While sitting on a panel at an Internet-related conference last year, I was asked about the need for dealers to use the Web to facilitate or foster customer reviews of their stores.
I cautioned vendors in the room to understand that dealers were and continue to be wary of encouraging customers to participate in that type of conversation that is open to the entire world.
I then threw the concept of reviews back at vendors, asking them if they would feel comfortable having dealers publicly review them and all of their interactions.
Now that day is here. A website, www.Drivingsales.com, lets dealers review and rate their vendors. Some vendors tell me privately they welcome the opportunity to be rated; others aren't so sure.
Founder Jared Hamilton began the site as class project while he was at the National Automobile Dealers Assn. Academy as a way for his classmates to stay in touch.
The site has grown into a full-scale social networking site in which dealers can communicate and share ideas, rate their experience with industry vendors and read blog postings from industry experts highlighting strategies and practices to implement throughout the store.
The hook for the site, though, likely will be the vendor ratings. The idea is to provide a venue in which dealers can check out other dealer experiences with vendors or products they are considering.
Reviewers will be anonymous, although their job titles will be visible. Vendors are able to communicate directly with reviewers both privately and publicly.
Hamilton admits some vendors aren't excited by the idea of being reviewed but says most of the firms he's talked with see the value of interacting with their dealership customers on a site such as Drivingsales.com.
Vendors can use the site as an early warning detection system that alerts them to potential problems. They also can use it as a marketing tool, especially if their ratings are positive.
Most of the ratings are of Internet-related companies, but Hamilton says Drivingsales.com is in the process of opening it up to include any vendor a dealer may use.
Having just launched a few months ago, participation still is somewhat minimal on the site. That might change as it gets more publicity and vendors start directing their clients to it.
While Hamilton and his team are promoting the ratings and best practice information on the site, I think there may be another benefit they are missing.
Dealers are going to come under increasing pressure to find ways to use social networking to promote and market their stores.
The topic of social media was front and center at the most recent J.D. Power Internet Roundtable. One thing was clear from that conference — no one knows for sure just how dealers can make social media work for them. We do know, however, it's not going to be banner ads.
Dealers and marketers are going to have be creative and not be afraid to fail. The beauty is that dealers can try new things without expending significant financial resources. And it might be a constantly moving target — what works today might not work tomorrow.
All of the data and studies tell us social media is where your buyers are, or at least, will be in a couple of years. And you need to be where they are.
That might take some actual hands-on learning — setting up accounts on various social network sites just to get a feel for what they are about.
What better way to learn than participating on a social site designed just for dealers? The learning experience might be better than signing up for a Facebook, MySpace or a Twitter account. (And if you don't know what Twitter is, don't bother. I signed up for an account a couple of months ago and still can't figure out its purpose.)