Interview with Cars.com on New Dealer Review System: Part 1

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As we mentioned before, Cars.com switched over to a new dealers review and rating system this past March, which is currently in an opt-in stage.  We wanted to get an update on how things were going so far, so we reached out to Nick Hummer, their product manager who’s leading their Dealer Reviews efforts.

Nick was extremely gracious with his time.  There’s so much good stuff that we’re breaking it up into two parts.  The second half of the interview will be posted Friday.

JS: Before we get started, is there anything in particular you want to say in particular about the review program?

Nick: The stance we continue to take and the whole reason that I’ll say we got into this is that we heard loud and clear from both our site users and dealers that there was just a crazy amount of demand in the marketplace for this type of content. The last six months that I’ve been talked to everyone under the sun about this, every month or two there’s a new stat coming out where the bar just keeps getting raised higher and higher where consumers are just aching to consume this content generated from other consumers. So the way we looked at it as if we started to collect this type of information and get it on our site and get the consumer the type of information they need, but it also helps our dealers by present their story right then and there. We looked at it as a win for our consumers, our dealers, and cars.com.

JS: I just can’t believe how many changes there have been with the review process in general over the last 6-8 months. It’s just been insane.

Nick: It has blown up. It is the hot button at this point. Everyone is talking about how can I start using reviews to start generating sales, how can I manage my reputation online, more and more we’re just hearing it everywhere. We’re just happy to do what we can to advance the conversation.

JS: Right now, your dealer review process is still in the opt-in phase for dealers, correct?

Nick: Correct. We’re opt in until mid- to late-summer. And then at that point, we’ll enable the functionality for every single dealer on cars.com.

JS: So you don’t have a set date yet for the hard move over?

Nick: We do have an internal one, trying to avoid really talking about it publicly until I am completely set that there isn’t not going to be any last minute change. I feel pretty good about it but more just because we are talking about it being beta, we just want to make sure that something else just doesn’t pop up. I feel very very confident that it’ll be over the summer.

JS: Ok, so mid to late, but you all have your own target date?

Nick: Yes, I feel pretty good about, it’s more that dates have tendency to change but don’t want to talk publicly then we decide we need to play with the functionality and then it gets pushed back a little bit. But for the moment we’re still paying close attention to the feedback we’ve been getting.

JS: How many dealers have signed up so far? [Editor’s note: this interview was actually conducted April 29, 2011, so adjust dealer opt-ins accordingly.]

Nick: We actually have… over 6700 yesterday.  Let me get an up to the minute count for you….

JS: While you’re waiting on that, have you noticed any distinguishing characteristics for the dealers that are signing up….large, small, certain pockets from the country, anything able to grasp from that so far?

Nick: Originally some region localization, and we’re still definitely seeing that.  What surprised me is the adoption in our smaller markets, so you typically expect to see in large, metro markets more opportunities, more sales folks localized, but we’ve seen some really, really good adoption in some of the areas you would see as more rural. It’s hard to say that there’s a specific type of dealer because it’s been really been pretty consistent. Most folks saying yes, we’re interested.

JS: Do you see something where one or two dealers will opt in then competitors in the surrounding area are seeing that and moving towards it as well?

Nick: I’m expecting we’ll start to see it as the review volume continues to grow, so one of the things we have talked to people about is this is a great time to get in initially and start building the volume. I think the bigger draw is not necessarily people having the ‘Review-Me’ functionality on Cars.com; the bigger draw is when I’m a dealership and I have those five gold stars next to my name, then it’s a little extra incentive for the guy down the road to say, ‘You know what, I want to be a part of this too.’

Just so I don’t forget to give it to you, we are just shy of 7,000 dealers now. We’re seeing about 100 a day.

JS: How many dealers are there total across the US?

Nick: In our side of things ballpark of about 17,000

JS: I can see why they would want it, but it just seems like it’s moving really quickly with them voluntarily knowing about it and voluntarily opting-in.

Nick: I think one of the big things that really surprised me was that I came into this with the same expectations as a lot of folks though ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be a really scary thing and are our dealers going to be excited about it?’ We did some really interesting focus groups with both site users and dealers back in 2010 and I remember my second day into the project and I was just floored by the amount of positive feedback that dealers were putting out there. And it was really along the lines of them saying, ‘one way or another I do something with reputation today.’

And, so all of them were talking about their CSI scores, most of them would bring up something about the Better Business Bureau … one of the insane things that really surprised me because you just don’t think about it is even the smaller, independent dealers were very quick to say that they have probably sold a car online at some auction site at some point or another, and on all those sites you leave feedback for someone. So most of them were already doing it in some form or another and pretty much all of them said whether they were doing it today, they realized that this was the landscape and it’s going to happen sooner or later. So, I think the dealer reaction overall was surprising at the beginning, but now it’s everywhere so more and more folks are getting involved in it.

JS: Has the feedback changed or what kind of feedback are you getting now from the dealers after they have opted-in?

