One of the greatest factors influencing the ability to attract new customers rests in managing customer reviews, says Ali Fawaz, managing director for worldwide automotive at Reputation. - IMAGE: Getty Images

One of the greatest factors influencing the ability to attract new customers rests in managing customer reviews, says Ali Fawaz, managing director for worldwide automotive at Reputation.

IMAGE: Getty Images

Reputation isn’t a popularity contest; it’s money in the bank.

That’s the motto of Reputation, a company that collects feedback from multiple sources to help automotive companies determine where they stand with customers.

Ali Fawaz, managing director for worldwide automotive at Reputation, offers insight into how companies can evaluate, manage and improve their online reputations.

He has worked in the auto industry for 14 years, first with a marketing agency working on Ford.com and Lincoln.com brand websites. Then, he transitioned to the client side to manage Ford’s social media reputation. Today, he works with OEMs and large dealer groups to improve their online visibility and reputations.

“We help companies get found, get chosen and improve the overall customer experience to drive more business opportunities to OEMs and retail dealers,” he explains.

One of the greatest factors influencing the ability to attract new customers rests in managing customer reviews, he says.

“Reviews play a major factor in the customer shopping experience. In fact, the entire customer journey often begins online with customers doing research, including looking at reviews,” says Fawaz.

He estimated 80% of customers say reviews are a key factor in selecting a car dealership when searching for a vehicle to buy or to have one serviced. Most consumers will read at least five reviews before deciding to visit a specific dealership because the reviews describe the shopping experience others have had.

A positive experience weighs so heavily on consumer decision‐making that nearly two‐thirds of customers say they would travel over 20 miles to shop at a top‐rated business, Fawaz says. It is part of human nature.

“If customers are looking at reviews to decide where to buy or service a car, will they drive 20 miles to visit a three‐star store or one with a 4.5‐star rating?” he asks.

Establishing a Big Footprint

Reviews are just part of the story. The customer decision‐making process also includes technology where digital tools play a huge role in how customers receive information.

“Google plays a significant role in what customers see when they are looking for businesses online,” says Fawaz. “So, dealerships need to get found first and they do that by making sure they have a big footprint on a variety of platforms. They need a presence wherever reviews are being collected and then spread those reviews across multiple platforms.”

When people search for "dealerships near me" on a mobile device, Google comes back with what’s called a “local pack” of three or four locations, he explains. One thing Google evaluates in determining how to rank a business in search results is the level of customer sentiment about a particular store.

“To be one of those top three or four businesses is a highly coveted space,” says Fawaz. “So, if I own a dealership, I want to make sure my business shows up there. Google relies on the quantity of reviews available online as well as the sentiment of those reviews and what type of engagement is happening or not happening at the business.”

For example, if a company has thousands of reviews, but they are all two‐ or three‐stars, they won’t rank as high as a company with a hundred five‐star reviews.

“Google wants to make sure it serves up the most relevant information to consumers. So, if you're engaging with customers, then you likely have a sizable number of reviews,” says Fawaz. “But, if your reviews are negative or you're not responding to customers, the chance of your firm being listed in one of those top four spots is significantly lower.

“If you are not appearing in the top results and customers aren't finding you, that means they will not choose your store or contemplate a visit,” he adds.

Biggest Driver of Reviews

With positive reviews, customer service remains the primary driver for automotive dealers. Despite the rise of digital shopping and the ability to buy a car online, the sales process remains a largely face‐to‐face human‐centered experience, Fawaz explains.

In fact, 65% of car shoppers say they are influenced significantly by in‐person interactions. On the flip side, pricing is the top driver of negative reviews, he notes.

“That's where we see the most sensitivity right now, especially with inventory shortages,” he explains. “The problem is causing some frustration in that prices are going up because inventory levels are down.”

Besides reviews, sensitivity around the price of inventory also influences how far customers have to travel to find theinventory they want.

“Somehow dealerships must find creative ways to offset that negative experience caused by rising prices being imposed on the industry,” says Fawaz.

Flipping Reviews

Dealerships with negative reviews should not despair because it’s still possible to turn those situations around by showing the firm actually listens to customers. The primary way to prove that is by engaging with people who leave reviews, whether good or bad.

“You want to respond to customers online to let them know you're listening, are aware of the problem and want to resolve the situation,” says Fawaz. “Just showing that you're listening often goes a long way toward showing a customer you really care about their experience.

“If you can resolve the problem, then that takes things to the next level where a customer may even go back and change that review,” he adds. “It may go from a one‐star review to four‐stars by simply acknowledging the customer’s situation.”

Once a dealership responds online, it is critically important for staff to take the conversation offline and resolve the matter, if possible. Some customers refuse to be satisfied. However, responding to a review shows other customers the business will take time to hear what customers have to say and work on a situation versus not responding and ignoring the customer's problem.

