How do you know if a dealer or repair shop is reputable?

If you’re established in the area, you can ask trusted friends or family. Larger organizations, like a chamber of commerce or Better Business Bureau, can give you an idea about how a company is run, but not all businesses are members, and that could affect the accuracy of their profile.

By far the easiest way to check on a business is to check their online ratings. In this day of short attention spans and quick, simple assessments, the five-star rating system has proliferated. Sometimes a comment is included with the star rating, other times not.

People tend to put a lot of faith in internet ratings. It may have started with eBay buyers and sellers when, early in the internet peer-to-peer economy, buyers had an opportunity to rate their transaction as a way to lend credibility to unknown vendors. The idea was to evaluate a product but, inevitably, the players in the deal got dragged in as well and rightfully so. How else could individuals build trust and confirm or criticize the integrity of the transaction itself?

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the rating system to get skewed with everything from friends leaving an unqualified positive review to virtual bribery in the form of a discount on a future transaction in exchange for good feedback, to bargaining in the form of “you leave me a good review and I’ll leave you a good review.”

As the popularity of the internet grew, various sites geared toward rating a business sprouted from social media and became an easy way for anyone to get a thumbnail sketch of a business' character. Occasionally a new business started by a charismatic or well-known entrepreneur garnered numerous positive reviews so quickly it was difficult to tell the difference between genuine feedback and a popularity contest.

And while your neighbor might be the nicest guy in the world, it doesn’t mean he’s a decent mechanic.

Of course, dissatisfied customers shout the loudest while others who receive reasonable or above-average service tend to go about their business in silence. So relying on ratings alone doesn’t always paint an accurate picture. It should surprise no one to find a couple of negative reviews on any search of a business, and the truth comes out in the response. If a business takes the time to thoughtfully address a complaint, one can often get a clear picture of the issue and its resolution. After all, no one can please everyone all the time.

The business reviews that should be more suspect are those with a short, positive narrative or just star ratings that stretch on for pages, especially when this scenario applies to a relatively young venture.

Burying a bad review or reviews is the specialty of savvy but nefarious auto dealers or repair shops that take advantage of generally unsolicited emails advertising their services for just such an outcome.

The idea is to flood a business profile with positive reviews, thereby hiding any negative reviews pages deep where most consumers don’t bother digging.

I received one recently from “Monika,” who apparently represents a website with a long but generic name. A quick search reveals the company is based offshore and offers Google and Facebook reviews, Instagram followers and website traffic, as well as other similar services, all posted by local profiles, for just a few dollars per package.

You may have come across reviews that originated in this manner. They usually consist of few words, sometimes awkwardly constructed short sentences as most are computer generated or written by non-native English-speaking freelancers.

This is just another example of how technology and online content is blurring the line between reality and fiction. It makes it that much more difficult to believe your eyes. Perhaps we’ve come full circle, and the most accurate way to tell if a business is reputable is to visit in person or make a phone call.

Something about a live voice or observing body language can tell a lot about a person’s character. First impressions are often correct, and listening to your gut feeling or the little voice in your head generally won't steer you wrong.

Asking for references might be another option. Are they willing to provide you with them or are they hesitant? Asking about warranty coverage or how they’ve handled problems or complaints in the past might give some insight as well.

Depth of knowledge can play a role in a businesses reputation. Maybe your favorite auto shop has a tech who’s a wizard with a specific make or model but lacks the same experience or knowledge of another. This doesn’t make it a bad shop, but you should expect honesty when inquiring about their confidence servicing your specific vehicle.

Due diligence requires some effort, and internet sources don’t always reveal the truth clearly. In the end, as with any business transaction, if you’re not comfortable, walk away.

Eric and Michelle Meltzer own and operate Fryeburg Motors, a licensed, full-service automotive sales and service facility at 299 Main St. in Fryeburg, Maine. More than a business, cars are a passion, and they appreciate anything that drives, rides, floats or flies.

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