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Customer reviews can be an early warning system for car dealers

By Chris Phillips

Traditional British reluctance to complain about poor service is being swept away as multiple internet channels enable consumers to become more ‘opinionated’.

But how do you ensure that online reviews give a fair reflection of business performance and are not skewed in favour of negative comments?

John Gray, head of automotive at Reevoo, said dealers should learn to see the value in negative comments: “It’s not realistic to expect everyone to be happy and bad reviews lend credibility. It’s also an opportunity to identify what’s going wrong and to put it right. So, handled properly, the negative can be turned into a positive, with the customer later reporting that they were satisfied with the outcome. Each happy customer passes on that benefit to a wider audience.”

No matter how trivial the complaint, Gray said it was important to bear in mind that “perception is truth” to the complainant and should be handled with the same consideration as more serious criticism – “even if it’s through gritted teeth”.

JudgeService managing director Neil Addley, said: “Praise/criticism tends to focus on an individual within the company, rather than the company itself and those viewing the ratings are interested in that because it’s a people business.

“Typically, if there is criticism, it’s because someone is not conforming to standards – not returning the promised call, failing to stamp the service book, or the car is returned from the workshop and not valeted to customer expectations, to give some examples.”

Addley believes that larger dealer groups responses should use dedicated social media teams to handle responses. These teams should be trained to use “appropriate language” and empowered to ensure that any problem is rectified offline.

“It is better to have this co-ordinated, rather than different individuals of different levels of seniority using their own language, with different timings of response,” he said.

Through a data feed from its dealer subscribers, JudgeService issues a 12-point questionnaire to customers, mainly covering sales, to assess overall experience and whether they would recommend friends and family.

Addley said positive ratings should be publicised through all marketing media, with both positive and negative feedback used for performance appraisals and key performance indicators for customer satisfaction. “It’s an integral part of the overall business vision,” he added.

Gray believes it can be counter-productive for dealers to actively encourage customers to take part in surveys: “There’s nothing worse than picking up the car and being told with a nod and wink ‘Expect an email asking how you rate us – you will give us good marks, won’t you?’ ”

He said this has the stamp of desperation, especially in cases where bonuses may be influenced by survey results.

“If customers are put under any kind of pressure, the chances are it will backfire. So don’t mention the email – leave it up to them when they get it.”

Gray explained how reviews can be used to close a deal: “If an experienced salesperson senses that a customer is really interested in a particular model, they don’t need to clinch it with a free tank of fuel, free mats, or whatever, thrown in. Instead, refer them to the review site, with views of that particular model and that particular dealership. It offers reassurance and confidence to go ahead.“

Reevoo has operated for just over 10 years and, although based in London, has clients in 60 countries. It follows a broadly similar process irrespective of sector, sending alerts to subscribers in cases of negative responses so that prompt action can be taken.

Gray said survey results were of interest not just to the consumer, but also to dealers who wanted to know how their ratings compared with rivals and the major groups monitoring the performance of different marques and/or locations.

Reevoo has some ‘top tips’ for handling complaints, the most important being: Politeness at all times (“It’s tempting for an owner or dealer principal to take it personally and let this influence his behaviour,” said Gray); avoidance of jargon; a response at least within 24 hours; and a solution rather than “we’re sorry and hope to hear from you again”.

Like Reevoo, Feefo is London-based with an overseas presence and describes among its benefits “providing tools to drive footfall” both for sales and service. Those with consistently high ratings become ‘trusted merchants’.

“The key is to keep it (the survey) simple and relevant,” said chief marketing officer Matt West. “Don’t flag it as only taking five minutes and 15 minutes later you are still being asked questions.”

West said research showed about 90% of consumers are influenced by reviews.

“It is part of the purchasing journey, finding out who is out there, who is local and what their reputation is like”.

West also pointed to the benefits of negative reviews – “identifying, for instance, poor staff interaction with customers can be used for training”.

Feefo’s charges depend on the size of the business and the support services offered. With fewer than 50 reviews, it’s a free “plug-in”, but typically it’s about £100 a month.

Though supporting reviews in principle, Ridgeway Motor Group is not yet a subscriber because of what group marketing manager Philip Deacon describes as “questionnaire fatigue”.

