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Negative Online Reviews Should Be Your Best PR Tool

The worlds of public relations and marketing have gone through two major changes in the last decade. The first one came with the mass adoption of the internet as our primary source of information about businesses. The second came a few of years ago when social media became a mainstream method of letting your friends, family, and often the rest of the world know how you feel about a business. Today, there is no shortage of ways that people can voice their pleasure and displeasure with the various companies with which they do business.

Let’s start by making the distinction between the two disciplines. Everyone has an understanding about marketing. It’s simple. You do what you can to get your business and brand in front of as many people as possible and you get your message (in the form of products, services, differentiators, etc) out so that people will consider you when they’re ready for what you have to offer. Public relations often gets lumped in as a form of marketing because the basic concepts are the same, but it’s very different. Modern public relations in the social world is now a way to preserve your positive messages and diffuse the negative ones, particularly when they come from consumers.

This distinction is important because many still lump the two together when in reality they need to attack from completely different angles. At times, such as with online reviews, the goals are only loosely related. From a marketing perspective, negative reviews can be a major hindrance (at least in the eyes of the business). From a PR perspective, negative reviews are your opportunity to shine. I learned a lot about this during a discussion at the last Internet Sales 20 Group conference from Ralph Paglia.


People Hunt Down the Negative Reviews

Think about your own actions. When you look up a restaurant, a movie, or a home repair contractor, you may or may not be the type that checks out reviews. More and more people are relying on reviews every day (not in small part due to the way that Google is highlighting them in search). Some read them. Most will scan down on the page until they get to the negative ones. They aren’t checking reviews to see the positive ones. They want dirt. They want to know about the worse-case scenarios they might be walking into if they do business with you.

Some estimate that 40% of online reviews are fake. I know that in the automotive industry, the majority of dealers who have more than 50 likely solicited many of the reviews from happy customers. It’s a best practice. After all, it’s great for marketing. In essence, it’s a defensive marketing posture that shows customers seeing just the stars and number of reviews on Google that you’re respected in the community.

The PR opportunity lies in the negative reviews. Those who are really interested in doing business with you will scroll down until they find the bad reviews. They will read them and then look to see how you responded to the review. Were you defensive? Were you a pushover? Did you fix the problem if it could be fixed? Did you empathize?

How you respond to negative reviews is a tremendous opportunity to tell those interested in doing business with you what kind of company you really are.


Show Your Stuff

The moment a negative review is posted, you should respond quickly. Notice that I did not say “immediately”. Speed is important, but it’s not as important as posting the exact right message.

Investigate the concerns that were voiced in the review. As A.J. Maida posted on ADM, there’s a great chance that whichever employee worked with the cusotmer will remember the experience once they read it. Get your side of the story ready, then be prepared to not tell it. This is the hardest part about responding to negative reviews. We want to tell people that they were at fault as well. We want to make sure the rest of the world knows that the person posting the negative review was unreasonable, on drugs, or absolutely insane. This is, of course, the wrong course of action, but it’s important to know your side of the story so you can craft your response properly.

Once you know what happened, it’s time to empathize. This is challenging as well because we have instantly negative feelings towards anyone bashing us, but take yourself out of business mode and into the shoes of the reviewer. They wouldn’t have written a review unless they felt they were wronged in some way (yes, occasionally there are those who want to try to con something out of you, but these are much more rare than most businesses are willing to admit). Right or wrong, you must empathize with them to help correct the situation. Even if the situation in uncorrectable, it’s important to make a public effort to fix things, apologize, educate (humbly), or otherwise step up and accept responsibility even if you don’t think it was your fault.

