Reputation Management: Life after Death?

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Welcome to Reputation Management! In this new series, we’ll explain the oft-mystifying behavior of your local automotive industry—places like car dealers and service shops.

First, we’ll dig into publicly available customer reviews for those businesses. Then we’ll remove the names and discuss the situation from multiple viewpoints, leaning on my years of experience as a—you guessed it—reputation manager. 

If we do this right, you should walk away a better, smarter consumer. Let us know what you think in the comments! —Sajeev




These days you can separate new car dealerships into two categories: those owned by private capital and those under a publicly traded company. Both are still franchises subject to the guidelines of their respective automotive manufacturer, suggesting they all operate in a similar manner. But public companies are usually more risk-averse in everything they do, lest investors catch a whiff of trouble and subsequently do things like short the stock.

Not so with the privately held car dealerships. These “private cap” (as in “capital”) stores often have a single person at the top of the food chain, called the dealer principal, whose last name is often plastered on the front of the building. Selling cars is a great family business: city-wide fame, money, localized power, and a never-ending stream of new automobiles are quite the intoxicating mix.

Until they aren’t. Even the legendary Cal Worthington dynasty of private cap dealerships wound up for sale, and I suspect each will be renamed. The sad reality is that families sell their wares to larger groups (both public and private) when second or third generations don’t love the car business nearly as much as the first.

Sometimes the sale is less about the family moving on and more about it being forced into a different set of circumstances. Sometimes a dealer principal’s deeds open the door to a sabbatical at Club Fed. But financial impropriety isn’t nearly as salacious as what we’re about to (tangentially) discuss.

In this episode of Reputation Management, we have a dealership that was rocked to its core because of a murder-for-hire plot by the dealer principal. While the details of the alleged act are much too saddening and inappropriate to discuss here, you can read about them elsewhere. (As of  March, 2023, both sides have yet to agree upon a trial date.) We are here for reviews, including the one allegedly left by the dealer principal for the security company he hired to do the deed.

Google Business | KXAN

I firmly believe that anyone whose job is to manage the online reputation of a business inevitably leaves a review themselves. But why on earth would a dealer principal leave a review for their alleged mercenaries, using their real name on a public page on Google? The lawyers musta had a field day.

No matter, reviews can be flagged for deletion based on irrelevance. Shortly after news broke of the murder-for-hire plot, irrelevant business reviews for the dealership dogpiled Google. Too bad I didn’t have the foresight to screenshot them. But that’s not the point of this series, so let’s get back to it.

The dealership in question was sold to a publicly traded dealership group. (Full disclosure: I used to work for this public company, but well before this transaction occurred.) Since the name on the dealership’s sign was now mired in controversy, the transfer included a name change. As you’ll see, the new name spurred a distinct change in customer reviews shortly thereafter.


Free oil changes for life, but not YOUR life


The transition to a public dealership is often invisible to the customer, as the front-line staff usually sticks around and most policies stay in effect. And what of the free perks offered by the last owner? Unless mandated by the OEM or common sense (i.e. coffee in waiting rooms, free wi-fi, etc.), those benefits are usually the first things to go.

Offering free oil changes is a poor business practice, and larger private/public groups already know this. Luckily these large organizations have the cash on hand to entice customers via other methods, usually with cheap oil-change coupons and more aggressive discounting by the sales department’s internet sales managers from the get-go. Free oil changes aren’t free, anyway; their cost was likely “baked into” every deal with an obscure dealer fee and/or less aggressive discounting.

But no matter how you skin it, no customer likes being sold a false bill of goods. The public companies will deal with the blowback (i.e. they stash cash to weather storms like this) and just apologize profusely. Do yourself a favor and never buy into the program in the first place. Get a service contract through the OEM instead: A Honda dealership may cash out, but Honda Motor will always(?) honor its commitments.


PR-friendly replies—not necessarily a bad thing?


The carefully worded response here is key, as a public dealership group has no tolerance for screenshots of its testy replies being screenshotted and sent to local media. If enough bad news gets published, reporters might smell a story. And if enough stories get published, a Wall Street type may find them and pose a “gotcha” question during an earnings call.

Saying “sorry” in a well-crafted reply is consequence-free (legally speaking, as I once discussed this with in-house council) and it lets everyone know that things are gonna different with the new owner. Different may not equate to better, but that’s in the eye of the beholder.


