Best Practices

Here’s Why Car Shoppers Love or Despise Dealerships

Dealerships build customer relationships one review at a time. About 80 percent of shoppers use online car reviews and car dealership reviews to inform their purchase[i]. But what motivates a customer to write a five-star review – the kind that attracts more customers? And why do customers write blistering reviews that send shoppers to your competition?

At DealerRater, we decided to find answers. So, we examined reviews of dealerships and salespeople that customers wrote on DealerRater and in 2017 (1.4 million reviews in all).[ii]Using natural language processing, a subset of artificial intelligence, we examined the most common words and phrases that crop up in positive and negative reviews.

Our analysis shows that customer expectations are high: they want a white-glove, VIP experience from purchase to service. And they want the personal touch from your people.

Here are two major takeaways:

1 A VIP experience creates customer relationships

The ability to provide both a great buying and service experience is the single-most important factor influencing positive dealership reviews. More than 47,000 phrases, or 41 percent of positive content, single out a great experience from purchase to service.

Customers have high standards: the words “great customer experience” or “excellent customer service” occurred most often in positive dealership reviews, followed by variations of “best” or “great buying experience.”

On the other hand, bad service and maintenance dominate the themes that appear in negative reviews. What do bad service and maintenance look like?

  • Slowness. The phrases “oil change” and “tire rotation” appeared often in bad reviews, as did the phrases “2 hours oil change” and “3 hours oil change.” In fact, complaints about slow service appeared so often that they merited their own category. When we took a closer look at the data, we uncovered a root problem: people expect procedures such as oil changes and tire rotations to be fairly easy and quick – and when dealerships take longer than expected, customers write negative reviews. Dealers need to take a closer look at the expectations they are setting and manage their service pipeline more effectively. Let customers know ahead of time that if they’re dropping off their cars on an especially busy day, their service may take longer than normal.
  • Surprises. Many of the problems in the maintenance category relate to check engine or tire pressure lights coming on, most certainly with used cars. An engine light coming on, in and of itself, does not inspire a negative review. The problem happens when dealers don’t address these surprises. The best way for dealerships to avoid these problems occurring is to ensure that their inventory is properly prepped and free of defects, or else the dealership needs to manage expectations if a car has known issues. If a surprise happens after a customer drives off the lot, obviously dealerships need to understand how upset a customer is going to be and be prepared to address the issue immediately – or offer alternatives such as loaner cars if the issue takes time to fix.
  • Not minding the details. We noticed a tendency for complaints about temporary tags to appear in negative reviews. The complaints typically came down to sloppy management of temporary tags, such as issuing tags that had expired or making a customer wait for them. Dealers who don’t manage these crucial details well will likely reveal other signs of sloppiness such as dropping the ball with scheduling maintenance or neglecting to return phone calls in a timely manner. Good service means thorough service. Bad service means lapses in attention to detail.

2 Your people are your brand

A helpful, responsive staff throughout the entire purchase and service process is key to making customers happy. More than 21,000 phrases, or 19 percent of positive content, singled out people, especially for being friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful.

  • Phrases associated with being helpful appear thousands of times in the best (five-star) reviews. Customers perceive a dealership to be especially helpful when its people helped customers with research.
  • Tone matters. Specific references to friendly, courteous, and professional staff appeared about 10,000 times. We found nearly 1,000 references specifically to a dealership’s people having a sense of humor.

On the other hand, unresponsive staff loom very large in negative reviews. We found frequent instances of phrases such as “won’t return phone calls” and “never called back” in negative reviews. To be sure, being busy is often a sign of success. But to stay successful in the era of the on-demand economy, dealerships need to be more responsive than ever. Especially in the always-on mobile age, customers expect near-instant responses.

In addition, perceptions of the finance department influenced negative reviews, with customers expressing confusion and distrust of the person managing the terms of their financing. Here is an opportunity for finance professionals to improve their standing by offering clarity around how financing works and which options are best for the consumer, just as salespeople need to explain the “why” behind pricing. At a time when online financing is becoming an option to customers, your finance team needs to work more like a customer service team to build customer goodwill.

The message is clear: dealerships win when they train everyoneon the lot, from the salesperson to the receptionist, to act like a customer service ambassador and give shoppers the VIP experience.

[i], “Review Usefulness and Recency,” November 2016.
[ii]DealerRater, “What Makes a Five-Star Dealership Review?” March 2018.

Jamie Oldershaw is the General Manager of DealerRater and Vice President of Reputation Strategy for He has been involved with DealerRater si...