Making Online Review Sites Work For You

In a recent American Spa magazine "Business Builders" column, I described our company's experience with the growing phenomenon of online review sites. I have a confession to make. My feelings about the fastest growing and arguably most influential online review site, Yelp, have changed. In a plot twist straight out of a romantic comedy between totally mismatched, star-crossed characters, I have...gulp...fallen in love.

How did this happen? For a couple of months, anyone who talked to me about marketing was likely to hear my rant about the dark side of user-generated-content.

The key to this 180 degree shift lies in the ability Yelp gives you to contact folks who review you. After I had a number of positive exchanges with my critics, the frustration abated. I realized that this was no different than the "real world", in that I could communicate with clients and do what was needed to make them happy. And ironically, the more I interacted with Yelp users, the more I came to appreciate the potential of this medium and the value of this group of consumers. I stopped being a Review Site Victim.

The Yelpers (as they're known) we invited back to the spa invariably posted amended reviews that also discussed our commitment to customer service. They are also self-selected as a group of people who enjoy telling others about businesses that they like. If we can make them happy, we have harnessed a very inexpensive marketing asset. The traffic to this site is staggering.

Here's how to make yourself the online reviewer's spa of choice:

1. Respond promptly to all reviews, good, bad and indifferent. (Yelp has a contact interface that preserves their anonymity if they so choose, but still lets you get in touch.) Thank the reviewer. I have given upgrades and perks to people who have given us a particularly nice review, and let them know I'd like to meet them when they visit the spa again. Reviewers are used to no response from businesses. Show them some love! I think hearing from us also makes them more responsible reviewers. Suddenly, they're reviewing the businesses that are the livelihoods of real people, instead of a faceless corporation.

2. For negative or indifferent reviews, offer to rectify the situation and enlist the reviewer's help in improving your service. We have them Mystery Shop us, as our guest. This also educates them on the complexity of delivering great service and makes them a more informed reviewer. (It also sharpens their eyes when they visit a competitor who does not do all the things that we do to ensure a great customer experience!) Without exception, the "returning reviewers" who originally posted negative reviews have amended their online reviews and praised our customer service. Not one of these individuals was asked to change their review as a condition of their service re-do. We expected the results to speak for themselves, and for the reviewer to do the right thing. So far, they have. (Only one reviewer I've contacted has eluded my attempts to make her happy--refusing to respond to my invitations to return as our guest. This individual had not had a service at our spa in five years.)

3. Join the review site and write reviews (no, don't review your competitor's spa!) This makes you a member of the community, a comrade in arms. As a fellow Yelper, you have some "street cred" with this new generation of reviewers. The more useful and interesting reviews you write, the more respected you'll be as a peer.

4. Finally, you can now participate in Yelp's "featured business" advertising program. Yes, I am giving them my money! (That's true love.) This enhanced listing includes a detailed description of our company and a slide show of photos from our spa, which appears when someone searching for a spa in our area clicks on our listing. Sweeter still, my ad shows up when they click on our competitor's listings! With our listing, I've included a "personal message" and a photo of myself, further cementing the personal connection with the reader.

The happy epilogue: my staff are talking about the new customers they're getting from Yelp. We've also instituted a practice of having our management team members call all new customers 48 hours after their first visit to the spa, to see if we have met their expectations, and to learn if we could do anything better. Rather than wait to have a disappointed customer post a review, we're being more proactive than ever before.

As good as we thought our customer service was, Yelp has helped us make it even better. What's not to love about that?

By Peggy Wynne Borgman

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