“Sometimes, all it takes to overcome a negative review is to show potential consumers how a company handles poor situations,” says Fawaz. “People will still want to do business with a company it perceives as being responsive.

Customers will look at negative reviews to see how you handle those situations.”

However, when a company has a negative review that it knows is not going away, the trick is to get more positive reviews to reduce the impact of a negative one. For example, 10 negative reviews out of 20 would put the company in a bad light. But 10 negative evaluations out of 250 would show an anomaly, he explains.

Yet, good and bad reviews are very valuable information for any business—especially the auto industry.

“For the longest time, the industry relied solely on surveys that went out after a customer bought or serviced a vehicle. Those surveys offer little perspective on a customer’s experience because they only look at the satisfaction of customers who actually made a purchase or had a service experience in the store,” says Fawaz.

“So, if that is the only perspective you get, you’re not seeing the whole picture because it doesn't consider people who came into the store but left without making a purchase or having a vehicle serviced,” he explains.

Surveys sent after a customer experience don’t show what else was happening at the store when the customer visited. Receiving a survey a week after a transaction is helpful, but not as beneficial as unsolicited reviews left immediately on social media and other platforms, he adds.

By monitoring social media interactions, dealerships have a complete picture of what's happening at the store. Managers are better able to understand patterns and identify things they can correct to provide a better experience for the next customer who comes in.

Impact of Digital Retailing

Another factor influencing user experience reviews is a company’s ability to provide services in whatever ways customers want to interact with staff.

For example, do customers have the ability to begin a credit application process online from their homes, or must they come into the dealership? Is a dealership willing to drop a vehicle off at a customer’s home or pick him or her up at their home when service is complete?

“Those things play a larger role in the auto space in terms of customer experience. Customers who do not want to come into a dealership appreciate having this kind of high‐touch experience available,” says Fawaz.

Another thing businesses are seeing is customers wanting to engage with a dealership through multiple messaging platforms, such as text messages or Facebook Messenger.

“These types of platforms are native to consumers. That's how they engage with friends and family. We are finding they want to engage with retail brands in the same fashion,” he explains.

Dealers are setting up new ways to listen to customers and engage with them. Those who don’t take the initiative are missing out on opportunities, says Fawaz. The same holds true for companies that don’t respond in a timely manner. Over 40% of customers expect a response within an hour of sending a message.

“They want a dealership to drop a link to the credit application or a link to schedule a service appointment in a text message, so they don’t have to pick up a phone,” he adds. “It's a much more casual engagement with customers. Those dealers who engage quickly are seeing more positive reviews about customer service.”

Ensuring a Quick Response

Technology can help dealers respond quickly to customer communications and online reviews by compiling all interactions in one place. That’s what Reputation offers to customers.

“Rather than having multiple people at a dealership who need login credentials for the firm’s many social media sites, the Reputation platform allows staff to access a single hidden box for the business,” says Fawaz. “We can collect all reviews, SMS messages and chats taking place on multiple platforms, and then display them all on one channel.

“Staff can cut through all the noise and respond quickly from one platform with the added security of knowing the company’s login credentials aren’t in the hands of different employees,” he adds.

When companies respond quickly, they can improve the long‐term customer experience. For example, if a pattern of reviews shows the waiting area is dirty and the coffee is cold, they can address the problems immediately.

If reviews and other interactions mention specific people at a dealership, the Reputation platform can highlight those interactions so managers can recognize exceptional employees and create learning opportunities for people frequently flagged in negative reviews.

It’s important to share good and bad reviews with the entire staff so they know how to provide better experiences the next time around, says Fawaz.

Identifying Top Dealers

In its recent 2021 Automotive Reputation Report, Reputation analyzed a variety of criteria to rank public and private dealer groups and automotive brands. Criteria included the volume of reviews and customer engagements aswell as providing feedback on customer interactions.

Visibility was also important in showing that customers could find information about a dealership across multiple platforms. Having more platforms with a business presence showing accurate information about the store greatly influenced its visibility ranking, says Fawaz.

Each company received a rating, much like a credit score, ranging from zero to 1,000.

“We looked at how visible their business listings were on their Google My Business page, Facebook, cars.com, Edmunds and other platforms. Then we ensured they had working links back to the business’ websites, working phone numbers and click‐to‐call capability,” he adds. “Hendrick Automotive had the highest scores among all dealership groups. They were sitting pretty comfortably over the second‐place firm.”

Reputation also compared companies to an industry average so firms could see how they rank with peers. That’simportant information to know, he explains. For example, if a dealership had a score of 800, managers might think they were doing very well. But, if the industry average in their area was 910, it actually shows a need for improvement.

“If a dealership is doing an excellent job of managing consumer sentiment or having positive engagements with customers, then their visibility is high,” says Fawaz. “Now when customers search for a dealership in their area, the firm comes up high in results. Those that don’t score well will know to develop an improvement strategy to bring scores up.”

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