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Turning negative reviews into an opportunity to respresent your brand

A plan for how to respond to customer reviews and ratings will guide responses



Your business needs a plan for how to interact with websites and apps that let customers write reviews and leave ratings.

Websites such as Yelp, Avvo, Google and others have taken customer service beyond the physical boundaries of your business, into the always-on Internet, where current and future customers can form opinions about your business based on what others have said about it, and how your company has responded.

Word-of-mouth has become a digital concept, said Tommy Glasgow, a project manager at Go Fish Digital in Arlington Virginia, who helps companies manage their reputations online on sites like Yelp or Glassdoor. “The biggest trust factor for people is what other people are saying about a business.”

Studies have shown correlations between a business’ star rating and how much people trust the business, or even how well the business does, he said.

“You want to make sure that when a customer is searching ‘best moving companies in my area’ or ‘best restaurants in the city that I’m in’ that you’re showing up at the top and you have star ratings that are better than everybody else’s.”

Don’t be caught unprepared

Tommy Glasgow

Tommy Glasgow

When businesses haven’t given any thought to how they will interact with review sites, they could find themselves in a position where someone wrote a negative review, and weeks have passed before anyone at the business noticed, said David Waiter, senior digital marketing strategist at Foster Web Marketing in Fairfax, Virginia, a company that builds websites mainly for professionals such as doctors and lawyers.

“Moments like that really emphasize the need for having some sort of review monitoring tool in place,” said Waiter, who works with clients to improve their local visibility.

That sort of tool will let you know immediately when you’ve received a review, so your business can craft a polite and professional response, Waiter said. Monitoring can also help in situations where your business is receiving notifications of the reviews, but at email addresses that nobody checks, a problem Waiter said he’s encountered often.

If you have sufficient resources, Glasgow recommends appointing a person in your business, such as a communications or social media employee, to be in charge of finding all the new reviews and responding to them.

He suggested your business should give some thought to a general strategy for reviews. What kinds of reviews will your business respond to? What will you ignore? When trying to resolve an issue raised in a complaint, what will your business offer, if anything, to make things right? If a rule needs to be restated to a customer, does that happen on the review website, where everyone can see your interactions, or in a separate conversation with the reviewer?

Catching flies with honey

David Waiter

David Waiter

“A lot of people sometimes will overreact if they get a negative review,” Waiter said. “It’s unnatural to have a perfect five star or 10 out of 10 review. These days it’s really unlikely that businesses are going to have the absolute perfect score.” Reviews that vary from three to five stars appear more natural, he said.

When clients ask Waiter how to respond to a particular negative review, he tells them: “respond in a very timely, polite and professional manner, and don’t be afraid to stick up for yourself a lot of times, especially on Google.”

Your response is your opportunity to inject your own brand’s voice into the situation and to try to make things right, and that’s important even if you can’t sway that customer’s mind, Waiter said. “A lot of times, future customers, when they come across this negative review, if they see that the business responded in a polite fashion, they’re generally willing to overlook a negative review.”

There can be a temptation to bicker with customers, especially if you have a feeling they’re wrong. It’s best not to let emotions get in your way.

“When you’re responding to a review, it’s not just you responding to that one person. It’s a public response,” Glasgow said. “You want to make sure you come across as sincere, as welcoming feedback, sincerely taking the good with the bad.”

Some businesses encounter advice to respond to every negative review, because that helps project the image of your business as one that cares about customer experience.

Glasgow said that’s not a hard and fast rule. “Sometimes it’s better to not respond if the review is just somebody venting,” He said. “Any response you give is not going to help them,” Glasgow said.

Sometimes, there may be ways to have negative reviews removed from the review site, so it helps to be familiar with a site’s published rules or guidelines.

On Yelp, a business can flag a review for language violations, or not providing evidence of a personal experience at the business, such as when their review is about a friend’s experience or perhaps one they had even heard about, Glasgow said. “Usually you can flag those and Yelp doesn’t want those reviews on there either,” he said. Waiter noted that it’s sometimes difficult to have posts removed from the site.