It already receives feedback from customers before, during and after transactions through its own customer satisfaction systems, and from social media platforms.

“However, we have been talking to JudgeService and Feefo to see how it could work across all our brands and align with our processes,” said Deacon.

To help increase consumer awareness of its own review programme, the motor industry’s self-regulatory body Motor Codes holds a monthly draw for those taking part, with £500 for the winner.

Managing director Bill Fennell reports that last year’s survey attracted 185,000 responses and he is looking to achieve 200,000 this year.

“Consumers mostly access the survey ratings through our Garage Finder service or the dealer website,” said Fennell, “along with links to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.”

Motor Codes has 7,600 franchised and independent garages and 39 manufacturers signed up, covering 99% of vehicle registrations. Referral partners in the case of disputes include Citizens Advice and Trading Standards.

Fennell said grievances tended to be about invoicing, staff attitude and failure to rectify vehicle faults.

About a third of garages affected “really take on board the comments, positive and negative – they are driven by customer satisfaction and realise the importance of reviews”, said Fennell.

“One third take a more considered approach and the remaining third are more reluctant, more defensive before making any change – a ‘We think it’s unfair, we will look into it and take a view’ attitude.

Kia and Suzuki dealer Norfolk Motor Group has been using JudgeService since 2011 and has so far received 1,084 reviews – “good and bad, but mostly good”, according to managing director Grant Long.

NMG also gets reviews via Kia/Reevoo and Suzuki/Motor Codes “so that’s quite a lot of feedback, but ultimately this sort of thing is good for the industry because it shows transparency, and people want to deal with someone they feel can be trusted”.

Long reads every review and ensures that either he or a member of his management team responds to any problems  by phone or email the same day. “Every significant complaint is logged, controlled and closed by me,” he added.

Long said the company motto – ‘Nobody tries harder than NMG, nobody’ – compels it to do well “because if you don’t it’s easy to get that thrown back at you”.

Comments, both favourable and unfavourable, are printed for distribution to staff and testimonials are displayed in the reception TV area. For online browsers, a ‘widget’ on the company website will connect them with JudgeService.

Citing a there’s-no-pleasing-some-people episode, Long contacted one customer about a problem, who assured him it had been resolved to his satisfaction. “We paid a small amount of compensation for his wasted time and then he went back to post another review saying he would never use us again!”

Thames Motor Group uses Motor Codes for workshop feedback and Feefo for new and used car sales. “In the case of vehicle sales, the customer is contacted six months after purchase,” said digital marketing manager Nick England. “We think that’s a reasonable time for the customer to have assessed the purchasing journey, the sales experience and the vehicle itself.”

Feefo’s fees came to about £200 a month, with England adding that digital communication had given a “new dimension” to word-of-mouth.

Kia UK’s CSI programme has a ‘hot alerts’ process that notifies the dealer management team of outstanding customer issues in real time, both on a PC and a smartphone. “The best dealers respond (to the customer) as soon as they are received,” said customer quality manager Stephen Dorman.

“Some dealers may have dedicated customer care managers; others will include this role within existing management. The size of the dealership and whether it’s part of a group or an independent could also  influence the approach taken.”

Customer responses to the CSI surveys – undertaken by customer experience management company Medallia – are 40%-50% for new car sales and about 30% for servicing and repair work.

“We are always looking at the structure and content of survey questions to maximise customer engagement and, where appropriate, we encourage dealer responses through our website,” said Dorman.

Kia has partnered with Reevoo since 2012 and the reviews are incorporated into the dealer’s own Kia microsite/website, including key scores and customer comments. Dealers average a Reevoo score of 97% ‘buy again’ and 95% ‘service again’.

“Surveys should have a ‘light touch’ (be easy to complete) and we certainly wouldn’t advocate asking customers to submit a review,” said Dorman. “Both Reevoo and our own surveys are now undertaken only by email and around half are completed on a mobile device, so this approach does seem to be working for us.”

 Gray said motor retail could learn from other sectors, such as travel, which has based almost its whole booking system around reviews. He also cited domestic appliance company Beko for its use of review content on social channels like Facebook, in email campaigns and outdoor advertising.

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