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Business Owners Make a Strong Case for Responding to Online Reviews

Episode 84

091522 podcast review response strategies

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Online reviews—positive and negative—can reveal a wealth of benefits for your small business. With the right review response strategy in place, you can capitalize on your customer feedback to make lasting, positive changes. In this episode, hear from several business owners about how they use online reviews to strengthen their business practices, boost morale, and encourage customers to return again and again.

On the Yelp Blog: Dive deeper into each of their strategies, like this one from Nic Faitos who says to take your time to respond to critical reviews: “I let it sit for a day or two… I’ll write the reply… I’ll read it. I’ll reread it, and then maybe edit it. And then finally, I will post it.”

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every episode I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur and the reviewer about the story and business lessons behind their interaction.

This week, we’re going to reflect on the advice and wisdom shared by previous guests and revisit my favorite topic: the importance of having a review response strategy for your business and leveraging your online presence to attract new customers. Whether it’s a Yelp listing or another online review site, your reputation matters and is a reflection of the work you do in person with your customers. Having a strategy in place for responding to reviews can help you maximize that online presence and spread the word about who you are and what you do—the way word of mouth does, but amplified.

A big misconception when it comes to online reviews is that you only need a strategy or plan for responding in case of a negative or critical review. In fact, there is so much opportunity in responding to all types of reviews, even those that are glowingly positive. Another thing many assume, but get wrong: the idea that online reviews are mostly negative. On Yelp over 75% of reviews are positive, and we have more 5-star reviews than 1-, 2- and 3-star reviews combined. Most people overwhelmingly turn to Yelp to share positive reviews of places they love, rather than criticize places they don’t. So instead of fearing the negative—get excited for the positive! And have a plan in place for when you receive both.

ROBERT: Honestly, I’m grateful for every positive and negative review. I think there’s something to take from every review, you know? And yes, we take them to heart because I genuinely care about the business.

And if we do get a negative review, well, I want to know what happened, right? I want to know what went wrong with this guest so that maybe we can prevent the problem for the next guest. Or maybe I can get this guest to come back. So there’s something to take from every review.

One of our core values is do the right thing. All we’re trying to do and what we appreciate the staff is try to do the right thing when it comes through. Like I said, we try to take a little bit of everything from every review. The positive ones I do focus a lot on. I think a lot of owners, maybe they just take it in and go, ‘okay, great.’ And then move on. I try not to. I take that one, I take it to the staff and I say, ‘Hey, look! Someone says something great about you’ because it makes them feel good. And then they strive to do better. Many want to do it again, and they want to do it again. It’s just positive reinforcement, you know?

And then the opportunities from the negative ones, we take those and we say, ‘Hey, hostesses—the communication about the wait, you know. I can say thank you for letting them know that they were going to be 10 minutes and sticking to the 10 minutes. And then there may be something negative where someone didn’t enjoy a dish.

You know, we can take that feedback. Mistakes happen. Maybe somebody forgot something in the dish, or if we got the lentils underneath the fish, things happen all the time. So, we’re grateful. We’re grateful for all the negatives, all the positives. There’s something to take from all of them. And they’re coaching opportunities—positive and negative. That’s just how it is.

EMILY: Taking in feedback and insights from both positive and negative reviews will benefit your business. And honestly, simply being open to hearing customer opinions and not jumping directly to star rating, or right and wrong, can provide valuable learnings and insights.

DENNIS: We make sure we understand. Because in my opinion, if there is a negative review, it’s a good teaching moment, no matter what it is, even if we didn’t do anything wrong, it’s still a good teaching moment. So we do address that. We try to respond to every single review to say, thank you. That’s important.

EMILY: And it certainly makes an impact on your consumers as well.

DAVID: I’m a huge advocate for engaging either way, positive or negative. But you have to respond within a timely manner and be consistent about it.

If there are reviews online, and I’m looking at them and there’s no response, it’s just a lack of interest or it’s that you cannot be too busy to respond. That takes you literally 20 seconds. And type it out. So the response is massive. And anytime that I have received one back—good or bad, I’m grateful for it because I’m like, ‘Okay, they actually read it.’

They’re going to take it into consideration and they’re going to hopefully make the adjustment, right? Because that has to breed action. And there have been times where I have switched reviews to make it higher. And there have been times that I’ve made it lower after the experience, right? So the opportunity is at your hand, they came to your restaurant already.

