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Finding Your Customers’ Online Pulse

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It was somewhat of a role-reversal exercise. Trying to figure out the best ways to reach new and current customers, shop owner Stan Creech thought about what he does when looking at purchasing products or services for himself—whether it’s a large expense for work on his home or the simple task of buying a book or movie.

“A couple years ago, I became really addicted to [shopping on], and what I found I really liked was all the reviews and ratings and being able to read those before purchasing anything,” says Creech, 49, who runs Creech Import Repair in Raleigh, N.C. “Then it started spilling over into everything I did: I wouldn’t use a service or a product without looking up a review somewhere, whether it was Google or Angie’s List or someplace else.

“Then it dawned on me just how important [online] reviews are to a business.”

With the advancement of the Internet and the adoption of smart phones, consumers today get their information in a variety of new ways. For auto care centers, an increased understanding of online reputations is critical—and it starts with customer reviews. Ratchet+Wrench talked with Creech and one other shop owner who takes a serious approach to his online presence. Both point out that shop operators should view online reviews as an important marketing tool that is within their control. In today’s plugged-in world, how a shop manages its online reputation can be the difference between success and failure.

Creech Import Repair | Raleigh, N.C.

Since opening his shop in 1993, Creech’s business has relied heavily on word-of-mouth referrals for attracting new customers.

In recent years, that has changed.

“The majority of our new customers that walk through the door now say they found us on the Internet,” Creech says, “and the first thing out of their mouth is, ‘You had great reviews.’”

Creech Import Repair has a five-star rating on nearly every website it’s listed, including from roughly 285 customers on its own page and 40 on Google. Those reviews, Creech says, bring roughly 25 new customers each month, totaling about $8,000 to $10,000 worth of work.

“I didn’t think anything would ever surpass referrals (for attracting new customers),” Creech says, “but reviews have for the past two years. People really look at those, and I have to pay attention to that. It makes a huge difference. The key is making sure you get those good reviews.”
Creech says there are a number of ways to do this:

Don’t be afraid to ask. Look up the online reviews for most businesses, and one thing is pretty obvious: They tend to represent the extreme ends of the customer satisfaction spectrum, either really pleased or really upset. Getting a shop’s “average” customer to post a review is the challenge, Creech says. That’s why Creech and his staff do what they can to encourage people to post reviews. “In some cases, we’ll just ask people to leave reviews, and most often, they’re willing to do that,” Creech says. That’s an important if not obvious tactic, Creech says, as shop employees have direct day-to-day contact with each and every customer. “It never hurts to ask,” Creech adds.

Electronic promotions. Over the past couple years, Creech’s shop began using email as a direct marketing strategy—sending out promotions, service reminders, anything to keep their name prominent in their customers’ minds. The shop collects customers’ email addresses when setting up appointments and during the checkout process. And on each and every email the shop sends out, there is a link, giving the option for customers to post a review on the shop’s website. “It makes it easy for them to do it,” Creech says. “A lot of times, people don’t want to take the time, but we’re making it easier by putting it right there for them.” Shops can even have the emails link to online listings (Google, Yelp, Citysearch, etc.) if their websites don’t have review capabilities.

Keep a finger on the pulse. Creech says it’s important to really pay attention to what people say online. The Internet provides a unique opportunity for shop owners to better understand their customers in ways they never could in the past. Creech says reviews should be used as a tool for your business to improve. If it’s a positive review, take note of what that customer liked—and keep doing it.

Good service creates good reviews. The most obvious step toward a positive review is to make sure you give customers ample reason to leave one. As Creech put it, “Reviews build new customers, service keeps them. I think it’s the way you treat people and your business philosophy. We’re really self-conscience of customer satisfaction. … Every day and every interaction with a customer is a chance for a negative review. You have to be aware of that.”

Mitchell’s Auto Repair | Brooklyn, N. Y.

Bring up a search engine and type the words “honest mechanic, Brooklyn,” and one name pops up first: Mitchell’s Auto Repair. Actually, it comes up as the first three listings. This is a fact that doesn’t elude Mitchell Zelman, 54, owner of the 1,200-square-foot New York shop since 1998. And Zelman knows exactly the reason: good reviews. Mitchell’s Auto Repair has five-star ratings on Citysearch, Insiderpages and the website for the New York Daily News, each with more than 40 positive testimonials. His Google reviews are starting to build, as well.

“When you rely on word-of-mouth referrals, that gives you one or two people coming from each customer’s opinion,” says Zelman. “If they go on the Internet, they have the whole world at their fingertips and can do a lot of research for themselves.”

In the last year, Google began letting users leave reviews through its business listings. So, when searching for an auto repair shop, those ratings and reviews will appear with its Google Maps information, including location and directions. Anyone trying to find how to get to your shop will now automatically see what customers think of it, as well.

“We’re in a business where people don’t want to leave it to chance when it comes to fixing their cars,” Zelman says. “People are generally skeptical about repairing their cars because it sometimes leads to a lot of money. … There are many, many things people are leery about with bringing their cars somewhere for the first time. Positive reviews help.”

And negative reviews can kill.

Zelman hasn’t had too many of those over the years, but he understands very well the effect they can have. Luckily, he says, there is quite a bit a shop owner can do about it:

Respond, respond, respond. Not every negative review accurately describes a problem with your shop, Zelman says. For instance, he once had a customer bring in his car for a check-up before a road trip. The customer wanted everything looked at, top to bottom. Zelman’s team performed the diagnostic (which found nothing wrong), charged the man accordingly, and the customer left without any complaint. The next day, Zelman saw a scathing post from the customer on Insiderpages, saying Zelman charged him “45 bucks for 99 cents of windshield washer fluid.” What did Zelman do? He called the customer on the phone. “It was a situation where I had an opportunity to respond, so I did,” he explained. “By the time the conversation ended and I explained what exactly he was charged for, they said they understood.” The customer removed the bad review and wrote a new one explaining how he was now “satisfied” with the charge and “very impressed with Mitchell taking the time to call me and talk with me about it.” Most sites allow comments on reviews, and that can be a good avenue for a business to defend itself.

Forgive, don’t forget. Zelman remembers virtually every negative review his shop has ever gotten. Granted, he can count them all on one hand, but that doesn’t downplay the effect each has had on the way he operates. “There’s often a reason the review is there,” Zelman says. That can provide a chance to improve and not make those mistakes in the future. If you don’t repeat problems, you’ll find that negative reviews likely won’t repeat either.

Build on the positive. Bad reviews won’t go away, necessarily, but if a shop does all it can to increase its positive feedback, those negative comments start to seem less important. Eventually, a long stream of new, positive reviews will improve a shop’s overall rating and perception. This, in combination with Creech’s advice,  comes down to service. Having a car fixed properly—and a customer treated properly—is what matters most.

“Me, personally, I’ve been in this business a very long time, and I really, truly try to keep people happy, Zelman says.

“It’s bad business to make people unhappy.”

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