Joy and Rage: Why Car Dealerships Have the Most Polarized Online Reviews

Forget politics—America is truly divided on the Yelp pages of car dealerships.

Getty Images/Yelp

Travel up Interstate 95 into the evergreen wilds of northern Maine until you nearly run out of America, then hang a left and head even further north along US Route 1, passing through flinty little farms towns with names Bridgewater and Blaine, cross the Aroostook River at Presque Isle, drive for another fifteen miles, and eventually you'll find yourself at Griffeth Ford Lincoln in Caribou—the most eastern new car dealership in the continental U.S. It's a humble operation with a basic box for a building and a lot full of F-150s. It's one of the few games in a small town. And it's either a model of friendly competence, or it's home to the worst customer service in the state, if not the country, if not the known universe.

That's the scoop from two strangers who visited the dealership and left online reviews on its Google Maps entry earlier this year, anyway. One beamed about the "smiling faces, politeness, and professionalism" and gave Griffeth five stars; a month later, the other decided that the difficult time he had getting a quote for a new key fob "reflects on the entire dealership" and warned people to stay away with a one star rating. Well, good people of Caribou, which is it?

5,000 miles and six time zones away, on the big island of Hawaii, a nondescript stretch of working waterfront just north of where the Kilauea volcano continues its destructive stir, is Kama'aina Nissan. On the surface, it's the polar opposite of Griffeth Ford Lincoln—different cars, different climate, different clientele—but a quick trip to Yelp reveals another dichotomous batch of customer reviews.

"This place is going down hill [sic] in a hurry," Kevin U. huffed in his one star Yelp review from April that bemoans the rising service fees and "greedy" management. "The service department treats you like family," Jeffrey C. wrote in his five star review posted above Kevin's, dated from June 28. The dealership has a solid three-star rating, yet 13 of its 16 reviews are either one or five stars; two wildly different experiences blended by an algorithm and presented as average. 

Griffeth Ford Lincoln has a 3.3 rating on Google Maps, with five of seven reviews found on either end of the spectrum. And according to a larger study of Yelp data by an outfit called Ceros, it's also the case for plenty of dealers across the rest of the country. In fact, the numbers crunched by Ceros suggest that car dealerships are the most polarizing businesses out there, garnering more one and five star reviews—and thereby more extreme emotions—than any other industry. Even an IRS lawyer who moonlights as an executioner would have an easier time online, it seems. But why?

The Yelp Study

Yelp's reviews are public, but the company's all-seeing eye is able to take a wider look at the trends that form within. It's relatively rare to get a peak behind the curtain in the high-value world of Big Data. Fortunately, Yelp hosts a semi-annual competition called the Yelp Dataset Challenge where it puts out a huge chunk of data for students to download and analyze however they see fit. So in August of 2017, the online review emporium released raw information on approximately 5.2 million reviews from 11 metro areas, most of which were located in the southwestern United States.

These datasets often lead to scholarly papers with hifalutin titles like "Recommendation in Heterogenous Information Networks with Implicit User Feedback." But even for a layman, there's a lot to learn from five million people screaming into the void. A simple glance at the distribution of positive and negative reviews is interesting stuff—and that's exactly how Ceros stumbled onto the evidence that car dealerships can be just as polarizing as modern politics in America.

Here's how it breaks down: 

Those 5,261,668 reviews covered all sorts of businesses, everything from restaurants and hotels to doctor's offices and indoor skydiving facilities. As you might expect from the black-and-white worldview found in most online reviews, the majority (57 percent) were either one or five stars. But when you filter it down to the 195,297 reviews of strictly automotive-related businesses, that share of one and five star reviews leaps to 83 percent. And looking at the 20 most polarizing companies in the overall dataset, 12 are new car dealerships.

It's too simplistic to shrug this off and say Well, people have always hated stealerships. One, they still have over twice as many five star reviews than one star takedowns in this dataset, and it's not even close to the lowest-rated industry on average (that would be television repairmen at 1.9 stars, of all things). And two, there are loads of other places where people can have subjective experiences, anything from a restaurant to a personal injury law firm, that don't seem to stir the strong feelings found on a dealer lot. The real mystery here is understanding why the middle ground crumbles under the weight of a brand new car purchase.

The Experts

There's not much time to reflect at Griffeth Ford Lincoln, where owner Neal Griffeth sits in his office and considers the issue. "Do I like it? No. I'd much rather someone pick up the phone and call us and see. But it's the way things are going," Griffeth tells me. "We check the online reviews, we pay attention to them." He doesn't see the division in his ratings any different than the rest of society's hair-trigger impulses. "Bottom line, there's too much crap out there."

Likewise, General Manager Bill Wilson of Kamaa'aina Nissan in Hawaii is too busy to talk on a summer afternoon as he mans the sales desk by himself. But his online presence says a bit more about the importance he places in his online reviews: Wilson responded to the most recent one-star complaint (over high service fees and untrained technicians) on Yelp in April, leaving a conciliatory note with his phone number and an invitation to call him anytime with problems. Kill them with kindness and all that.