Similarly, on Glassdoor, a workplace review site, if a review was left by someone who didn’t work there, a business can ask Glassdoor to verify the employment of the reviewer, Glasgow said.

Getting good reviews

In addition to having a plan for how to respond to negative reviews, there are ways to get positive ones, as well. In the long run, these reviews can be more valuable than paying for advertisements on the review platforms, Waiter said.

His advice: do what you do best. If you’re a lawyer, keep being a good lawyer. Keep a customer service mindset in every customer interaction.

“Everybody you meet with is a potential review, either on Google, Facebook, or any of those review sites,” Waiters said. “You want to have confidence that they’re going to have nice things to say.”

Waiter also recommends the use of customer interaction software, such as Podium, which has features that let businesses request reviews from customers.

You can also ask for a review at the most opportune time, such as when you’re handing over a settlement check you just won for them. “That’s usually a good time to ask for a positive review, right when they’ve wrapped up having an awesome experience with you,” Waiter said. That’s especially important for attorneys, he said, because they don’t have the volume of customers that places like pet stores do.

It’s good to keep each site’s rules in mind when soliciting reviews, to make sure your business doesn’t run afoul of them, Glasgow said.

“Usually we like to say that right at the point of sale is probably the best time to ask for a review,” Glasgow said. So it’s right after the installation or right after the services provided are right after payment’s received.”

BOX: Study: Responding to online reviews could boost your star rating

If you’re on the fence about whether to spend your business’ resources on managing your reputation at review sites, some research published in the journal Marketing Science may convince you it’s worth the effort.

Among the findings of marketing professors Davide Proserpio of the University of Southern California and Georgios Zervas of Boston University are that responding to negative reviews can increase your business’ star rating, at least on the TripAdvisor travel ratings platform.

The researchers, who examined thousands of hotel reviews and responses from TripAdvisor said that once hotels started responding, they got 12% more reviews and an average of .12 stars in increased ratings.

Because TripAdvisor rounds up to the nearest half-star, the added .12 stars may push the business past the threshold to the next rating. About a third of hotels raised their rounded ratings by half a star or more within six months of their first response from management.

Wanting to be sure it wasn’t a coincidence, Proserpio and Zervas looked at the same group of hotels on Expedia, a travel website which also publishes ratings from customers. Most of the hotels responded only to complaints on TripAdvisor. The researchers found that once hotels started responding on TripAdvisor, their TripAdvisor ratings went up, but their Expedia ratings stayed the same.

The researchers also ruled out the possibility that hotels were making improvements to cater to the tastes of TripAdvisor users by looking for patterns in reviews left by people who stay in the same hotel at the same time. They found that reviews left by users who could see responses from management were about .1 stars higher than ratings by people who didn’t see management responses.

Proserpio and Zervas also found that responding to positive reviews has the same benefits. Once hotels started to respond to reviews, people who read those responses were less likely than others to leave short reviews. They suggested that it may be because users who see management responding to reviews, they may be less likely to leave a brief or unsubstantiated negative review, because they’ll avoid having to interact with management on the platform.

The marketing professors say their research shows that businesses aren’t helpless in the face of customer review platforms. By watching for reviews and responding, a business can present an image of good customer service, and perhaps raise their ratings in doing so.

BOX: Five steps to responding to negative reviews from the SBA blog

Anita Campbell, who writes for the Small Business Administration’s blog, offers five steps to respond to negative reviews:

  1. Respond to customer reviews — It can result in better ratings and improve your business’ online reputation.
  2. Be nice and avoid getting personal — It’s hard to win an argument with an unsatisfied customer. So, don’t argue. Your response could live in infamy forever online.
  3. Thank your reviewers and customize responses — Campbell recommends being professional, authentic and humane, and also recommends using the reviewer’s name in the complaint.
  4. Take the time to upload an image with a review response — On Yelp, business accounts users are required to upload a real photo to message a user. Campbell also suggests using photos or video to show you’re responding to a complaint seriously.
  5. Show you’ve taken the necessary action — By replying to complaints and demonstrating you’ve taken action to rectify the issue, you’re showing other customers that you’re responsive.


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