Here’s the counterpoint: This review is just begging for a testy response from an owner. The feedback isn’t likely from a customer, just someone who thinks it is okay to ding a business’ rating with a complaint about that company’s advertisements. Public companies will write something carefully worded, including an apology and a promise to review the problem with senior managers. However, this review was written years before this dealership’s sale to its new owner.


Of course, the previous owner couldn’t resist taking the bait. You’ll never (rarely?) hear a publicly held dealership tell someone on the internet to “grow up.” It’s just bad optics, and C-suite executives have no tolerance for it. Manufacturers may not see the taunt, but no OEM wants its brand associated with childish replies. Which is why there are reputation managers monitoring the situation at the store or dealer group level, who will run a situation up the ladder when needed.


Big business, big waiting lines


Be they private or public, the bigger dealer groups have learned to treat service departments like waiting areas in a doctor’s office. It’s the easiest way to turn a money-making department into a money-printing service, as repair/service centers generally make more money than any other part of the dealership. (Pandemic-era vehicle pricing notwithstanding.)

Back to the doctor’s office analogy: just because you have an appointment at 8:30 am to see Dr. Whatshisface doesn’t mean he’s plopping you on the exam table at that moment in time. No, you fill out paperwork, wait your turn, and deal with awful TV programs, magazines, etc. like everyone else in the lobby. At least at the dealership there’s usually faster wi-fi, acidic coffee, mediocre donuts, and new cars.

line at car dealer service
Cougars love “Toyota Express Maintenance” now that Mercury’s dead. Sajeev Mehta

Cramming the service drive with customers isn’t a big deal if the dealership offers a freestanding facility for quick things like oil changes, as popularized by Ford’s Quick Lane. Such implementations act like triage in a hospital’s emergency room, expediting service by evaluating the problem and routing the vehicle to the appropriate place. If vehicles with short- and long-duration service needs are going into the same repair facility, that’s a recipe for bad customer reviews, especially at high-traffic times. We’ll discuss this situation further in the last example.

But “stackin’ em deep” in the service lane usually means a dealership is also “sellin’ them cheap.” Oil changes are sometimes performed at cost, tires may have a price-match guarantee, and the dealer’s service team may even honor coupons from other local businesses. It’s all in the name of getting you in the door, so they can perform a complimentary inspection and give you a printout with red/yellow/green indicators on key wear items on your vehicle. That’s how you get upsold, and those higher-margin parts and service tasks are how a dealer makes money.


It’s still luck of the draw


If you’re one of those people that gets nervous and/or frustrated upon visiting a service department, reviews like this are one reason why. You don’t know what kind of service you’ll get on your visit, and that’s a terrible feeling. Staffing levels, employee morale, repair equipment quality, and availability of everything in the supply chain make all the difference. If a dealer gets each one right, vehicles can enter/leave quickly. Get any one wrong and the 1-star reviews roll in like clockwork. Put the odds in your favor: Get to know the people behind the desks. Your visits will be happier, and maybe even cheaper.

Well, until that wheel-balancing machine they’ve neglected to upgrade finally bites the dust. Or until your newfound friends have a beef with management, quit their job, and cherry-pick the most amiable coworkers to join them at their next gig. Or countless other scenarios, as what you can imagine has probably already happened at a car dealership. Any of these situations may happen at a public or at a private dealership, as both run on fine-tuned budgets, and their staff do not necessarily get what they need in a timely fashion.


The Reputation Manager’s plight?

This installment in our series is probably my favorite example of why reputation managers exist in the first place. When a retail-focused company buys a distressed asset, the new owners are likely to infuriate people for multiple reasons. Add in a media frenzy behind a murder-for-hire plot? Things get even worse—but only in the short term.

Even before the dealership’s sale is official, reputation managers wind up monitoring places like Google, Yelp, Facebook, and even Glassdoor to size up just how much work is ahead of them. Getting access to the accounts (so they can reply to people and update information) is sometimes difficult. I lost count of how many times a dealer had to beg a recently fired employee to fork over the username and password for the Google/Gmail account that possessed the keys to their digital marketing castle (as it were).

