According to Autotrader’s Car Buyer Journey study, 60% of the time spent in the car-buying process is online research. So it’s no wonder that over the past few years, dealers have worked hard to establish a positive online presence beyond just their website.

Today’s dealers must build trust online and develop a brand presence, and as a result it’s now standard practice for dealerships to be listed on websites such as DealerRater, Cars.com, Edmunds.com, Yelp and Google.

But in boosting online presence, don’t overlook compliance, especially when leveraging online reviews.

For instance, it can be tempting for dealers to use cookie-cutter, online-review vendors to boost positive reviews and minimize the negative ones. One widely used tactic is asking customers to leave a review while in the dealership on a device provided by the sales or finance manager, putting extra pressure on the customer to leave a positive review.

Another tactic used across all industries involves using contract provisions, including online terms and conditions, to penalize consumers for posting negative reviews or complaints. But be aware this tactic was ruled illegal under the Consumer Review Fairness Act. The CRFA protects people’s ability to share in any forum honest opinions about a business, making it illegal for a company to use a contract provision that:

  • Bars or restricts a person’s ability to review a company’s products, services or conduct.
  • Imposes a penalty or fee against someone for leaving a review.
  • Takes ownership of a person’s review when the company’s name is mentioned, thereby requiring people to give up their intellectual-property rights of the content in the review.

The Federal Trade Commission and the state attorneys general have the authority to enforce the CRFA. Any violation will be treated the same as violating FTC rules on unfair or deceptive acts or practices, meaning companies everywhere could be subject to financial penalties.

What do dealers need to do to ensure compliance?

The first step is to review contracts. Work with vendors to remove any provision that restricts people from sharing reviews and/or penalizes them for doing so.

Beyond contract work, take a common-sense approach to consumer reviews. Think about personal experiences researching a product or service online. It’s fairly obvious when looking at reviews which are fakes. And it’s probably hard to believe a product or service would have only positive reviews. The brands most likely trusted are those with a mix of positive and negative reviews and follow up with all reviewers to thank them and resolve any issues.

How can you take a similar approach? Below are three simple steps:

  • Rather than trying to force a positive review, let customers think about their experience so they can give an honest review that resonates more with customers.
  • Stay active in monitoring review and social-media sites and respond to reviews in a timely manner.
  • Thank consumers for positive reviews and reach out to those who posted negative reviews to resolve questions or concerns.

When you receive a negative review, demonstrate a willingness to work with the customer and take the conversation offline. After a negative review is resolved, you always can ask the customer to update his or her initial review.

By remaining consistent and active in your response to all reviews, it is possible to direct the conversation rather than react to it. This will help you achieve the goal of building consumer advocates.

John Stephens is executive vice president of Dealer Services at EFG Companies. He can be reached at 972-445-8910 and jstephens@efgusa.com