Online reviews matter: 78% of people believe online reviews are at least "somewhat reliable," according to a recent ReportLinker report. And 59% of online shoppers see these reviews as being as trustworthy as a review given by a friend, the report found.
"Our research shows that 84% of US online adults read reviews when they research products and services online," said Erna Alfred Liousas, a Forrester analyst serving B2C marketing professionals. And this isn't just a US phenomenon—80% of consumers in metro China and India read in-depth reviews posted by other people online before buying a product or service, Liousas added.
"Business leaders can't afford to ignore reviews because they broadcast consumer perception and impact customer purchases," Liousas said. "Reviews deserve acknowledgment and a response, as appropriate."
Here are seven best practices for managing online reviews of your business.
1. Proactively request feedback
One way to manage online reviews is to proactively request feedback from customers, according to Alex Bungener, owner of Digital+, LLC. "There are a number of platforms that allow a business to email or text customers asking if they would refer them to friends and family," he said. "The customer can leave comments too. Based on the answers they give, the program will then encourage the customer to post their positive comments on a review site, of which you give them up to three options."
If the feedback is negative, then the program will redirect the customer to another place to voice their grief, and allow the business owner to deal with the issue, Bungener said.
This method can help improve existing online reviews, said Pat Ahern, director of traffic generation at Junto. Ahern said his favorite method for soliciting reviews is to pull together a list of current Twitter followers, and send targeted tweets to 10 to 20 of these followers per week, asking them to provide honest feedback about the company, and sharing a bit.ly link to one of the big review sites, such as Google My Business, Yelp, or Facebook.
"Those who respond are significantly more likely to provide positive reviews than negative reviews, as following an business on social media is a strong signal that a person is an advocate of your brand," Ahern said. "This technique has been much more successful with businesses such as restaurants, but can be employed by any business."
If you know you have happy customers, don't be afraid to let them know that you are on sites that have reviews, said Mark Tuchscherer, president of Geeks Chicago. "Let people know that if they really want to show their appreciation, leaving a review can be very helpful for you company long term," he said. "Most companies will see that this approach will get them a lot more reviews."
2. Respond to every review
Most business owners get scared of negative reviews, and avoid looking at them, said Ryan Erskine, senior brand strategist, VIP department at BrandYourself. But you should always respond to reviews, especially when they are negative. "Most people are just looking to be heard and will are likely to change their opinion of your company if given the chance," Erskine said. "If you never reach out to make amends, you don't give them that chance."
When people see a company engaging everyone, it shows that they care and that they want to fix any issues that come up, Tuchscherer said. This can help minimize some of the damage that a negative review may have caused.
"We make sure that our team responds to every single review—positive or negative," said Michaela Prouzova, community engagement manager at Nimble, Inc. "We keep a document with all the feedback, and try to go back and update our reviewers once a feature they were missing is introduced, or once we have implemented some of their feedback. All this builds trust and humanizes our brand, which is really important, because we all know that people buy from people they know like and trust."
It's also key to not let reviews languish, especially the bad ones, said Matthew Pugh, vice president of Weiss PR, Inc. "It's important to respond to reviews as quickly as possible," he said. "Negative reviews have a tendency to spread fast. A prompt response, whether it's a follow-up comment or direct contact through customer service, will go a long way to mitigating reputational damage and/or additional bad reviews."
Responding to positive reviews as well is an oft-neglected art, said Mike Tortorice, marketing manager at Infront Webworks. Thank the customer, let them know about any specials or discounts that they may be able to take advantage of, and invite them back, creating a community around your business, Tortorice said.
3. Keep it professional
Never argue with a person who left a negative review, Tuchscherer said. "We find many clients that get very defensive when they don't get the perfect review, and they can come off very hostile in their response," he said. "Anyone that runs across a response like this will be turned off by the company and most likely not use them."
Whenever possible, figure out a solution to the problem and offer a remedy, not an explanation, Pugh said. "Showing empathy for a reviewer's complaint will not only help to defuse the situation, but also create an opportunity to turn them into a loyal customer—who may then be willing to share a good customer service review in the future," he added.
It's best not to engage in a "he said/she said" type of response, but rather try to take it offline, said Valerie Vallancourt, vice president of marketing at Outsell. You could respond with something like, "I'm very sorry that your car wasn't ready when promised. I know your time is valuable and I want to make it right. Please call me at your earliest convenience at 555-555-1212 and I'll do my best to make it up to you. I look forward to speaking with you."
"Every business gets negative reviews. Yours will too," Vallancourt said. "Whether they affect future buyers' decisions is entirely based on how you respond."
4. Track your reviews
Set up daily reminders to check for new reviews on platforms including Google Reviews, Yelp, Glassdoor, and social media outlets, said Christine Blake, account supervisor at W2 Communications. "Since reviews are one of the first things that come up in a Google search, it's important to dedicate someone to tracking and managing them," Blake said. "Having ongoing insight into reviews, whether positive or negative, helps you address them."
You can also consider using a review management software that consolidates all reviews across all platforms and locations into one dashboard, said Erskine. A number of such platforms exist.
Tracking reviews from competitors can also help you make your business better, said Heather Andrews, account executive at DPR Group. "You can learn what your customers are saying about you, while gaining invaluable competitive insight," she said.
5. Learn to navigate Yelp
Yelp is somewhat different from other review platforms, Erskine said. Its filter can often be a headache for businesses, because it can hide some of the best five-star reviews. Often, Yelp hides reviews from users who have not filled out their profiles, or who do not have many reviews or connections on the site. However, because the filter is fluid, those hidden reviews can resurface again. So if positive reviewers increase their frequency on Yelp, there is a high likelihood that their review will appear again on your page, Erskine said.
"Without a strategy in place, businesses often find themselves with Yelp profiles filled with random complaints from angry customers that don't represent how the majority of their clients feel," Erskine said. "I strongly recommend companies put a Yelp strategy in place to use it to their advantage, otherwise they may find themselves dragged along for an unpleasant ride."
Do not try to purchase Yelp reviews for your business, Erskine said. "Yelp has a sophisticated algorithm and is far too smart for this behavior," he said. "Yelp filters these purchased reviews from your customers and it can even result in your profile being flagged."
Yelp can also tell if reviews are coming from a single IP address, so make sure you don't solicit reviews at your workplace, Erskine added.
If you do see a negative review on Yelp, make sure to respond to it openly and politely, said Kristin Marquet, founder and creative director of Creative Development Agency. "Apologize if the customer received bad service, and offer a voucher toward his or her next purchase," she said. "If the customer sees you're trying to resolve the problem, most of the time he or she will be forgiving, and possibly even remove the negative review on their own."
6. Seek out influencers
Influencer marketing can be an incredibly powerful tool for amassing positive reviews, said Jessica Camp, senior digital public relations specialist at Blue Fountain Media.
"Reach out to influential social media users in your industry, offer them your product or service, and utilize the content you receive from them," Camp said. "Many businesses will find that they already have a base of social media users who have interacted with their product and written about them on social. These users in particular make incredible brand evangelists to tap into."
7. Maintain a high frequency of reviews
When customers see a lot of reviews coming in on a regular basis, it gives off the appearance that your business is popular, and instills trust with potential customers, said Nico Dato, vice president of marketing at Podium.
"The recency, frequency, and quantity of your reviews have a direct impact on your local search ranking," Dato said. "And the higher you rank in local search, the more visible you become to your audience."
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Alison DeNisco Rayome has nothing to disclose. She does not hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.