It regularly occurs to me that there are only a handful of industries that really need public relations. There are those businesses such as mining and petroleum exploration that have an environmental impact. There are businesses such as the tobacco industry that have been shown to impact health. Then there is the entertainment business, which needs people to spin everything from drug-addled celebrities to mitigating the impacts of morally ambiguous Internet sites. And then there is the car business, with its new-found need for reputation management.
Being a member of the International Fraternity of People Who Have Sold a Car, I have seen some of the best, and some of the worst practices, in business. Having witnessed many things that still make me cringe to this day, I can’t say I’ve seen anything that blows off mountaintops, gives people throat cancer, or corrupts children. The fact of the matter is that the majority of businesses can positively alter their standing in a short period of time by shifting to a culture that values a sterling reputation. Bringing in someone to fix negative reviews overnight is the medical equivalent of going to a band-aid doctor.
Unless you’re Rick Santorum, having a bad online reputation is something you likely deserved. I’m sure we’ve all heard a version of the saying, “for every good experience, a customer will tell one person. But, for every bad experience, they will tell ten people” (not sure if this is an urban legend, threat, or wives’ tale because I can’t find a written source). However, it’s much easier to reach hundreds, if not thousands of people using a variety of today’s Internet services. It’s easy to write off a few negative reviews (especially if there are several positive one’s to outweigh it). Unlike your friends and family, though, the Internet never forgets. As negative reviews keep piling up, Google keeps aggregating them.
So what’s a dealer to do? The most common of reactions is to go DEFCON 1 on the reviewer, and then attack the review source. Emails get sent off to Yelp or Edmunds, or whoever the enemy is. The various blogs and automotive resources sites get lit-up. Consultants are called. The missiles of war are being fueled up, often times on pure emotion alone. No one takes the time to look at all of the evidence leading up to a negative review before they push the button. The review gets taken down, and everyone throwing high fives and patting each other on the asses.
You just lost.
Rarely, and I mean rarely, does it seem that negative reviews are interpreted as learning experiences. By tracing back to the root of the cause, often times failures in the system can be identified and fixed ensuring that the same issues don’t arise in the future. Our folks in service deal with it every day in terms of recalls and technical service bulletins. In simpler terms, if you were just diagnosed with skin cancer, putting a band-aid over that abnormal mole doesn’t make it go away. Here are a few of the root causes we see daily:
The accidental process:
I’d wager that only a few percent of dealerships have a solid, tested, and measured Internet sales process in place. The overwhelming majority have an amalgam of default ILM settings, OEM directives, and a legacy of eight-month Internet directors’ work in place. I call this the “accidental process.” It’s like a boat that still floats, even though it’s being held together with duct tape and prayers. It gets the job done, but no one knows how the hell it stays floating.
Customer service as lip service:
Despite the fact that the Internet sales team does a fantastic job of treating the customer right, customers can often feel like the rest of the staff didn’t get the memo. Dirty vehicles, empty gas tanks, pushy F&I Managers, and apathetic receptionists can all be a deal breaker. Many times in our lives we can overlook cold soup, but if the waiter is also snotty, then it’s game over. Customer service isn’t just one department’s responsibility: it’s every employee’s.
Not following through:
A critical issue for many dealerships is promising/advertising/presenting one thing, and then offering another. The ole’ bait & switch is alive and well. I still love it when I get a quote for the cheapest possible package when I mystery shop, especially when I know it’s unavailable. I also like seeing “your business is important to me,” and then never getting a follow-up email. Then, there are those that offer their “best price right up front,” which is $1500 more than the seven closest competitors. However, my all time favorite is receiving an online quote, and then receiving a completely different quote after being turned over to a sales representative. If your level of effort is not up to the verbiage on your site, or in the body of your email templates, then it’s time to start making them congruent. If you can’t make that commitment, stop messing it up for those who do.
Management as a barrier:
Let’s say your Internet team is doing everything right. The ISMs are quick to respond with well-crafted and dynamic emails. Phone calls are made with Swiss precision. But, when it comes to pricing, it involves a six-hour wait to hear back from a sales manager. Despite the fact the dealer principal wants it, the customer asked for it, and the ISMs NEED it, the sales managers don’t respond to calls, texts, emails, instant messaging, or smoke signals because the Internet is not a priority to them. Either the Internet is important or it isn’t. If the sales managers can’t get on the Internet train, then it’s time to leave them behind.
Should I keep going?
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, car salespeople already have the worst reputation among professionals (tied with lawyers and lobbyists, congrats!). Despite the fact we know many fantastic people in the car business, the word is not out. Look at the resumes you receive when you have open positions. Did you ever think you’d consider an ex-convict? Look what happened to Tracy Myers, and he’s one of the finest human beings I know. It doesn’t matter if you are a pastor that has adopted 39 kids from impoverished countries, and a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient: People are just waiting for you to make a mistake.
Reputation management is not a tactic. It’s not a strategy. It’s a religion.
Do you really want happy customers? Seriously? Do you REALLY want happy customers? Start with happy employees. Nothing can kill a customer’s experience quicker than a visibly and/or audibly burnt-out employee. “How can I help you” can sound and look like “leave me alone.” “Have a nice day” can look and sound like “go #$%& yourself.” If this is how you, your team, or your manager looks and sounds, then they need to take a break. These negative feelings spread like cancer. It’s well documented that Zappos offers $2000 to employees to quit after their first week on the job. They’re selling $30 products. You’re selling $30,000 products. Your employees, your teammates, and your coworkers are your most important resource. Those people are often the only thing that separates you from your competition. And if those people are apathetic about your collective reputation, then it’s time to find someone who is.
It’s time to rally the troops. Treat those negative reviews like gold. Sincerely greet everyone who comes to the dealership with a sincere smile. If your departments can’t work as a team, then it’s time to make some personnel changes. If you want to continue to practice those same nefarious tactics that made you wealthy 30 years ago, then you deserve to have negative reviews, and to be lambasted with the stereotypes. Calling an entire practice full of band-aid doctors will not stop the internal hemorrhaging. It’s time for you to make a commitment to making a lasting positive reputation today.