Here are some keys to crafting the response:

  • This is important. There are times when accepting responsibility is hard. They may have been completely at fault, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t your responsibility to help them not be at fault.
  • Try to rectify the situation whenever possible from up top. Get the highest-level person available to talk to the reviewer in person or on the phone and offer to discuss it further. It could be the owner, the general manager, or someone else with a strong title, but make sure it’s someone with a title that demands respect. Even if it’s the owner who says, “I’ve instructed the service manager, Shelly, to take personal care of you when you come in,” that’s better than getting a reply from Shelly (no offense, Shelly).
  • Use the opportunity to express something positive about your business. “It isn’t often that we get complaints about recall work. Our technicians carry the highest customer service ratings of any Chevy dealership in the tri-state area.”
  • Don’t give stuff away. This is a big, big no-no. Gift Certificates, free oil changes, etc – keep those off of your review responses. You can offer it to them when you talk to them in person or on thephone, but the last thing you want is to make yourself a target by posting it in the response. “Oh, if you complain, Bob’s Deli will give you a free sandwich!”
  • Keep on the high ground, even if the reviews are insulting. Stay classy.
  • Don’t sound too sophisticated. It comes across as insincere if you use big words to try to seem superior to the reviewer. Speak naturally as if you were talking to them in person.
  • Run the response passed a couple of people before posting. Get some input and make sure that what you’re trying to say and how you’re trying to say it is coming across properly.
  • Post a follow-up response if you’re able to come to a positive outcome with the customer. Talk is cheap. If you can post something like, “Thank you, Bob, for coming by the dealership today. I’m so glad we were able to sort through the initial misunderstanding – enjoy your new Camry!”
  • Read responses from everywhere whenever possible. Check your competitors. Check other industries. Get a feel for what’s working and what’s not working by seeing what others are doing right and what they’re doing wrong. You can learn more from real-life experiences than you’ll ever learn from  blog post.


Reiterating the Importance

There aren’t enough words in my fingers to stress how important this is. Responding to negative reviews is an art and a science, but it can have a dramatic impact on your business whether you do it right or do it wrong. What type of impact will your negative review responses have?

As I said before, this is your opportunity to shine. A great response to a negative review will reach more eyeballs than a dozen positive reviews.

Views: 1365

Tags: reviews


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Comment by Ralph Paglia on November 4, 2012 at 12:33am

JD - Excellent article, and one in which you make the case I was arguing on behalf for at the Internet Sales 20 Group in Chicago... I truly understand why so many people want to avoid negative reviews, but when I see a dealer with over 100 customer reviews and they are all 5 star or 30 points (Google), then I immediately think "B***S***" and I suspect most consumers do as well...

Secondly, I learned the value of negative reviews from Carl Sewell of the Sewell Automotive Group in Texas, Mr. Sewell also is the dealer who wrote the popular best selling book on customer retention titled "Customers For Life".  What Mr. Sewell taught me is that any reputation management strategy we devise in this day and age of fast web based response from customers (sometimes while they are still in the dealership!) that DOES NOT PUT AN EMPHASIS on discovering any and all customer concerns that adversely effect their satisfaction and loyalty is not worth anything! Yes, one of the primary objectives of a Reputation Management program for a car dealer should be the early and prompt discovery of customers who are not happy with any product, service or interaction at the dealership. 

Lastly, when is the easiest time to solve a customer concern? Answer: BEFORE THEY LEAVE THE DEALERSHIP!  So... When is the best time to find out that the customer may not be completely satisfied with some aspect of a vehicle purchase or getting their car serviced? Answer: BEFORE THEY LEAVE THE DEALERSHIP!

Listen up people, this is not theory for me, this is something I have been doing with dealers all over America since 2007 and the sooner you embrace negative reviews, respond to them immediately and publicly, genuinely take care of your customers and any issues they cite in their reviews, on Twitter, Facebook or on their personal blog... the sooner your reputation management program will start having a major positive impact on your sales volume. 

People don't believe car dealers are perfect! So make sure your so-called "customer written reviews" do not make your dealership look perfect. What today's web enabled, powerfully informed customer wants is a car dealer who is honest and has high integrity as evidenced by what the dealership management team does when something goes wrong for the customer.  How do they find out of your dealership is one of the good ones? By how you respond to the 5% of your customers who do have a problem and describe that problem in the reviews they post online.

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