The challenge of online customer reviews

A small business owner contacted me recently to cry foul over an experience he faced with Yelp. After several years in business, he had received his first Yelp customer review.

Unfortunately, the customer had little good to say and so the negative rating from this one entry weighed heavily.

How can a small business owner ensure good reviews and protect their reputation and brand?

This individual thought the best approach would be to solicit positive feedback from customers who have had a great experience with the business but never thought to sing its praises through Yelp.

At least a half-dozen satisfied customers chimed in, reporting their positive experiences on Yelp — but they were blocked, likely due to filters that Yelp has in place to guard against such “solicited” responses.

This seems unreasonable, since we know that satisfied customers rarely make a big deal out of their great experience. According to researchers, unhappy customers also often do not report dissatisfaction or disappointment to a business. They do something far more deadly. They tell friends and family.

And with myriad online consumer-review sites, some will now tell the world.

The business owner lamented how frustrating it can be to find out through an online rating that a customer was disappointed. Apparently this customer never came to him for a resolution. They just posted their opinion to Yelp.

There is a function within Yelp whereby the business owner can respond to a negative rating. But even that function will have profound negative consequences. Argue with the customer online for the world to see, and prospective clients might read in to it that you are difficult to work with.

A better approach might be to ask the customer directly, assuming you have their contact information, to discuss the matter and find an amicable solution, including removal of the bad review.

So a proactive strategy is truly needed to establish business success. Interestingly enough, more than 80 percent of this particular company’s business comes through referrals. So at least some people have been happy! People trust friends and family far more than they do a website.

With hindsight being 20/20, what might his rating be if he’d asked customers over the past few years to provide a feedback rating on Yelp? Not everyone will respond, but certainly enough would to generate a more reasonable, balanced and accurate impression of the business.

To build and maintain a stronger reputation online, use testimonials of satisfied customers on your website and in any promotional brochures. It’s alright to ask customers to post their feedback on Yelp after goods or services are provided. Just be sure they don’t do it all at once!

You can also create your own tracking survey to gather data points and vital feedback for service or product improvement. Every business should be doing this type of research, since a customer’s opinion matters greatly.

A survey helps in two ways: First, it shows your customers that you care enough to ask their feedback, and second, it creates a preemptive opportunity to fix a problem that may be disclosed. No business owner wants to be blindsided by a problem that they were never made aware of.

I conducted additional research on the specific rating dilemma. No consumer rating site has a scientific process in place — the feedback is anecdotal at best. In other words, random sampling is not applied and, frankly, someone could give a rating, be it good or bad, on a business they’ve never engaged with!

Yelp has been the target of several unsuccessful lawsuits by business owners experiencing similar frustration. A post on the Yelp website attempts to address the issue: “At Yelp, our mission is to connect people with great local businesses. Part of that work is to protect consumers and businesses from unreliable reviews.”

The post also mentions the methodology applied to create the protection, which is simply a series of automated algorithms that hope to filter out people who are “determined to try and game the system.”

Apparently one dissatisfied customer trumps many positive ones when the software applies its algorithm. So my suggestion to Yelp and their mission: Try harder!

Scientific or not, it really doesn’t matter since there are those who will be swayed by what they discover in their online research. Maintaining a good name is important for all business owners.

The Internet is a powerful resource. It is also like a two-edged sword: You can build your brand and grow an enterprise through proactive strategy, or you may fall victim to a hostile customer who feels they’ve been wronged.

In the end, if you do have a customer with a legitimate beef, deal with it in a respectful manner and don’t cower behind policies and procedures.

Juergen Kneifel is a senior associate faculty member in the Everett Community College business program. Please send your comments to entrepreneurship@everettcc.edu.

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