Being critical in one area without looking at the whole picture too, is also a big thing, but the owners need to respond. It is a must, no matter what, I’m a huge advocate for it. I’m in business as well. And I recommend that to my clients. If you do not leave feedback, it just seems like you either don’t care or it’s not important to you. And that’s a big deal because people will see it subconsciously or not.

EMILY: Your response can deepen the relationship with a customer. AND it can reflect your customer service practices to all future consumers as well.

JENNIFER: When I’m reading reviews about a business and I see a company responding to it, it gives me an idea about who that company is. To me, a random 1-star doesn’t mean much because usually I’m like, ‘Okay, Karen, moving on,’ but I can tell a lot when I see a business responding about what kind of business model they have. Are they customer focused? Are they calm, cool, and collected in their response? There’s so much you can learn about the company that you’re about to do business with.

EMILY: So keep that in mind when you are responding to reviews. As the business owner or manager, you need to make sure that you’re taking the high road and remaining professional in your response. Even if the reviewer isn’t playing fair or being honest in their review, don’t stoop to their level. So how do you go about responding to critical reviews, especially when your emotions are high?

NIC: If you have something good to say, say it right away. If you don’t, take a deep breath. And we never, ever, ever have replied to a review angrily. Okay? We’ve never lost our temper in that situation. Maybe we’re disappointed. Maybe it’s a situation where we felt like we went above and beyond to help somebody, but the experience did not turn out the way the person expected it to. Those things do happen.  But if I’m going to reply to a negative review—and by the way, I reply to all the negative reviews personally. It’s not something that’s assigned to anybody. The review is, first of all, the write back is never immediate. Okay?

I let it sit for a day or two. And there are times—in fact, just a little hint to the Yelp listeners—there are times when that reviewer might fall outside of the Yelp algorithm and the review may just disappear, because it’s not credible. Maybe the person it’s the only one review that they’ve written and whatever the algorithm is that drops reviews. You know, it causes that review to fall off. So I kind of wait and hope that happens, first of all. Secondly, I’ll write the reply in Word, okay. On a document that cannot possibly accidentally be posted. And, I’ll read it. I’ll reread it, and then maybe edit it. And then finally I will post it.

If we are fortunate enough—and in many cases we are, where we can track this person down to a specific order.  Before I even reach out on Yelp, I’m going to send them an email privately if I have their email address, and I will address their disappointment, and I hope to be able to do something.

And the key word to us is: We hope to be able to make amends. That’s really a straightforward way to apologize and hey, I want to make this right. And throw it in the customer’s hands and ask them what can we do to correct the situation. And if they reply to us and if it’s resolved, without asking, we hope that the review goes down, or we hope that the review is updated.

And we hope that the consumer at that point takes it upon themselves to re-address the issue with what happened subsequent to the negative review.

I will parenthesize here for a moment.  I’m gonna say that, you know, oftentimes, a negative review is not bad if it’s followed up online with a resolution and a show of how you resolved it. So either the customer will take down the review or they will post a follow up with hopefully more stars, or at that point I would step in and write something. ‘Thank you for giving us the opportunity to make this right for you. And I hope you have accepted our full refund and the complimentary flowers and you know, everything else that we did for you.’ And, so we will state our case if they have not. If they have, then we’re going to come back with a humble expression of appreciation. Not over the top, not overly extensive, okay? Humble, positive and grateful to the person that they said or did what they said and for giving us the opportunity to do that.

So that’s basically the rules that we follow when it comes time to addressing the negative review, and, most of the time yeah, it works out that way. I will say that it’s an entire playbook,  on how we go about it step-by-step. And in no case have we ever deviated from that playbook, which of course has evolved over time.

EMILY: And Nic makes another really important point when it comes to making things right or turning around a consumer’s experience.

NIC: Usually I will start off the conversation—whether it’s on email, whether it’s public online on Yelp or however else we reach the customer—and in a true empathetic, Faitos fashion, with a lot of sincerity, I’m going to say something like, ‘I wish I could turn the clock back and make this right in your experience the first time.’ At that point, to be honest, I’m not concerned about getting the person to change the hypothetical 1-star review to a 2-star review or a 5-star review. I’m not looking for more stars. Okay. And I want to talk about that for a moment. I’m looking to express sincerity. I’m looking to express care and I’m looking to express, ‘What can we do to make this right?’

