the dealership to see who could get the most reviews, and that really works,” Harper said. “A lot of our guys are naturally competitive.”
Harper Auto Square still runs occasional contests or offers other incentives to keep sales- people on their toes. “We do it randomly,” Harper said. “If it’s expected, then people are upset if they don’t get it. If you make it random, it’s more of a bonus.”
Harper did not seek any kind of outside service to help automate his operation’s reputation management process. “I don’t believe in those,” he stated. “You have to do it yourself. You’ve got to work hard and ask the people for the reviews.”
Harper cited DealerRater, Google and Yelp as the most frequented outlets for reviews, although, like other dealers have in recent months, he expressed some frustration over Google. “We’ve had a lot of reviews deleted by Google, and I have no idea why,” he said. “It is frustrating.”
Harper also noted that to post reviews on Google, a customer must have a Google account. That’s a problem, he added, as many of his customers don’t want to sign up for an account simply to be able to post a review. Despite the inconvenience, Harper said he can’t abandon his efforts to get his people to solicit reviews from customers, regardless of their willingness to sign up for a Google account.
“With so much of your traffic coming from Google, you have to be there,” Harper said. “You have to focus on it.”
DIFFUSE THE NEWS
Just as with traditional media like radio and television, certain online review venues might be more effective for dealers than others. A dealership’s market area also factors into the effectiveness of the review sites.
While Harper monitors a number of places for reviews and maintains a presence on a number of review and inventory listing sites (such as Cars.com), he has seen more results with DealerRater. “For some reason, in our market, Yelp is really fo- cused more on consumer discretionary products — restaurants and the hair salons — places that are much higher volume than car dealers,” he noted, adding that he hasn’t noticed too many dealers with a presence on Yelp.
“We have a presence [on Yelp], but I think that most people aren’t looking to Yelp as much as they are Google or DealerRater,” he stated. “I may be wrong, people may be going to Yelp more, but I look at the traffic hits from my Yelp versus our DealerRater and DealerRater is much higher.”
Harper is hands-on when it comes to monitoring the group’s reviews. “It’s not very time- consuming just to check your reviews, make sure everything looks good,” he said. He also prefers to personally look into and respond to any customer issues, adding that customers appreciate the fact that the group’s vice president cares enough to listen to their concerns and try to resolve their issues.
“Just like somebody who is involved with the community, I like to know what our customers think of us, and I take their suggestions seriously,” he said.
Harper said he first addresses the issue with the employee in question to get their side of the story, then he’ll give the customer a call or send him or her an e-mail the next day to let the customer know he saw the review, find out a little more about the situation, and ask them to let him know what he can do to resolve the problem. That simple gesture is enough to diffuse most situations, Harper said.
“Most of the time, people are very reasonable,” he said. “A lot of people take their daily stress and put it onto a service advisor or salesman. I just listen to them and try to do what I think is right.”
Even if the issue is resolved during a phone conversation, Harper makes sure to post a response to the negative review so other potential customers can see when an issue has been addressed and resolved. “The more involvement we show, it gives the impression to consumers that (we) really care about our customers,” he said. “I look at other dealers that don’t (post responses) and I think, ‘Oh, they just must not care.’”
Harper likened online reputation management to a defensive strategy. “It’s fine to have a couple bad reviews out there. I mean, you’re not going to please everybody 100 percent of the time, but if somebody goes online and all they read are two bad reviews from 2007, they’re probably going to have a little bit of doubt about doing business with you,” he said. “Whereas if they go online and they see hundreds of positive reviews, it reassures them that this is a good place to do business. And if you have an overwhelming majority of good reviews, you’re going to be very credible.”
While it can be difficult to monetize the results of reputation management efforts, Harper said he believes his team’s efforts online are part of a bigger overall strategy that is delivering success to the group. “Sales of all of our brands are up this year, (and) we’re on track to do an all-time record in sales and net profit,” he said late last year.
Near the end of the year, sales across all stores for 2012 were on track to retail 1,645 new vehicles and 1,053 used vehicles, up from 1,295 and 874, respec- tively, in 2011. The dealership’s reputation management efforts also mean they can spend a little less on advertising while still selling more cars. “It doesn’t really cost you any money at all,” Harper said. “And it’s something you should be doing anyway. I mean, could you have more effective advertising?”