The Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association provides many benefits to its hospitality industry members.  One of those benefits is access to its interesting and useful webinar series.  This month’s webinar “Five Star State of Mind: Handling Online Reviews” was presented by Ali Schwartz of Yelp.   Unlike Yelp’s sales team, Ali is a member of Yelp’s business outreach team who focused on educating business owners on the free tools offered by Yelp that do not require any spending.

Yelp tests its reviews every quarter.  Despite most business owners’ somewhat begrudging tolerance of customer review websites, it turns out that the vast majority of reviews on Yelp are not negative.  According to Ali, for every quarter in the 15 years in which Yelp has been in business, almost 80% of reviews are positive or neutral, and Yelp has more 5 star reviews than 1, 2, and 3 star reviewed combined.  To increase the likelihood of positive feedback on customer review sites like Yelp, Ali recommends that franchise or company-owned locations do the following:

  1. Make sure the basic deals about your business, like hours and location, are up to date. Over 85% of your customers go online to find basic information like hours and location, so make sure those details are accurate .   Yelp allows businesses to post special hours for holidays and other occasions.  The last thing a franchise wants is for a customer to have a negative experience because they traveled to a location and it was not open.
  2. Don’t limit your photos to stock images.  Think about the photographs that would make you smile.  What would make you want to go to a business?  Think about including the employee team in images or a manager giving a thumb’s up outside the location
  3. Be forward thinking when it comes to critical reviews. Ali breaks critical reviews into three categories and provides advice for responding to each type:
    • Legitimate.   A review may be negative because a franchise was understaffed or there was a hair in the food.  For legitimate critical reviews, Ali recommends writing a public comment response.  This shows off customer service excellence.  You are really writing for everyone else who is reading the review just as much as the patron who had a negative experience.
    • Inaccurate.  This often occurs when a reviewer is writing about the wrong business.  In this case, you want to set the record straight in a professional way
    • Rant.  This is what Ali refers to as the “shrimp salad people.” These are customer who, eat all the delicious plump shrimp in an entrée but still send it back.  In this case, Ali recommends not to “poke the crazy”.  Take the high road and send a private message.  Yelp users are smart and savvy and generally do not read beyond the first few sentences of a long rant.
  4. Amplify the positive.  For example, if a reviewer compliments the cocktails, then your response may include information on upcoming happy hours or special events.  From a tactical standpoint, using words “cocktail” “happy hour” will now appear on your page with searches.  It also encourages other writers to submit good responses.
  5. Don’t interfere with the natural flow of reviews by asking customers to writing good reviews.  Inspire great reviews organically.  You want customers to feel like they had a great experience because you have excellent customer service, not because you were trying to get a good review.

In my discussion with franchise systems, especially large systems in the hospitality (restaurant and hotel space particularly),   I know that many provide franchisees with “best practices” on responding to negative reviews as well as positive reviews.  As part of any system’s guidelines for customer service excellence, franchisees should ensure their staff knows what to do when something goes wrong and have guidelines in place to address issues.  This is an important part of maintaining the franchise system’s brand online.