I have talked with probably more than 10,000 dealers about special finance over the past two decades. The range of their commitment to special finance has been from “off the charts” to a “you couldn’t get me to touch it with a 10-foot pole.” There are a multitude of reasons why some dealers have gravitated towards the latter end of the spectrum, but the most prevalent reason seems to be that dealers feel participating in the subprime credit spectrum will damage their organization’s CSI.

Indeed, if not performed properly, SF has the potential to damage a dealer’s reputation, but face it, so does virtually any other profit center in the store. The problem was, 20 years ago, you could probably hide from it fairly easily. Customer complaints were mainly limited to the Better Business Bureau or the attorney general’s office (none too fun in their own right), and even if a customer filed a legitimate complaint, the public had to call and request information about a dealer in question (if they were even members of the BBB). Many consumers probably did not take the initiative. Certainly, dealership reviews were unheard of.

Reviews of any sort were difficult to find and limited to print. Product reviews seemed to start with Consumer Reports decades ago. Others joined the parade, but their data also was found in print. When the world went digital in the ‘90s, accessibility to immediate information and opinions was born. Suddenly, it became very easy to review available products, services and the actual providers in real time, and everyone had an opinion and an avenue to share it.

Early adopters in the digital realm were Amazon.com and eBay. When I first looked at eBay, I thought to myself, “Who on earth is going to use auction-style bidding to buy high-ticket items that they have never seen from people they have never met?” Then, I noticed something called “Feedback.” Real people were candidly, honestly and without reservation rating the people they were buying from (and vice versa), and with that transparency, a whole new culture was born.

People started turning online for nearly all their information. Whether you are looking for a restaurant, a camera, old car parts, a washing machine or an automobile, you can quickly and easily find out what people (whether an industry “expert” or a consumer) have to say about not only the product you are looking for, but the individual or dealer who is selling and servicing it.

All of this has changed the way people shop and certainly has impacted how people buy.

I tried to think of how many things I had researched online in the past 90 days before I purchased, and how the research actually affected my purchasing decision. The Goebel household has been doing its share to spark the economy, as we have bought a number of big ticket items. A washer and dryer, two new vehicles, a refrigerator/freezer and a computer have had to be replaced in our household lately, and that doesn’t even consider the many hotel stays I have made during the same time. Each time, my wife or I, and sometimes both of us, spent significant time online looking for information on the products or services we were considering. To say that the many reviews I encountered had a major impact on our purchases would be a gross understatement.

Then, there is the “other” side—the consumer “do-gooders.” They go by many names (RipoffReport.com, Ripoff.org, Yelp.com, CarDealerCheck.com, etc.), and they absolutely can create havoc for even the best businesses. Certainly many businesses have solid if not stellar customer satisfaction programs in place. In spite of that, it’s impossible to satisfy 100 percent of your customers. That means that crackpot customers, ex-employees with a grudge, or even your competitors can conjure up a claim and post it, regardless of whether it has any basis in fact. The scary part is what RipoffReport.com publishes on its home page: “ALL complaints remain public and unedited in order to create a working history on the company or individual in question.” Nice.

I casually searched a couple of friends/clients who run impeccable dealerships and have very strong SF departments. They have CSI that is off the charts and processes in place to absolutely ensure satisfied customers. Unfortunately, one had a terminated salesperson with an axe to grind, and the other had a customer whose financing fell through after their documents did not support what they had told the dealership. After Googling each of their stores, guess what pops up near the top in search? You guessed it, RipOffReport.com reviews saying how bad the dealers were with wonderful descriptions like “fraudulent,” “scam artists,” and “bait and switch” screaming at you. Oh yeah, the complaints are almost three years old, and I have seen them as much as six years old.

These dealers spend thousands and thousands of dollars each month on their digital marketing. Their Web sites search extremely well, which should go a long way to attracting Web site visits (which hopefully will turn into leads). The problem is you have to wonder how much the negative reviews posted on RipoffReport.com cost them, because those negative reviews search extremely well and are usually immediately below the dealership’s main Web site in an Internet search. That is something that can’t ever be tracked, managed or even refuted. How wrong!

So, what does your dealership look like when you search it through Google, Yahoo! or Bing? Have you checked it recently? There are so many ways for your dealership to be rated or reviewed that I would be amazed if you don’t have a review or two floating around somewhere in cyberspace. If it shows up on the first page when you search, especially if you search by your dealership name, you can bet that your customers are seeing it. You can bank on something else too: If there are unsolicited reviews out there, they are almost always negative. While I relate this to my initial statement about dealers being concerned about CSI and doing SF, this really crosses over to the entire dealership.

So what can you do? It all starts with a plan. Whether with SF, conventional retail, service or parts, you must earnestly be trying to achieve 100-percent customer satisfaction, which is a lot easier said than done. You must have a way that unhappy customers can easily connect with the dealership and have their concerns heard and addressed. You can’t make everyone happy. You may be 100 percent in the right, but they don’t always seem to understand it that way. Being right and having your customer mad and posting scathing reviews gets you nothing. In that same vein, realize that you can’t just ignore crackpot customers anymore. If they have access to a computer, they can do long-lasting damage.

You must also be proactive. You need to take charge of building your own reputation. You need to have an easy-to-use system and/or tool that allows your sales and management team to build your own portfolio of positive reviews of your dealership and people. Probably the best time to garner a positive testimonial is right after a customer has taken delivery of their car. Some might argue it is better to do this before they go into the finance office.

For a couple of years now, savvy dealers have been using this time to take a quick video snippet of the customer and their new vehicle, or having them spend a few minutes writing down some quick comments about the dealership and their salesperson. These comments are always positive, and it gives the dealership or department an extensive library of positive reviews. This is a great proactive strategy; however, it presents one significant challenge.

If customer testimonials are only on the dealership’s Web site, the only way to find it is by going to the Web site. A customer may find a dealership’s site listed on page one of search results, but if a negative review has been posted on one of the aforementioned consumer sites,it will almost always show up as well (sometimes even above the dealership’s Web site). The damage has been done, and it is like a train wreck.
In my opinion, the best way to showcase your library of reviews (and to minimize the negative reviews) is to use a standalone Web site for your reviews. Used properly, they will search extremely well (often better than the consumer sites), and if they are linked to your primary Web site, they will also help its SEO ranking. Whether you create your own or use some of the vendors now available that provide that service for you, I feel it should have an outside or third-party feel to give it extra credibility. Whatever you do, if you choose an outside vendor, make sure you have control over what appears on the site. If a customer gives you a glowing review but uses third-grade grammar and spelling, it will read much better if you can clean it up.

One word of caution, there are some vendor sites that border on extortion. If you don’t pay to list your dealership, the sites give the feel that you are not “certified” or are less reputable. One I will name – CarDealerCheck.com – because they go so far as to have a list of their “100 Worst Car Dealers.” The top dealer on the list is named because of negative reviews from just two people. Go Google “Worst Car Dealers” and see what comes up. There are others that will allow you to sign up, but they will also sell or post competitors ads on your page of the site, which certainly takes the customer looking everywhere but where you want them.

The bottom line is that your credibility is at stake every day in the car business. Whether you decide to engage in SF or not, I strongly urge you to base your decision on something other than the fact that it may hurt your CSI or image. Every one of my franchise’s CSI was always in the top 10 percent of the country, often in the top 2 percent. SF did not hurt us. Your store’s culture is what will make or break your CSI, and my point here is that in today’s world of instant information, I believe you must be proactive about building and maintaining your “visible” reputation. I feel that those SF departments (and dealerships in general) that understand this will separate themselves from the pack and ultimately will be that much more successful in the long run.