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How you handle online reviews could make or lose you money

How you handle online reviews could make or lose you money

I was looking up a restaurant that I had heard about while traveling. Most of the reviews were good, but there was one troubling Yelp review. Here are the highlights:

“You can look forward to paper plates, plastic forks, 50 cent chairs & tables, room temperature water served in a dinky cup, and what feels like no air conditioning. It ain't half as nice as your average McDonald's…Most times I've gone here, the meat was already tough and dry…I assume this is because they operate fast food style, cooking @#%&loads of portions at a time and serving it little by little as the day goes by…This stuff would fly at something like $8, but at $12-13 it's a case of Toyota service for Lexus prices.”

Not a sterling review, but I have certainly seen worse.  More importantly, it clearly indicates that the person has gone there a number of times which means it can’t be all that bad.  What was startling to me was the response by the business owner:

“Thanks for the review. I hope we get more like yours so it will help us to shut down this place and not have to listen to petty complaining on Yelp. Catering is where its at, and you are not.” (sic.)

Wow! Did the business owner say that he wanted more bad reviews so the business would be forced to close? Did he just tell all of his retail customers that they aren’t important, and only his catering clients are key to his business? Did he just tell all of his catering clients that he is going to make a ton of money off their events? I keep trying to find a positive spin to what the owner wrote, but somehow the only thing I can think of is that he didn’t write it; maybe someone on his staff did and responded it on Yelp as the owner.

Which begs the question: What is your policy on how to handle bad on line reviews? Every foodservice establishment should have a policy on what to do when a customer has a comment or concern while the customer is still there. The issue is twofold: who responds to the review, and what the response should be.

The first thing to remember is that what you publish on line basically stays on line forever. The above comment will be available for years to come. Here is what I tell people they should do when they receive bad online reviews:

1. Don’t respond immediately.

2. Look to see if there is merit to anything said.  Was your establishment’s game fully 100 percent when the customer was there? It seems that most reviews are posted promptly so you should be able to figure out when the customer dined. Could you actually improve your business based on what the reviewer said? Sometimes owners and chefs get blind to comments and critiques, and things slip terribly before we admit there is a problem.

3. Review the comments in a serious fashion with your managers and staff. Don’t start out by bad-mouthing the reviewer. Maybe that person is just one of many and only he/she had the guts or took the time to post a review. Does your staff remember the person? Was anything said? Was there some indication at the time the customer was upset?  Is the customer a regular? Was she/he just having a bad day? Look at the performance for that day for the restaurant: sales, tips, number of covers, etc. to get a picture of what was happening.

4. Decide if a response should be submitted. To be frank, if most of your reviews are positive, then I would just leave it alone. People who read reviews know and expect to see some outliers. If most of your reviews are negative then you had better change your food, service, ambiance and marketing, or you are doomed.

5. If you decide a response is needed, then be professional. Don’t ever attack the reviewer, you will look cheap and petty and the reviewer will have won. Write a short, polite, empathetic response that is a positive marketing tool. Try something like:  

“We are sorry that you did not enjoy your experience dining with us. At ____________ we strive to have every customer feel that they had a wonderful experience. We want the food,     service and ambiance at _____________ to exceed every customer’s expectations. We hope that you will try ___________ again and that this time we will live up to our and your expectations.”  
[Please note the number of times I used the name of your establishment in a positive nature.]  

6. Do not publish your response immediately. Let it rest for a day or so and then look at it again. First, ask yourself again: Does a response need to be published? If the answer is yes, does what you wrote make you look like a company at which other people should come to spend their money? If not, re-write your answer.  

7. Before submitting it online, have someone else review it. (Preferably someone not involved in your operation.)  Spouses are good, but someone not interested at all would be better. Do you have a PR or marketing firm? Have them review it. Have friends in the business or a respected vendor are good sounding boards, too. But, whatever you do, have someone else review it.

8. Submit it online but ask yourself one last time whether you should publish a response at all.

Now, take those eight steps above and write a policy on how to handle online reviews. The most important thing to include in your policy is to appoint only one person to respond to reviews. Control your staff. You don’t need someone firing off flaming responses to reviews which don’t reflect the views of the owners and management.

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