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When we started our Online Reputation Management program in 2008, talking to dealers about it was like talking to people about nuclear physics. The concept was so new that it only seemed to add more confusion to the massive list of things dealers now needed to focus on in today’s automotive market. Dealer awareness has radically shifted over the past 6 months: and now there’s major buzz for ‘Online Reputation Management’ – with dealers now actively seeking ways to improve, manage - and control - their presence at the review sites. As always, the increased dealer interest/adoption has created a fairly decent-sized number of companies offering solutions. The solutions vary in concept, cost and implementation…so dealers have yet another ‘sea of information’ to wade through. In my posts, I like to look at things (dealer Internet strategies) from the consumer position. To keep in mind that the end consumer - that person you want to sell a vehicle to, that person you want to choose you for service - is the most critical. A new wave seems to be now unfolding in this young arena of Online Reputation Management, and it concerns me: it’s new concepts and strategies specifically designed to manipulate consumer reviews, and this is really what I want to talk about. I firmly believe that all review sites should have a resolution system. (Some sites don’t allow this at all – and some only if you pay extortion fees - but that is a whole other conversation). A number of consumer reviews posted will contain foul language, slanderous remarks and outright lies. And I firmly believe it’s important that all merchants have a process through the review sites where they can dispute these inappropriate reviews. But is it a good thing for dealers to manipulate, eliminate and control every bad review written about them online? Consider this: Some bad reviews are honest and well deserved. Yes, it’s true. Sometimes we, as business people, really anger our customers. They have their right to free speech and if they want to share their experience with the world shouldn’t they be allowed to? For example, we received a negative review at the DrivingSales Vendor Ratings site - and we deserved it. And the best thing about this negative review was it allowed us to look at a process that we needed to fix. If we hadn’t received the review, we never would have known. And consider this: if DrivingSales allowed us to remove the review arbitrarily, and we did, how would this make the dealer who submitted it feel? Again, if they used abusive language or slandered us, it would be different - but this was simply an honest, bad review. But what I’m seeing now is Reputation Management companies and review sites that are either encouraging or allowing dealers (and all merchants – not just auto-specific) to remove every single bad review - sometimes even before it’s posted! Some companies are now offering to create review sites for dealers: they look like regular review sites but are fully controlled by the dealer, and the dealer has the ability to eliminate any reviews they see fit. One national review site - a major review site - is now allowing merchants to remove ANY review, for ANY reason. The list goes on… This is a danger zone. The more reviews are controlled, the more they will look fake, and ultimately this will breed serious distrust amongst consumers. I think we can all agree that the last thing the auto industry needs is bad publicity about manipulating consumer reviews. So, this new wave - this new Reputation Management approach - could erode consumer trust to the point where it completely backfires on dealers. And that means it will even backfire on those dealers who are improving their reputation honestly, as all positive reviews could come under suspicion. We’ve had dealers that have experienced this first-hand with well-known and trusted review sites. In one instance, a client had so many positive reviews that some consumers at the site raised a question about their validity. While it was confirmed that the reviews were real - every single one of them - the review site still chose to eliminate all of them. Why? Because their culture values negative reviews - and has an inherent distrust of positive reviews. So we work with that extreme online reality in mind. But the point is consumers really read these reviews and they look for some balance of positive and negative. ` The idea is this: rather than making the focus of your Online Reputation process and energies revolve around manipulation, keep the process focused on the needs and demands of real-world consumers. Get your happy customers submitting reviews, dispute the offensive/slanderous ones and embrace the bad reviews that you earned. The first thing a dealer should do is reach out to their disgruntled customers and try to make things right – this pays great dividends as consumers really respect a business that makes right on a bad experience (and they can change their review or post a new one). Consider it a blessing that your customers are letting you know where you fell short of their expectations and where you can improve your business. Earn your positive online reputation - it’s easier than you think. Please feel free to contact me with any (and all) questions. Thanks! Kim Orr: firstname.lastname@example.org or 866.994.2613.