It's not surprising that the dealers themselves would have little to say on the matter. It's a fraught subject in the sales business, where dealers can't risk annoying people by musing about the nature and value of consumer feedback. So I also reached out to the National Automobile Dealers Association—but they too declined to comment on the record without seeing the full data set and the text of the reviews in question.

But NADA directed me to Digital Air Strike, an online advertising and reputation management firm that works with Cars.com and many other dealer groups. It's co-founder and CEO Alexi Venneri believes that regardless of the validity of a one-star rating, dealers are best served by reaching out to the complainers to publicly demonstrate their responsiveness, rather than worrying about a representative sampling of reviews. And at the end of the day, Yelp is an independent, elective review site that presents a more black-and-white vision of the world. It doesn't help that buying a car is a pricey, complex, slightly scary transaction for most buyers.

"Few customers with average experiences ever feel compelled to post an online review, and that is why we tend to see 'organic' reviews at either end of the spectrum," Venneri writes to me. "Yelp is the only online review site that doesn’t allow businesses to ask all of their customers for feedback, which would give a much more accurate picture of experiences across the spectrum, so it will always be the most extreme review site."

The Online Reviewer

There's one other perspective worth probing: that of the reviewer. A few months ago, Geirsen Kalhagen made an appointment at Alan Webb Chevrolet in Vancouver, Washington, to check out the V-6 1LE Camaro after doing extensive research online. Upon arriving, he discovered that the salesman he had arranged to see was already gone for the day, setting in motion a test drive so disastrous it must be read in full to be believed. The replacement salesman—Kalhagen names him "Bill," which is fitting—lived up to every cliche in the book, calling Kalhagen's BMW Z4 M Coupe a "foreign piece of junk," needling him for asking so many detailed questions about the Camaro, and generally not knowing anything about the car or the dealer's current stock. Kalhagen liked the Camaro a lot, but Bill's awfulness sent him packing. 

A week later, he bought another BMW instead.

All the while, Kalhagen was stewing about his experience at Alan Webb Chevrolet. He certainly felt the desire to post a one-star review somewhere in that moment, and he'd be justified. But as an employee at BMW Portland, his need to vent ran headlong into his understanding that blasting the dealership over a single encounter doesn't really help either side. Like most online tirades, it might feel good in the moment, but it really only adds to the cacophony that other consumers have to sort through in making their own decisions about where to shop, and the chances of it making the dealership re-evaluate the interaction are nil.

Rather than find catharsis by one-starring Alan Webb Chevrolet on Yelp, Kalhagen decided to write a post about it on the popular r/cars page on Reddit, where his tale garnered hundreds of reactions and comments. 

"In the enthusiast world, dealerships seriously hold a negative stigma." he tells me. "Many folks still dread the car buying experience, and I think that's why a lot of non-enthusiast car buyers are becoming excited over brands like Tesla, who remove the dealer experience all together. I figured it would be more beneficial to share my experience to help shed some light on what is a seemingly huge issue in the car industry today."

The Dealership Divide

I'm no sociologist, but here's my shot at understanding the binary experience of two average people reviewing the same car dealership online.

A new car, even one that's financed out the wazoo, is a significant and potentially life-changing investment. It's the biggest or second-biggest expense that many people will ever take on—and yet the general public still doesn't know a whole lot about cars. These days, cars are mostly good, and they do their best to hide any indication of the scary mechanical complexity playing out beneath the surface (see: plastic engine covers). We are compelled by pop culture and marketing to buy new models. And because of the large price tag, we have an assumption that the dealer is raking in tens of thousands of dollars on every sale.

And that's why a fair number of buyers walk into dealerships with an information deficit, a vulnerability they shield with a belief that the dealer is trying to rip them off. Or they spend hours researching online and know their facts, but still expect to be ripped off. This is especially true on the service side of the business (where dealerships make the lion's share of their profit). When that doesn't happen, even if the experience wasn't particularly noteworthy, the experience becomes exceptional in the mind. That dealership is a life raft in an ocean of scoundrels. Five stars. They treated me like family. 

And when a dealer does live up to the old stereotypes? Well, that greedy place is really going down hill. One star. The middle ground, it turns out, falls to both sides.

Modern American life was built around the car, and even if the teens aren't driving like they used to and rideshare services have Detroit and Stuttgart all flustered, owning a car remains an inescapable fact of life for most of the country. And since understanding isn't a constant corollary to ownership, dealerships appear to hold the key in more ways than one. That weird position of power also carries on after people have laid out fifty, sixty, seventy grand thanks to the dreaded service department.

While it's tempting to tie this polarization to the state of our politics, there's another sobering conclusion to draw from all this. It might be the dealers, but it's also us. Bad apples certainly exist, and that's especially true for the individual salespeople or service managers who can make or break someone's experience. But our own self-inflicted vulnerabilities on the dealer lot also amplify every hiccup into a crisis and every success into a triumph. Really, it's up to the dealers to navigate that as best they can. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. Either way, we're primed to react.

Disagree? Leave your thoughts below. One and five star reviews only, please.

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