I) From CSI to Online Reviews:
The CSI Era kicked in during the 1980s, a time when consumers were used to being manhandled at dealerships. Its rise is attributed to new competition resulting from the entrance of Honda and Toyota into the US market, which made satisfied
customers more critical to domestic OEMs. So began two decades of OEMs surveying customers to calculate the Customer Satisfaction Index, and then divvying out the carrots and sticks: whether inventory allocation, the green light to expand, bigger holdback payments, bonuses, etc.
With much at stake, CSI brought decades of dealer manipulation: from free fill-up incentives when a customer brought back the old paper surveys for the dealer to mail (guaranteeing positive results), to altering unhappy customers’ contact info to make them unreachable, to sending gifts as bribes for positive surveys, etc.. Recently, OEMs have been trying to prevent the system-gaming – for example, we’ve heard Nissan isn’t even allowing its dealers to tell people someone will be contacting them.
CSI has been an important tool for OEMs, though often a headache for dealers. But the fact is, because it’s essentially a private, backdoor conversation between the two, it doesn’t help dealers that actually do satisfy customers (…or OEMs) to actually sell cars. When has a customer ever marched in and said, “May I please review your CSI scores?” And when you present your evidence manual, when has it ever impressed your customers as a valuable, authentic source? Yet, back in the pre-digital day, simple “thank-you” cards from real customers had some impact, if miniscule visibility.
We, of course, now live in the Internet Age with online reviews and social media platforms exploding. The breed of feedback that CSI was designed to capture is now intensely public across the review sites and search engines, providing an instant, transparent, online window into how dealers actually treat their sales and service customers.
So, are online reviews and Reputation Management “the new CSI”? They function differently enough that they can’t be literally equated. CSI formally gauges (through standard questions) a set universe of dealer customers; whereas, online reviews provide a public platform for dealership customers to sound off -- if, when, and about what they want. While CSI has been an OEM tool, a positive online dealer review presence has (thus far) been exclusively a dealership initiative.
The massive difference: impact. The sheer reach of online reviews, and its corresponding impact, on a dealership’s business means the emphasis is shifting (and should shift) from CSI to online review monitoring and management. You can feel the ‘CSI Era’ waning; for example, in January 2010, Mercedes-Benz ended their dealership CSI incentives. Meanwhile, CSI-like mechanisms are moving online, towards consumers, i.e., Edmunds recently announced they will unveil a new dealer rating system based on consumer surveys, to get at more relevant info about a buyer’s dealership and online shopping experience, than the traditional CSI surveys provided.
II) Our Online Reputation Management Process:
The Online Reputation Management (ORM) processes we’ve put in place at out store demonstrate the shifting CSI/ORM equation. We were a brand-new Mercedes store that opened doors the exact month the recession kicked in, and how we came out of the gate with an 85% digital plan that was intensely focused on getting us “found online.” By early 2009, we digested the extraordinary impact that online reviews were having on our potential customers and the major competitive opportunity they represented, given the often glaring disconnect between the good customer service Mercedes dealers provide, and their less positive online reputations.
So, we undertook (with our partner, eXtéresAUTO), a systematic review monitoring, gathering and management process, which distinctly migrated the focus (and internal incentives) from CSI to ORM.
What We Did/Do:
As GM and ISM, we firmly laid down the law. Everyone in the store knew we were serious about this review campaign.
Sales/service team incentives neatly reflected the new priorities: we simply replaced CSI survey bonuses with rewards-per-positive review.
eXtéresAUTO’s back-office tool was implemented. The tool tracks online reviews/posts about our dealership daily (at review, complaint, and social media sites), so we could immediately respond to unhappy customers.
Top management personally made calls on negative feedback to make it right, following up via email (linking to sites where posts were made, making it easy for customers to retract/post new reviews).
For each positive CSI survey, we follow up politely requesting a review. For every visibly/verbally-satisfied customer (sold or unsold) we ask for a review, following up via email templates. CSI surveys are an important springboard in our Reputation Management.
Email templates are customized for sales and service, making it easy for customer to post, by including links to several review sites.
Templates are loaded on EVERY sales/service reps’ computer and can be customized and deployed to a customer in 3 clicks. (Template comes from sales/service person who the customer built rapport with.)
Review site links are rotated to target certain sites/saturate reviews across all sites, so our positive reviews blanket first-page search results.
Sites with in-market car shoppers and traction with our local searchers are targeted: Google Places, Yahoo Local, Edmunds, Insider Pages, Kudzu (for us), etc.
