An enhanced Cars.com feature lets online consumers establish an early digital connection with car salespeople, rate them and, in turn, learn what other customers think of them.

The innovation, Salesperson Connect, aims to bond dealership salespeople to online car shoppers before they visit the store. It also allows – and encourages – consumers to review salespeople, not just dealerships or vehicles.

“This is powerful technology that will change the way automotive consumers make connections online,” says Alex Vetter, CEO of Cars.com, an online automotive marketplace.

The upgrade integrates Cars.com’s DealerRater reviews. “What’s new is the ability to take the top-rated people in a dealership and bring them to the Cars.com vehicle-detail pages (VDPs) and lead-form pages,” Vetter says.

Cars.com anticipates stronger employee engagement at dealerships because salespeople know each customer experience could affect their review rating.

In a recent survey of 233 DealerRater Certified salespeople, more than 80% said their employee profile helps sell cars and speeds up the sales process.

“Leads that come through the VDP salesperson profiles are more substantial because the consumer is already committed to the car and to the salesperson,” says

Rob McGuire, a salesman at Garavel Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram in Norwalk, CT.

In a Q&A with WardsAuto, Vetter talks about the power of reviewing salespeople and whether it puts newbies at a disadvantage. Here’s an edited version.

WardsAuto: What’s new and exciting at Cars.com these days?

Vetter: Our pace of innovation is rapid, which is rare for a company entering its 20th year. Most relevant is the launch of Salesperson Connect. Part of our job is to bring “why-buy” dealership stories to light. We’re taking it a step further by helping consumers establish the human connection online.

WardsAuto: Do shoppers want that so early in the buying process?

Vetter: Our DealerRater research indicates 97% of people would prefer to know something about who they are going to be working with at the dealership before they physically arrive at the store. People are intimidated walking in cold. If they can start that relationship and conversation online, it builds trust, speeds the process and improves the closing rate.

WardsAuto: Do salespeople like being rated?

Vetter: Dealership employees have an increased incentive to compete on experience. We’re tired of dealerships having to compete on the dimensions of price. We think they are tired of it, too. Dealerships should take the focus off lowest price and put it on why-buy attributes; the qualitative aspects of the car-buying experience.

WardsAuto: If you are a new salesperson trying to break into the business, doesn’t it shut you out if established veterans get the customer reviews, channeling more business to them? It’s like the vicious cycle of not getting work because you don’t have the experience and not getting the experience because you don’t have the work.   

Vetter: The rewards come to those who do the best job. It takes time and effort to build that reputation whether it was building your book of business before the Internet came along or whether it is today, a time when the Internet is the primary source of sales.

The DealerRater platform allows any employee to start to harness their customer reviews. The technology is built so everyone has an opportunity to win advocacy.

The Salesperson Connect platform does reward the highest-rated people. But the DealerRater platform gives everyone the same chance. So the message to new associates is: “On day 1, start taking care of your customers and make it a great experience.”

Our ability to convey opportunities for individual connections capitalizes on probably the hottest trend on digital today: peer-to-peer reviews and relationships.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com