But once the new owners are in full control, the emails to managers tasked with local customer support start flying. At some point critical mass is achieved, and one reply can work for multiple complaints. Here’s an example: “Sorry we screwed up, can you call or email me so I can personally assist? My name is so-and-so and I am some-type-of manager. I am new here and I want to make this right.”

Properly addressing customer complaints is a lot of work, but it proves that there is life after death in the car business. Do it right and a distressed car dealership will come to life much quicker. Do it wrong and reputations get real messy, real fast. And that’s precisely what we will discuss in our next installment.




What did you think of Reputation Management? Was this a good use of your valuable time? Would you like to see more—and if so, anything you’d change or add?

We’re always open to suggestions from the Hagerty Community, and if there’s a type of business you want to discuss, odds are we can find it online. Tell us what you think in the comments!

Read next Up next: AEV and Bliss Mobil’s latest creation isn’t your father’s truck camping rig


    The Service Department turned me completely away from a dealership where I had bought two brand new vehicles. I was satisfied with the Sales Department and happy with the rigs I bought. With the first, I’d had good experiences when taking it in for service. The nightmare with the second “screwed the pooch”. I was lied to, blown off, exposed to blatant upsell attempts – basically all of the “bad reputational” things a dealership service dept. can do. When I wrote to the Service Manager explaining the issues I’d seen, he never even responded – at all. I can’t help but believe that this has happened to other customers (I removed their “Preferred Customer” license plate frames from my vehicles, which were supposed to get me in and out quicker – hah!), and that at least some of them have gone elsewhere as a result. Just wonder when someone at the helm will wake up to what is keeping people like me from coming back. I not only quit going there for regular service on the first two vehicles I’d bought from them, but firmly decided I’d never buy a third from there – ever. Plus, I spread the negative word as far and wide as I could (whether or not that cost them any business, I have no way to know).
    This business was under the name of a private owner (well known in this region), but that man passed away and it became a family business owned by his heirs. I’m not sure if that change in leadership is where they lost their way, but I suspect it has some sort of connection.

    There very well could be a connection, as so many “Juniors” that take over the “Senior” name on the masthead are not nearly as good at their jobs as their predecessors.

    That said, I know folks who buck this trend (and they are awesome), but I call this “(Dealer name) junior syndrome” for good reason.

    This article only reinforces my history of never having bought a brand-new car.

    Of the maybe two dozen cars I’ve owned, only two were purchased from dealers, and only one was problematic.

    Salesmen are SALESMEN, and the more things they can sell you, (as with NEW car dealers,) the more they’ll pressure and deceive.
    A private seller HAS nothing more to offer, other than the car. Of course, Caveat Emptor — Let the Buyer Beware.

    Caveat Emptor indeed: One thing I’ve learned in these transactions, dealership or otherwise: EVERYONE is lying at one time or another. That includes customers, and doing so can very well hurt their pocketbook. Let the seller beware too.

    And these days with Facebook marketplace and their supposed private sellers? The sheer volume of potential lies on wheels is difficult to process. FB Marketplace makes me almost love the dealership experience.

    This string seems to have evolved over into the “buying/selling” part of the dealership equation, but the point of my post is that even though I was relatively happy with that, the total incompetence, dishonesty, and lack of empathy from the SERVICE department turned me completely away from that dealership. The reputation of a dealer isn’t just built and maintained by the salespeople. It runs all the way from whomever answers the phone to the kid washing cars on the lot (plus policies and standards of the business model) – with everyone the customer comes in contact with having the potential to pop a good-feelings bubble at any time.

    A lot of people are just like you, DUB6. I totally get that. I am the opposite, probably because I was in the business long enough and bad apples don’t ruin the bunch for me. (Mostly because people come and go in the big cities, but I know that isn’t true everywhere.)

    If anything, I use a bad experience to ensure they give me a better price on something in the future. We need to leverage the car dealership model to save money, as that’s its benefit over the Tesla sales model.

    But aren’t you (in a way) rewarding them with future business even though they fell down on past dealings? I get you idea of using their past failures as leverage in future deals, but at the same time, you are still giving them a sale (albeit at reduced profit) that – IMHO – they didn’t “earn”. After all, dealers don’t just DESERVE my business by virtue of being dealers. They should actually have to do something in exchange for my loyalty beyond just being there when I want to buy a car, shouldn’t they? Otherwise, why are they really any better than direct sales?