Online pages were established for each salesperson to showcase their reviews (we use DealerRater), and train them to use positive reviews to convert prospects.
Reviews are included in all outgoing email signatures, at website, and in marketing.
Great customer service becomes our focus. Identify anyone that is less than happy before they leave the dealership – by asking.
We don’t get, or aim for, all 5-star reviews, and don’t think online researchers find all 5-star reviews credible. While we’re shaping our online reputation by encouraging happy customers to post, we’re also educating those customers that the best place to provide feedback is online, where they’re helping so many other people understand their experience. That process counterbalances the traditional online realities: only the very upset or very digitally savvy post reviews. We don’t try to remove negative reviews, we don’t “load anyone’s lips” or suggest what to post, we don’t reward customers, etc. We adhere to an authentic process, simply asking our real customers to share their thoughts online, from the anonymity of their home.
III) The Effect of Our Campaign:
While a CSI focus never moved cars for us, our Reputation Management campaign has had amazing results, too diverse to fully detail here. It’s become a serious (ever-growing) sales and service driver (with a major impact on calls, leads, walk-ins and closing ratios); it’s transforming our store “culture,” with everyone focused on customer service. We “funded the party” (incentivizing staff to generate happy customers/positive reviews), and, like a feedback loop, salespeople are more focused on pleasing customers – which generates more positive online feedback – which leads to more conquest, word-of-mouth and repeat business. Our positive review presence is a key reason we’re gaining market share, and a key reason we survived and are thriving.
Key Results from Online Reputation Management:
· Major factor in our increasing market share over establishing our four, well-established competitors
· Jumped from 13 reviews, to 220-plus with a near-5-star rating
· 1000%-plus growth in review-site generated calls
· Review-driven customers close 15 points higher than any other leads
· More than one-third of our review-generated customers ask for the salesperson (who they read about online) by name
IV) The New Google Places:
As most dealers know, in late October Google Places rolled out a major change in the way local search results are displayed. The most profound change? A business’ online reviews are now exploded all over first-page results. Not only is a business’ total number of reviews and overall rating prominently presented at the live “Place Page” link, but links to individual websites where a company has been reviewed are prominent. Gone are the days when consumers had to go to individual review sites to hunt down what others were saying…your aggregated “online reputation” is intensely visible right on the first page.
Our past and present hard work on the review front has been given exponentially more visibility and power in this layout. With common searches like “Mercedes - dealerships – Atlanta,” we visually “fly out” as the dealership with the best online reputation, while our competitors’ complacency is equally accentuated.
Google Places pushes searchers to a business’ Place Page, and makes the grabbing of phone numbers that much easier. So with our great display and our 220-plus near-5-star reviews (vs. our competitors’ much smaller volume of reviews averaging 2.5/3.5), it makes sense searchers would try us…and give us the call.
While we only have one month of tracked data at writing, that’s how it’s playing out. We’ve seen a near-instantaneous 35% increase in phone calls from our 800 numbers at Google and the review sites since Google Places. The huge new visibility of reviews at Google is just another reason for dealerships to prioritize Online Reputation Management, and it makes the CSI-Online Review visibility and impact disconnect that much more glaring.
V) CSI, ORM, OEMs and the Future:
While online reviews and CSI measure, in essence, quite similar things, OEMs have been narrowly focused on CSI, while dealerships like ours are shifting their focus (smartly, given the sales impact) to Reputation Management. But negative dealership reputations impact an OEM’s brand and sales success every bit as much. Consider a luxury make like ours: Mercedes-Benz spends many millions to market/carefully craft that 5-star brand image, but our research shows Mercedes shoppers too often find dealerships with a handful of reviews with 2.5 star ratings and too many jarring negative reviews that dramatically disrupt any seamless, positive brand experience.
We think automakers should, and in the future will, get more involved in dealership Online Reputation Management. For one, a company like eXtéresAUTO could monitor an entire dealer body’s online reviews/social media posts, so OEMs could have a comparative, online window into national/regional/zone dealership reviews (even drilling down to individual reviews across the Web), to measure candid, real feedback from their customers. And OEMs could put in place incentives (with some of the money they spend on the dozens of companies they hire to compile CSI surveys) to support dealers in embracing the tools and training that would improve their shared online brands.
If the purpose of CSI was to create a mechanism for OEMs to gauge how dealers treat customers, online review monitoring can also do that, but Online Reputation Management DOES A WHOLE LOT MORE: dramatically improving sales, customer retention, employee engagement/retention, closing rates and the whole “brand” experience. ORM is not precisely “the new CSI,” but given our online present and future, it’s even more important.