Everyone’s a Critic: Dealing with Online Reviews

Online review sites can be controversial, especially among restaurateurs, but their impact is unquestionable – as is their momentum. For better or worse, consumer-generated reviews are now part of the restaurant landscape.

While a June 2011 Forrester Research study determined that, over the prior year, consumers had increased their use of social channels to provide feedback about poor experiences by 50%, the reality is that the majority of online reviews are positive. (80% of Yelp reviews are three stars or more.) The key to coping with and benefiting from the new customer feedback paradigm is understanding that even negative reviews have a positive side – if kept in perspective and addressed properly. They can provide valuable feedback along with opportunities to nurture a relationship with customers who are engaged enough to post their opinions.

Luther Lowe, director, business outreach, Yelp, advises restaurateurs not to overreact to the idea that these opinions are out there for all the world to see. “I understand that negative reviews can create emotional pain for restaurateurs, but customers look at this differently. They aren’t necessarily reading every single line of every review. More often than not, they give the feedback a glance and make a transactional decision.” And he reminds restaurateurs that reviewers size each other up just as they do businesses and may decide not to take someone too seriously. “The way that Yelp is built, users create a lot of information about themselves. You can click on negative reviews and learn about the reviewers, some of whom are negative most of the time.” Interestingly, it appears that the presence of negative reviews may give credence to the others. Recent studies have concluded that bad reviews give consumers a reason to believe good ones, and, that in some instances, negative information can accentuate positive information.

“Reviews will ultimately tell you something you need to know, so look for patterns and use the feedback to learn about the expectations of your customers – all the while using your instincts, just like in the offline world. There are people who are never going to be happy, and you know who they are.” – Randy Kirk, president, Randy Kirk & Associates

Luther suggests focusing on what will have the most impact. “It goes without saying that business owners should pay attention to the feedback, but they shouldn’t worry about reviews too much. Say you have 10 reviews and 200 people visiting your business page…it’s those folks you should show that you are tuned into customer service. In fact, we consider the most important metric to be how many are looking at your business listing. That’s how they’re learning about your business.”

Negative reviews also provide opportunities to connect to reviewers and to demonstrate to the community that you care. (Major review sites offer business owners the opportunity to respond, publicly and/or privately.) Matt McGee, owner, Small Business Search Marketing, adds, “Responding is an opportunity to fix things and invite reviewers back, which can drive repeat business, but also keep in mind that your responses ultimately exist for future customers.”

There are varying opinions about the importance of responding to positive reviews. Andrew Allison, co-founder/ceo, Main Street Hub, says that they do so on behalf of their clients. “These are fans of your business – they enjoyed their experiences and took the time to spread the word. At the very least, they deserve a thank you. We have seen so many reviewers say they appreciate the recognition and because there are so many tools available, it’s almost becoming an expectation.” Luther believes that because most small business owners already have enough on their hands, “In terms of time management, the most effective use of time is to prioritize the negative reviews.”

When responses should be public vs. private also draws some debate among experts. “A public response shows future customers that you’re interested in getting feedback and fixing what went wrong,” says Matt. “But if there’s something serious – like an accusation a waiter/waitress was behaving inappropriately toward a customer – a good strategy would be a public response to thank the person for speaking up and invite him/her to get in touch directly rather than sharing details online. But if you try to sweep everything offline and never respond publicly to any reviews, it looks really bad – like you’re either ignoring your customers or you’re hiding something.”

“It’s never easy when someone criticizes your life’s work – but how you react emotionally should be different than how you react online.” – Andrew Allison, co-founder/ceo, Main Street Hub

“We suggest responses are handled privately in almost every case,” counters Andrew. There are certain instances where a public response is appropriate; if a review contains a factual error – you’re closed on Saturday when you’re not, no vegetarian options but you offer them – it’s very important to set the record straight publicly. At least the process begins that way. A private response to a positive review shows that it’s not about PR, it’s about starting a relationship. A public response to a negative review can seem like the beginning of a battle in the court of public opinion. It can stop a real conversation before it starts.” Luther offers Yelp’s perspective. “What I’d recommend to business owners losing sleep over a negative review is to first write a private response. Especially in cases where there are factual errors, you want to gently set the record straight, indicate that they may have made a mistake. If after two to three days, the reviewer hasn’t posted a correction or responded, then feel free to correct them publicly – politely, diplomatically, and succinctly address the inaccuracies. By the time you get to a public response, you are upping the ante, but in those cases you are no longer speaking to that person as much as you are speaking to others who will come to your listing.”

All agree that when responding to complaints, it’s essential to take the high road – no matter how frustrating it may be or how much the review feels like an attack – because responding defensively can reflect poorly on you and your business and risks making the situation worse. “Tens of millions of diners rely on customer review websites to choose places to eat,” says Andrew. “Being angry is often understandable, but every restaurateur needs to know that his or her reaction will be online for all the world to see. In those situations, we notice that responding to a negative review in a polite way makes the restaurateur look better.”

“This is all emotionally charged,” agrees Randy Kirk, president, Randy Kirk & Associates. “Don’t be defensive or combative; the best first step is to be conciliatory. It’s important that you communicate you get it, that you understand. The key is you don’t ever want to not take someone seriously.” Matt advises restaurateurs to “respond to negative comments with sincerity and transparency. Apologize for the incident. Explain how it happened, why it’s not the normal way you treat customers, how you’re working to ensure it never happens again. A good response takes ownership of the issue, makes a promise, and fixes it.”

“Responding to reviews should be aimed at developing relationships with reviewers and turning situations around, as well as demonstrating that customers’ experiences are important to you,” advises Andrew. “It’s easy to lose sight but there’s a big picture here. Ultimately, it’s about growing your business.”

For more on dealing with negative reviews, click here.