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Are you truly listening to consumer sentiment?

Neil Pascale
October 31, 2011
Filed under Columns

How much should we allow consumer criticism to dictate our business practices?

That was a thought-provoking question asked of me during a recent Georgia Motorcycle Dealers Association meeting, and one I couldn’t immediately find a proper response to.

Even now, days after the training-packed association meeting, it’s a difficult one to answer.
But it’s certainly relevant as the consumer’s voice is louder and more impactful than ever, and at some point, all of us are going to have to address that question individually.

A San Diego-based hotel chain chose one possible response … after they listened.

See, the hotel, a beautiful facility with gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean, was getting negative reviews from consumers on key third-party websites like Google Places and Yelp.com. Hotel officials discovered the negative reviews were primarily based on two aspects of their business: parking and Internet fees. Both were costs consumers had to pay in addition to the hotel stay, a fact that drew the considerable ire of hotel guests.

Now many of us can draw parallels to that scenario within our dealerships — there are certain costs of doing business that we pass along to the consumer. Like the parking or Internet connection fees, these aren’t necessarily hefty parts of the overall bill. But to some consumers, they’re irritating.
Irritating enough that consumers are going online and berating a business, even when the criticism is not associated with the main function of that business, in this case providing an overnight rest area.
The San Diego hotel listened, and then reacted. According to an online report, they created a separate package for guests who would like all their costs bundled together. The new package was more costly, of course, but it gave the consumer a choice.

And more importantly, it provided a response to a nagging customer service criticism.

Many of us, when told of such an example, will go straight to where the thoughtful Georgia dealer did: To the long-term impact of addressing each consumer service complaint. Do we, the dealer asked, keep changing our business to meet each and every consumer criticism? Is there a point where that becomes destructive to the health of our business?

Though these are insightful questions, our first concern has to lie with the actual listening. The San Diego hotel reacted — wrongly or rightly, based on your beliefs — because it first chose to listen. Are we, as an industry, really “listening” to those criticisms?

In a digital age, the word listening takes on a whole new meaning. It’s now something you do with your eyes rather than your ears. It’s as much listening to your showroom traffic as it is listening to the online reviews of your operation.

The growing popularity of online consumer ratings — and the weight they carry in our retail choices — has seen to that.

There is a TV commercial from a mobile phone provider that shows where technology is taking us. One part of the commercial shows a couple walking down what appears to be a European business district. The couple stops, takes out a mobile phone and from the phone’s screen, looks upon the street they’re walking on. But instead of just seeing the different businesses, they also see different consumer reviews literally popping out of the storefronts. It feels sci-fi at first, until you really realize where we are today.

Today, we shape our opinions based on others’ online views, be they positive or negative. In fact, a study of more than 1,000 U.S. adults found 80 percent of consumers have changed their minds about a recommended purchase based solely on negative information they found online. The study, the 2011 Cone Online Influence Trend Tracker, also showed this percentage has increased significantly from just a year ago.

If you consider that study’s findings as hard to accept, you might consider how often we change our own buying decisions based on others’ recommendations. Of course, the difference today is that consumers feel just as comfortable with taking the opinion of somebody they don’t know and entrusting it as sage advice.

And regardless of whether you act to change that opinion, it’s vital that you listen to it.
Then, and only then, can you weigh the Georgia dealer’s question.

Neil Pascale is the business development manager for Dominion Powersports Solutions, a dealer service company that includes PowerSports Network, Cycle Trader, Traffic Log Pro, Ziios and Dominion Insights. He can be reached at neil.pascale@dominionpowersports.com.

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