Thursday, June 17, 2010

Can Modern Solutions Protect Against Old School Practices?

Much has been written about Automotive Online Reputation Management and, fortunately, there are a number of companies and consultants now available to assist dealers in getting a handle on this crucial subject. Reputation and customer satisfaction is of the utmost importance to dealers and there is little doubt that many negative online postings are either questionable or do not reliably portray the true culture of the dealership.

However, I believe that a dealership’s reputation is difficult, if not impossible, to manage when certain staff members do not operate ethically and resort to “old school” deceptive practices. Looking through some of the sites that rate dealers, I found some interesting examples:

• A dealer reviewed on one of the sites has dozens of negative posts about bait and switch, refusal to sell at advertised prices and other questionable acts. I was a bit surprised at the volume of negative feedback and I have to wonder who’s watching the store. But fear not, the brilliant perpetrators of all of this negative feedback had a plan. They simply added some positive posts to the site, which of course were exposed as coming from the dealership’s IP address. So much for that idea. How does this dealer defend against various staff members allegedly lying to customers and then trying to cover it up? It’s sure not going to be easy.

• A post on another site accused the dealer of deceptive adverting. Now, I long-ago realized that some customers have tendency to misread advertisements, so, in order to give the dealership the benefit of the doubt, I looked up the ad on their website. Well, sure enough it was questionable at best and went astray of state advertising regulations. The people who wrote that ad may be patting themselves on the back for bringing customers across the curb, but at what cost? The customer not only did not buy from the dealer, but also gave a glowing review and recommendation of the competitor who ended up earning their business. Undoubtedly, there are many people who are going to read that review about the dealer’s advertising practices but how does the dealership defend itself? They could claim that the ad wasn’t deceiving but the state’s attorney general might not agree. Does the dealer really want to open that can of worms?

• The next dealer was accused of payment packing by the finance department. According to the post, the customer attempted to rectify the situation by returning to the dealership to discuss the issue but apparently received no satisfaction. After the customer posted the negative review, a customer relations rep from the dealership responded with a nice apology and offers to help – so far, so good, (although it was 21 days after the original post). Here’s where it goes downhill – the next post comes from an “anonymous” employee of the dealership who proceeds to berate the customer by accusing him of posting fraudulently. The employee stated that the customer’s issue couldn’t have happened; the company is wonderful, etc. “Anonymous” actually remarked that the customer should be “ashamed of himself” and “should be man enough to discuss his concerns and not hide behind a fraudulent posting.” Is it just me or is this the worst possible way to try to handle a negative review?? Eventually, the GM got involved and the problem was finally rectified to the customer’s satisfaction (I guess it was a real customer with a real complaint and not a fraudulent posting?). The customer very graciously posted an update about the resolution, but also responded about the employee that attacked him and called him a liar. The question that comes to mind is this: What has more significance in the mind of someone reading this review - that the dealership ultimately handled the complaint or that someone in the dealership raked the customer over the coals for complaining in the first place?

There are a number of excellent firms that specialize in Online Reputation Management and I highly recommend that dealers consider utilizing their services. But it important to realize that while these companies do an outstanding job, it may not be possible to mitigate the damage caused by ethically-challenged personnel. The first and most important step in managing one’s reputation is having zero tolerance for bad behavior by employees.

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