    This is a fun discussion! For me loyalty is a dicey proposition when the industry has a shocking amount of employee turnover. Who exactly am I supposed to be loyal to?

    Or take it from a nice salesperson I met at a Porsche dealer, as I asked him for his thoughts on the dealer group he’s working for:

    “I’m here for the Porsche Brand.”

    Both my GTO and Tahoe are 2004s. Besides the hype/price gouging and industry wide lack of dealership regulations, I’m not really into my cars spying on me, nor my auto generated personal information being public and/or grabable w/o warrant by “law” enforcement revenue enhancers. I have aftermarket ECUs in both my vehicles, and am old enough that my ’04s will outlive me, so I have no reason to “buy! new!”.

    One still can buy a new car and still get a good deal if they shop smart and know how to work a deal.

    Too often the customer also make it easy to take them. People today too often shop for large items like cars with emotions and you can not do that. That car is not the only one and you do not have to have it right now. Do your home work and know what they have in it and what it is worth. In the end they will sell at your reasonable price but too often they will try to wear you down. Get up and walk if they try as someone else needs the money more than they do.

    This has me reflecting on my dealership experiences:

    -Newer mom & pop sold me a high mileage febreezed to death (bad sign, run away!) 87 Cutlass Wagon that blew a head gasket within months of me getting it. That location was empty before I finished with my mechanic. I was young and dumb.

    -Long standing mom & pop that was legacy descendants of the 1950s GM dealership in town was great. But he retired 25 years ago.

    -longer running secondary market dealership in town sold me cracked in half Mazda (which I welded up and passed registration –wouldn’t work today) which was super suspect in hindsight. I was young and dumb (theme!) They ended up getting a name-brand affiliation but didn’t lose the “sketchy” rep. Has been absorbed into a dealer group and the sketchy name is not on the signs now.

    -Dodge dealership I have dealt with a few times, for a few people has been great sales (over 20 years) and underwhelming service.

    -Ford dealership I had good sales interactions with. One service department person was terrible. Once my wife was in the picture, her family had long-standing ties to the dealership and we deal with a common salesperson. 4 of our last 6 vehicles have been from them. Would have been 6 but they seldom have minivans…

    -Chev dealership treated me poorly when I was quite young. Ignored them for years, then had interaction with them not of my own accord and they were great. They’ve been in my recent shopping visits.

    -I have a friend that works at a Toyota dealership. He’s great, their business model here (minimal inventory, high spec top priced stuff, little used) basically loses me as a potential customer.

    -local Mazda dealership is good to deal with. Used to keep a very full lot of decent used cars (I don’t think they sell that many new Mazdas around here –might if there was a truck). Now there stock is so small the chance of dealing with them is much less.

    Several dealerships in town have made missteps (to me) in the last few years. One salesperson was talking up a minivan then I said “what happened to the roof”. Says “I didn’t know about that”. Van looked like a tree had landed on it… Two other dealerships post online adds praising vehicles and you show up to look at them and find significant collision damage. The one we went to the other day would be at least $5000 at a body shop to fix and absolutely would not have been on the lot at this name-brand dealership pre-pandemic.

    That’s the other thing happening in my area… way more “as-is” stuff in the listings than any of them would have done in the past and some of it is $19000 or $26000 “as is you fix you save”. I think that is insane (to consider buying that). Totally different if it is an 18 year old vehicle “as-is” for $4000 because someone’s grandparent traded in a moderately used Corolla.

    I suppose my advice is: make a good connection with a sales person and try to maintain that. Service… for me I will go dealership if the vehicle is under warranty (sometimes mine still are) but I am not married to that. I have a mechanic I prefer for most of my work. This prevents the “poor service” aspect from messing my good sales relationship.

    The maintaining a connection used to work. I used it for a while. Now every time I turn around it is is a staff of new sale people.

    Service departments are also struggling to keep the same staff. They either are good and find better pay or they are too often pressured to meet numbers no one can meet and let go.