Nick: It hasn’t changed too much. I mean, dealers are pretty good about offering us some suggestions, and some tweaks, but nothing that has been hugely surprising just yet. The big thing I’ve been seeing, thus far, is that there’s a feeling out there among some that reputation management is a combination of both a resolution of customer service issues and also this idea that I’m going to build up my brand and my reputation in various places. So, that’s one area we’ve seen is a lot of requests and or suggestions, but overall we’re still just seeing dealers are opting-in, they’re starting to get on board, they’re starting to do more to drive volume and it really hasn’t changed too much from when we first launched to where we are today.

JS: Thank you. That’s really interesting. We’re seeing that with our clients we do reputation management with where it’s a little bit of, ‘Oh, shoot, we have to look at some our own internal policies and how we’re handling things in addition to how are we cleaning up outward facing as well.’

Nick: And that’s something that I’ve heard from a pretty substantial number of folks; this idea of ‘you know, I like the idea, but before we opt-in, give us some time to really nail down our process.’ Which I think is a fantastic thing. Whenever that comes up, I tell the dealer to ‘take your time, figure this out.’ It makes perfect sense.

I would rather you come in ready to go, feeling like you have your process nailed down then you feel like you have to figure it out overtime. So, we’ve seen a decent amount of that and I love the fact that more and more dealers are realizing that reputation management is a very important part of their daily process and they’re going to figure out a way to make that work.

JS: Well said. What kind of visit adoption have you seen so far?

Nick: Visitor adoption has been pretty much how we expected. The interesting thing, the dilemma, we’ve faced from a user experience perspective is that we feel really good about the fact that we’re likely going to cross 7,000 dealers opted in today or Monday, but on the flip side it’s still not a majority of our dealerships. The difficulty then is; how do you present it to a user who wants to find a specific dealership that may or may not already be opted-in, and if they are opted-in they may or may not have the review volume just yet.

What we have seen though, when we launched we were getting a certain number of reviews a day, and I just looked this morning and saw that the average number of reviews coming in has more than doubled. We’re seeing that adoption pick-up pretty quickly, but it’s still one of those things that we’re trying to make sure we’re presenting the best user experience possible so we’re not saying ‘come read reviews’ and then they can’t read those reviews. We’re keeping close eyes on it and it’s going in the direction we want it to, but it’s one of those things that I expect we will be able to talk a little bit more intelligently about it once we have every single dealer live on the site.

JS: So, if the dealer is opted-in and the consumer is looking at one of their cars, is it going to be right on that page where they can leave the review?

Editor’s note: here are some links for cars.com review samples that Nick sent over after the interview:

Nick: There are two main places where the content kind-of lives today. Right now when you come to Cars.com, in essence there are different ways that you can search but it boils down to I can choose to search for a specific dealership or I can choose to search for a specific car. Anywhere that you’re searching for a specific dealership, where we’re presenting dealership information, we have a column right there in our dealer locator functionality that shows the current rating. And then underneath it is the link to click here and read all the reviews and next to it is click here to write a review. We’re trying to separate those pages out just so our dealers can take advantage that and funnel people to the appropriate page.

The other place that you’ll see similar functionality is on each individual vehicle page. Again, the idea being we want to present their score right there in the context of the vehicle so it gives the user all the confidence in the world to say, yes I do want to work with this dealership. We don’t necessarily want to force all that content into that page though because we want to keep the focus on the vehicle information. Very, very similar, they can click on the link there that takes them to the dealer specific review page where they can read all the reviews and right at the top of that page is a big purple button that lets them write a review if that’s why they’re on that page.

JS: I’m looking at this, and I don’t know if I just missed it before or you just put it up recently, but that review a dealer link on the homepage, has the green beta tag on it; I’m just curious if you have looked at the analytics and if you know like are people going through there to rate dealers or are they more likely to do that after they have looked at a car. Do you have any stats on that?

Nick: Off the top of my head, my impression is that they are going through the link on the homepage, although we are getting a lot of traffic on the dealer specific pages. One of the stances that we’ve taken is that we want to do everything to empower our dealers to drive the volume as best as possible, so each dealer has a specific URL to their store where they can send out emails or do whatever they want with it. They can tell people ‘if you want to leave a review for me click here and go directly to this page.’ We are getting a substantial amount of traffic that bypasses the homepage and goes directly to there.

What we’ve seen though, in terms of the vehicle page compared to the homepage is the people who write reviews are not necessarily looking for a car right now or they’re not drilling down and find a specific vehicle, and then realizing that I’ve shopped at this dealership and I want to leave a response. More so, they are coming in, they’re reading reviews and lots of times the folks that read reviews then actually want to write reviews as well.

We’ll add a link to Part 2 here when the rest of the interview gets posted.  The second half of the interview goes into great detail about astroturfing; review scrubbing; how they view themselves in the greater review landscape compared to places like Yelp, Google Places, and Dealer Rater; and how dealers can respond to criticism.

Justin Seibert

About The Author

Justin Seibert is the President of Direct Online Marketing. Justin holds a Bachelor of Arts from Vanderbilt University. He contributes a wide range of online business-oriented topics, including the subject of exporting. His contributions can be found on publications such as the Pittsburgh Business Times, AdAge, SES Magazine, and La Voz del interior. Justin and his family enjoy learning about new cultures during their travels.

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