EMILY: Expressing sincerity. Not being overly concerned with the star rating, but rather the customer’s experience and making things right or turning them around. That’s what’s important.

Something else I find extremely important to mention is that not all feedback or criticism is valid or worth making a change in response to. Grooming salon owner Josh has lots of experience with customer expectations and sometimes getting criticisms for things out of his team’s control. His perspective is helpful!

JOSH: If it’s a great one, we’re like, wow, thank you. We love it. If it’s a bad one, of course, any business gets bad reviews. It’s been rare for us. But of course, we’re getting bigger and bigger and bigger. You get those. But those reviews are always a person who doesn’t understand what is possible for their dog.

It’s never something like, ‘This person messed up a haircut, I didn’t want this.’ Or it’s never been, ‘My dog was hurt or my dog felt this way.’ It’s maybe something like, ‘I wanted a full teddy bear cut and they shaved my dog.’ But it’s also, your dog was very matted. It’s nothing we could have done. We explained everything to you. You’re just not satisfied.

And that still is just where we feel like educating the owner. But not everybody wants to hear that or take that. And some people get very defensive about their dog and they feel like they’re doing everything possible for their dog. We try our best to explain and educate, but we can’t make every single person happy. We just try our best.

EMILY: We’re going to take a quick break, but when we come back we’ll talk about what to do when you are in the wrong, and the best ways to encourage engagement and feedback from your customers without asking for reviews.

KORRI: I get notifications for Yelp and The Knot. So I’ll always read those. And for the most part, they are always five stars, which is just incredible. And actually, we’ve been putting together a little book of good reviews. Just both as a ‘Hey clients, when you’re waiting around, here’s this cool book you can look at.’ But also, ‘Hey Korri, you’re having a bad day, read this. So those are always really nice.’

It makes me really happy cause I know most people don’t review. But it means that those people had such a stellar experience, that they felt the need to tell strangers how cool we are. And that just makes my day.

We have had a handful of 1-star reviews, which is always like an absolute day ruiner. But I’ve learned that you can’t make everybody happy and there are gonna be some people that, it’s not their fault. And sometimes it truly is our fault, and I will own up to that. But you can’t make everybody happy. You’re not always gonna get along with everybody. And sometimes things just happen where maybe we just didn’t do something the right way, or I make the mistake of overestimating one of my employee’s skills at the time. And looking back, it’s like, ‘Oh gosh, yeah, we were super busy and I didn’t take the time I really should have to look over this client and make sure that things were okay.’

I think the hardest is when the client leaves and seems happy and then I get a 1-star review and it’s like oh, we could have talked about this. But I always try to make it right. I will always respond. I try to respond to every review. But I will always respond to negative reviews because the thing is that’s how you grow.

And that’s how I learn. Like okay, we hacked up here. Let’s fix it. And also people who are looking at reviews, they’re gonna look at your negative reviews and if you’re not responding to those negative reviews, then it’s clear that you do not care.

EMILY: We’re all human. Businesses are made up of humans! And sometimes things go wrong, or people’s expectations aren’t met. When that happens you want to acknowledge it and see if there is any potential learning or takeaway you can gather for your team. Critical reviews can hurt, but they can also be helpful.

JOSH: So, usually by the time I listen to somebody half the time, that’s all Yelp’s doing anyway. They want people to listen. They want people to hear what they have to say. They want to voice this concern because it’s not okay. And I’ll listen to them and I’ll be like, ‘Listen, I’m taking action on this. I’m going into my company. I’m going to build a better company.’ Every time I thank them for it. Thank you for the 1-star review. This is how I grow. Without you bringing these mistakes to my attention, I would never know they were occurring. So you’re a layer of accountability for me to build a better business. And usually I send them like treats in the mail, I’ll say, ‘Hey, I know who it is I have in my system.’

Something that I never asked somebody to change their review—ever, never. Leave that up there. That’s real. You’d be amazed. I bet half, if not three quarters of those reviews go from one to five stars, just cause you listened to them. And they got the result they were looking for.