    Dealers in the Fargo, ND area advertise $80-$100 per hour to start new service techs… who do you suppose REALLY pays for that? I’m a ’70s hot rod kid, I WILL figure it out myself. Common for $140-$150 oil changes here. My worked for GM all his life father would rise from his grave and beat me bloody if I paid that- really, how hard is it to change oil? Air filters? Wiper blades? Jeezus Wept, I loved my dad, but he had no tolerance for stupidity or incompetence. And he’s just the type to rise from his grave and smack me up for stupidity; he smoked Pall Malls his entire life, cuz “if cigs are gonna kill me, I’m gonna enjoy them”; he died of an unrelated cardiac event at 53yoa. I just don’t “do” dealers. My ’04 GTO & Tahoe were bought private purchase, and what maintenance/repair I can’t do I have a really well regarded independent local shop I trust, as we have a 10+ year relationship, the owner is a real, not display Christian, and I’m allowed to choose the techs that work on my vehicle. And I get a free loaner. And they don’t ridiculously overcharge for inferior, Chinese made mass market parts. The entire front suspension of my Tahoe needed rebuilt, I was told I could “save” money, or use Moog components. I don’t save pennies for critical parts. Moog is what I chose, and I got a 5% discount cuz I bought all the parts in one order. And yon Tahoe, extra 4″ of lift, 20″s and Hankooks (10/10, highly recommend Hankook) drives better than new. No, not a sports car experience, but for what it is, it drives better with less noise and tramlining with the big rims/Hankooks than the factory alloys and 16″s.
    I’ma vote reliable independent shops. And face to face private purchase for anything used. Corporate dealers must pay their overhead somehow- who do you think pays? And if you have to have new, do your research. Don’t buy on feelings, download all regional dealer’s offers to present to sales. Unless it’s a ‘Vette. Just buy it- your partner is going to leave you and your insurance agent is sending his kid to Harvard, but I once had the feeling of driving a new ‘Vette off a dealership lot. That’s a bucket list thing for many guys my gen. The two black stripes and slam into 2nd for more? Priceless.

    The truth is the whole deal comes down to who is calling the shots. I have two dealers locally here that are opposites. One is private family owned and the other is a chain owned dealers.

    The Chain owned came in and bought several dealers and have a number around the country. They have done well and have been a good local cooperate citizen. They make no promises they don’t keep and play no games.

    The other who I did recently buy from as they were the only one that had what my wife wanted was a total pain. They have been family owned since the 30’s and did a good job for years. Now the younger family members run it and the games started. They tried to sell my father a rebalance on tires that needed replaced. They lied about cars they had for sale and would not let go if you told them not interested.

    On the model I did buy they lied about the GM Discount but offer money off at the same rate for their profit. I got up to walk 3 times when they also would not meet the fair price on trade of my old model and then they would not meet my final price. In the end I did get what I wanted but this took 4 hours to do. I did smile when I slapped on my GM money to cut the price more. It did not cost them but they would not have met my price if they had know I had it.

    Another local dealer plays games like life time warranties but you have to do all your service work at their dealers. They have two idiots doing the commercials that tried to help me and my mother on a car at one time and they tag teamed us and tried to separate us. We walked soon after.

    Their is no real pattern to dealers and behavior. It all does lead to the top.

    I had another local dealer that pushed you to sign for an extra discount to take the cat to another dealer for warranty work.

    On the other hand we have a Penske dealer here that from what I have seen they are a dream to work with. They are held to a higher standard by Roger and it shows.

    I tried to buy a truck from another dealer local. The guy wanted over sticker for a ZR2 claiming it was limited. His allocations were limited. I told him I was not paying over sticker then he berated me for not buying as it was his right to charge that much. I told him it is your right to charge and my right to move on. They have web issues too as he has also attacked customers for their comments on the web. I expect he has moved on by now but this left me never going back.

    Life is too short to fight idiots and they build more every day. Due to covid I made my stand on the last model and still got what I wanted but in this day of lower supplies and inventory it is getting harder to buy a car at a good price and find an honest sale staff.

