While negative online reviews can be completely unsubstantiated, restaurants must face a hard truth: The Internet never forgets.
Essentially, without a detailed strategy in place for dealing with negative critics, a thumbs-down review from a consumer—or a series of consumers—can stay on the web forever, and consequently, erode profits forever.
"With the number of apps and sites specifically for that purpose, turning to online reviews and testimonial resources for information is easy, quick and as trusted today as asking a friend or relative about their personal experience with the quality of food, or satisfaction with service," says Marilyn Nicholson, v.p., media, promotions and marketing for Long John Silvers.
Jerry Bures, owner of the online marketing agency Ascend Marketing Solutions, agrees: "It used to be word-of-mouth marketing from trusted friends and neighbors solely influenced a business’s ability to grow. Now more and more, consumers are trusting online reviews from perfect strangers as much as personal recommendations from people they know, especially among younger consumers."
Indeed, in a BrightLocal study, 88 percent of consumers surveyed said they read reviews to size-up a local business. Moreover, 67 percent of those relying on surveys said they read up to six reviews to fully assess a business. “The significance of these stats is that it sets a benchmark for the number of positive reviews that they need,” says Myles Anderson, BrightLocal’s c.e.o. “With 85 percent of consumers reading 10 or less reviews then we need to ensure that we have at least 10 reviews to satisfy them, but more importantly that the most recent 10 reviews are all positive.
Of course, the easiest way to head off bad-mouthing by guests is to solve the problem before it happens. Generally, clients often contact a restaurant with a grievance before resorting to a flaming rant online.
One of the easiest ways to put out an antennae for this kind of customer is to send an auto-generated email after each purchase or service, asking the customer how your restaurant did, and volunteering to solve any misunderstandings or mishaps.
Solve the problem at this juncture, experts say, and you'll be dealing with someone who does not think they are past the point of resolution, and are not eyeing their keyboard with fantasies of vengeance.
Of course, even with this tactic, some bad reviews will still slip through, threatening to permanently damage your online reputation. "Leaving negative reviews unattended can reflect poorly on your restaurant," says Josh Martin, director, digital & social media, Arby's Restaurant Group.
"We leverage a variety of tools that alert us to both positive and negative mentions for our restaurants. We respond quickly to our guests and make sure the feedback is shared/addressed at the restaurant level."
Once a negative review materializes, experts recommend restaurants engage in the following best practices:
1. Claim free accounts to manage your reputation on the review services
Most of the major online review services, including Yelp, offer free accounts to museum stores and other businesses, which they can use to monitor positive and negative reviews that appear on the review services, and respond to reviews accordingly.
2. Keep cool
While it's tempting to lambaste a negative reviewer—especially if the review is unsubstantiated—resist the temptation and work to restore your reputation only after your emotions are in check.
"Give yourself a cooling down period," says Luther Lowe, director of public policy at Yelp. "When someone is using a public forum like Yelp to attack something you’re pouring your heart and soul into, a very natural response is to get emotional. Don’t. The last thing you want to do is overreact to someone online."
3. Stay completely positive, if possible
Generally, the best solution is a private, offline response to a client that offers a concrete solution to their complaint and essentially turns a negative customer into a positive one. And if your restaurant is in the wrong, own it and make authentic amends.
"On Yelp, a business owner can respond privately or publicly," Lowe says. "We recommend starting with a private, diplomatic response."
Specifically, Lowe recommends using this script:
• Introduce yourself. (“Hi, It’s Bruce, the owner of ...”)
• Thank the customer for the review. (“Thank you for sharing your feedback...”)
• Apologize. (“I’m deeply sorry you didn’t have a 5-star experience...”)
• Acknowledge the complaint, and explain what you’ve done to address the problem.
• Don’t be too defensive. As tempting as it is to try to convince reviewers to see things from your vantage point, it’s easy to come off as dismissive of their accounts.
• Invite them to return. (“We hope you’ll consider joining us again... Here’s my direct contact information if you do...”)
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4. Go public if you must
Unfortunately, there may be some complaints that are irresolvable via back channels, and you'll have to go public with a response. Take care in these instances to come off as consummate professional who is truly looking to satisfy customers.
The office should respond to the review in a professional manner, acknowledging the issue and stating what they are doing to correct the situation,” says Kathleen Fealy, president, KF Multimedia & Web, a web design firm: "
Adds Yelp's Lowe: "You shouldn’t view the public comment feature as an opportunity to nitpick at slight inaccuracies within a review. Instead, it’s a chance to demonstrate to would-be customers that you’re on top of your customer service."
5. Don't get defensive
"Getting your side of the story out isn’t as important as demonstrating you can keep your cool when problems arise and that you care about customer feedback," Lowe says.
6. See the value of negative reviews
Some marketers believe negative reviews can actually add authenticity to a store's overall track record online. The reason: If people only see positive reviews, they may think the reviews are being laundered. Plus, negative reviews offer a restaurant an opportunity to show clients that he/she is determined to uphold a quality standard.
"Restaurants aren’t perfect all the time," Nicholson points out. "Things happen that can leave customers with a negative impression they later express online or in social media.
"However, if the restaurant is seen as transparent, openly listening and being proactive in dealing with specific issues or concerns, it demonstrates a respect for their customers and it will be noticed in a positive manner.
Ascend's Bures agrees: "One way negative reviews do add credibility is when a business can also show they’ve satisfactorily rectified an occasional but unfortunate customer experience to the complete satisfaction of that customer. After all, in the eyes of consumers, it’s never about perfection. It’s about sincerely apologizing and fairly compensating for an honest mistake or inconvenience."
7. Counterbalance negative reviews with your own online reviews domain
Given there will probably be instances when you'll deal with a belligerent customer who cannot be pleased not matter what you do, the next best thing is to maintain your own, online reviews domain on your website. A number of service providers offer turnkey solutions that will enable you to do this.
8. Secure positive reviews from happy customers
Sometimes, all it takes is a request from a pleased customer to see a glowing review pop up on your website minutes later. "If you have a customer that is beside themselves with glee over your service, you need to take advantage of that," says Chris Tucker, president, RightNow Communications.
"Ask them to write a brief testimonial and then place it in on a special testimonial page on your site. You can link this page to your Google Maps page quite easily. Look for the “Link to this Page” link that is found on the bottom right corner of your reviews page. Add the link to your testimonial page, and you’re done."
9. Solicit reviews from the keyboard-challenged
Customer Lobby, an online reviews service provider, includes a service that calls your customers, solicits their feedback over the phone and then transcribes the reviews to text for easy posting online. It also syndicates these reviews—as well as those it secures from people who know how to use keyboards—across the web including Facebook, Twitter, Bing, Google and Yelp.
"The key is to make it easy for them to share positive feedback," says Arby's Martin.
One of the great byproducts of having an active reviews domain on your website is that search engines like Google will reward you for continually adding fresh content to your site. Long term, that means your website will appear higher in search engine returns. Moreover, even if the reviews appear on another site, that content associated with your restaurant will enjoy higher search engine returns as well, since review sites are continually updated.