EMILY: Josh is right! Having a plan in place to connect with customers and try to make things right can often result in them updating their review or turning around their comments about the business. But that’s not always the outcome, and remember it’s not truly our goal either. More than anything we want to respond to reviews as a way to reflect our customer service practices to all potential customers.

KEITH: I take reviews very seriously and sometimes a little too personal, which I’ve had to learn to back away from that. Because it has ruined my week before. If someone says something that’s untrue and then I feel like I have to get defensive and defend myself, which I have learned to hold back on that.

I feel like the business owner should always be paying attention to the reviews. They should always respond back. There is never any of my reviews on Yelp or any of my Google where I have not personally responded. It comes right on my phone. Because a couple of things: Good reviews, bad reviews—I can respond right away and take care of it if I need to take care of it right away. So it’s like a buffer, if there’s a problem in between, and hopefully you can resolve it before it got worse. Because I’m not always here at the store. And sometimes things happen, you know? No, one’s perfect. I strive for five stars on everything. I get some bad reviews once in a while, but if you look at those reviews, you’ll be like, ‘Okay, I can see why this review was this way.’

I think that as a business owner and just thinking on the other side of it, if someone is taking the time out of their day to write a review for you, the least thing you can do is acknowledge them. The least thing you can do is say, thank you.

I always like to go in and talk to them and talk about their experience and just give them a little,   how much we appreciate them. If the customer gets back on, they’re going to see that I responded. And if someone else is looking for our business, then they’re going to see how we responded as well. It’s all about how people are going to treat your business and see your business. And if you’re just letting things sit there with no response, well, I’m more likely to go to a business that acknowledges me and says, ‘thank you for taking the time to write a review’ because no one has to do it. And for them to do that means a lot.

EMILY: I totally understand how responding to a review (especially critical) can get emotional! But remember, your response is not to win the reviewer over necessarily—it’s more so to reflect your customer service practices to all potential customers who look at your listing. By sharing a phone number or email address for people to get in touch with you, you’re more likely to have consumers connect with you directly if they have an issue, rather than provide the feedback in the form of a critical review.

Remember, sometimes there are even situations where you receive critical feedback, but your business’s product or service was delivered or served exactly to your standards. It just didn’t meet the expectations of the customer.

NATASHA: I got one 1-star review once. It’s the most hilarious thing ever. He was mad that we were pre-order only. It was during the pandemic. I didn’t have any employees. It was literally myself and my husband. And so I could only be pre-order and I couldn’t afford to hire people. It said everywhere that we were pre-order only online, it said everything.

And so he wrote a review and I did respond to the review. I was not rude. I responded to the review and I told him that I didn’t feel it was fair that he was holding us to a standard that he had created and not a standard that we, as a business model, had ever set. We had explicitly said from day one that we were only pre-order and that was our service model all the way. And we actually were never going to be walk-up. The only reason we offered walk-up was because of this 1-star review.

EMILY: This might seem completely unfair that a consumer ranked a business one star for not offering something they never offered. But try to get out of the mindset of being consumed with the star rating, and take it as an opportunity to state who you are and what you provide. Natasha may have started selling pie by the slice after that negative review, but she could have just as easily written a public response to affirm that she does not sell pie by the slice but you can connect with the business online to place an order for pick up.

The last topic I want to cover today is growing your online reputation and spreading the word about who you are and what you do without soliciting or asking for reviews. On Yelp it’s against our terms of service and content guidelines to solicit or ask your customers for reviews. And to be honest, it’s a pretty icky thing from the consumer perspective anyway. You want customers to naturally share their experiences with your business online.

A great way to let them know you care about your online reputation and would love to hear their feedback is to let them know you’re on social and review platforms. Put links to your listings on your website, in your email signatures, and in other promotional materials. You can also share a review of the week or month from any of your online listings to your social media accounts. This is a great way to remind your existing customers that you’d love to hear their experiences and feedback without making a direct ask.

Something you want to avoid is having devices in your business asking customers to write reviews on the spot or sending mass emails in a newsletter form to a database of customers asking them to write you reviews. Instead, provide great customer service and memorable experiences and that will translate into positive customer reviews in no time.

It’s as easy as that! To wrap up and summarize, creating a great response strategy is just as important as creating a great experience for customers. I hope this was a valuable guide to how businesses approach responding to reviews—keep their advice in mind as you look to build your reputation on Yelp.

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