    I would definitely walk away from any dealership who tried to get me to take my cat into another dealer for warranty work – in fact, I’m not even sure our cat HAS a warranty! 😛

    Underwriting a warranty for a cat sounds like a good way to get fired. A dog on the other hand…

    You’re my hero, HyperV6, cuz you ran the gauntlet I gave up years ago. At 63, disabled veteran with other health issues, I don’t have enough life left to game the dealership system. I no longer desire new cars, especially those that spy and record me without my permission. I have a ’04 GTO 40th Anniversary in TorRed, no cost 6spd stick, tons of aftermarket. My winter whip is a lifted, Escalade 6.2 engined, barn doors ’04 Tahoe. I do the routine work, and have a trusted local independent shop do what I cannot. The regrettably mid ’00s white ‘Ho is becoming to resemble a Liberian flagged tramp freighter- rust streaks where the brittle GM white falls off and exposed the primer; it always starts, and I keep it running to beat Fargo winter. The GTO? So much aftermarket GM wouldn’t approve, including Jet Engineering add-ons to the reflashed ECU and an audio system no Burmeister/Harmon Kardon/Mark Levinson factory set can touch. I saved the weight and balance by ditching the factory spare/jack.
    I applaud you for your stand, wish you’d given up on commercial dealers as soon as I.
    Apropos of nothing, the two V6s who’s sounds I find most pleasing are the 3.8 Supercharged or not GM found mostly in period Pontiacs, and Nissan’s VQ series, which at any displacement sounds all the business. Cheers!

    For me I am like my father. I will say I hate to buy a new car and in a way I do. But on the other hand I love the high stakes mind games and to make it as difficult to sell me a car as they are making it for me to buy one.

    I have never walked away from a deal I was not happy with and found fair.

    One more local dealer. I tried to buy a SUV from in N Canton Ohio. They pulled out of inventory and it was late on a Saturday. The sales man said can you come in Monday AM and will finish the deal. I said sure. Then we get a call 30 min before coming in and they said they sold the vehicle.

    I was hot. I found and drove to Columbus and got a more loaded model for the same price. I have never gone back to this dealer. I also outlined the deal on the web. If you wanted a deposit ask for it. If you give me your word keep it. They knew I was coming back as I had just bought a truck there 6 months before.

    As a kid I thought the car dealer was a really wonderful place. New cars and clean shops working on cars. People happy buying cars.

    Back in those days they may have been more fun. But with todays pressures and issues it is just one ugly mess.

    Many want automakers to sell direct but to do so the government would need to be involved and also the old time auto makers would have to buy out franchises that would be every expensive.

    MFG do like the larger dealer networks as it makes it easier for them to work with them. They can take over inventory and move cars to where they are needed.

    GM is one that would really like to cut the dealers down as they have almost 4 to one dealers in most markets vs Honda and Toyota. This hurts all the dealers as they compete with each other as much as they do Toyota.

    HyperV6, I grew up in the dealership Golden Age. My father worked at the Anderson, IN Delco Remy plant from HS graduation until dying on the plant floor at 53yoa. I was born in ’59, and the owner of our only GM dealership (Kimberly Chevrolet, Fortville, IN) lived two houses south of us. In the ’60s and early ’70s, dealerships had real literature for the taking, 1/18 scale model cars for kids, sale cookouts with burgers and steaks (no hot dogs), sales staff that knew the stock, econo, lux, muscle, pay for a drag car, and as high pressure as the environment was, the fact of being the only GM dealer in a town of just over 1000 people, belonging to the majority Methodist Church, and seeing your customers and their kids/friends/relatives every freaking day on the street, in stores, at weddings/funerals/Sunday service, meant fair dealing. My dad/uncles raced GM stuff, street, strip, and dirt cars. I grew up with cars most people consider (due to Mecum & Barrett Jackson) unobtainable legends. Steve and Sheldon Kinser were guests at our home, and I got smacked multiple times for “pestering” them. But all those familial hotrod and racing cars never could impress me as Mr. Kimberly’s oldest son’s car, that I biked past all summer while he was home from Indiana U- a white ’60 Impala Sport Convertible, with a red side stripe (with the jet!), red interior/white top, and a rumbly built 409 2×4 GM special ordered engine pushing a 4spd with early Torq-Thrusts all ’round. I’m 63, and still dream about that car. To be passing behind on bike, when he lit that solid lifter cammed up dealer bought motor, exhaust dumped right behind the rear tires, that was your kid day made; if you could finger twirl/fist pump and get him to put down 30-40feet of rubber, you fed off that for days. And dude was not sparing of his tires, he just liked an audience. That was the golden age of dealerships. I still have some of those models. Sigh.

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