This guest article written by Bob Unger and Barbara Leblanc of Unger Leblanc Strategic Communications.

Online reviews are one of the first things that come up on a Google search. More than 80 percent of customers believe they are as trustworthy as word of mouth. Nearly half of younger consumers rely on them more than the recommendations of friends and family.

Here’s how dynamic online reviewing is: a business’s rating can drop from 4.4 to 4.3 stars from Sunday to Monday in a week because of four new reviews. All when there are five-star and a four-star, but also a one-star and a three-star review.

We need to know what people are saying online about your business and we need a plan for regular, consistent response. As owners, we need to decide who answers complaints and what those answers should sound like (perhaps along with a policy on make-goods so we are consistent and good).

This is especially important as the tourist season arrives and people will be looking to Yelp, Trip Advisor and other review sites to decide where to eat while they are in town. We all know the experience of looking to Yelp to guide our decisions in an unfamiliar city.

Here are elements to consider for a policy on managing and responding to online reviews. These are based on what currently are considered best practices.

Let staff know to take online reviews seriously – as seriously as if someone complimented or complained in person.
Look at them as an opportunity to learn what you do best — and do more of it — and correct what our paying customers see as wrong. In that spirit, keep staff informed of reviews.

Track reviews daily and respond to each one, whether it is great, good, moderate or negative.
Most people are just looking to be heard. And if they have a complaint, they are likely to change their opinion if given the chance. At least, they might try your business again.

If they love you, they’ll love you more if you bother to say thanks for a great review. There is software to manage reviews if it gets out of hand.

Never ignore potentially damaging reviews
Negative reviews have a tendency to spread fast and hurt business. Respond promptly and politely – and figure out what you can do to change the reviewer’s mind for the better.
Don’t rush to respond. Take time to think through the response, especially to hostile reviews. But answer within two weeks.

We have some that have been festering far longer with no response. Until we reach out to them, that’s the story they are spreading to their friends, family, neighbors and associates.

Acknowledge criticisms and offer a remedy
Never argue. Never get defensive. Never engage in a he-said, she-said. You will turn off not only that reviewer, but everyone else who reads it.

Directly address the criticism and, if you can, say what you’re doing to address the situation.

Offer empathy, not an explanation. Take difficult conversations offline by asking the reviewer to contact someone directly by phone or email, especially if you plan to offer a discount or other remedy — i.e. a free dessert or appetizer.

Look for criticisms within moderate reviews
Say you’re always working to correct whatever bugged the moderate reviewer and ask them to stop in soon to see your progress.

Say thanks to your fans
Invite positive reviewers to stop in to say hi next time they’re in the neighborhood. Tell them why they might want to return — new menu item, beer, etc.

Solicit comments to ratings made with no comment.
Several ratings, high and low, come with no explanation. We should reach out to those reviewers and ask them why they love us or hate us.

Decide who will answer different types of reviews.
Tim, Tom, Scott or a designated social media manager (Ali?) are probably most often appropriate. Sometimes, only an owner will do. If a server or bartender is lauded by name, urge them to respond directly. Consider in advance how to respond when a staff member is disparaged by name.

Track competitors’ reviews
You can learn a lot from what customers say about Greasy Luck, Cork, Buzzards Bay and others — even those outside the area.

Seek out influencers
Look for the really active social media users reviewing and discussing the local restaurants scene, reviewing beers, etc. Reach out to them with special offers. Influencer marketing can be an incredibly powerful tool for amassing positive reviews.

Maintain a high frequency of reviews
When customers see a lot of reviews coming in regularly, it gives the appearance that we are popular, instills trust with potential customers, and keeps the search ranking high.

Encourage people to review with buttons on the website and reminders on the menu.

Use the reviews as a resource
Quote the great things customers say about your business in marketing materials, on the website, voicemail messages, etc.

-Bob Unger & Barbara LeBlanc

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