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Is It Possible to Intercept Negative Reviews Before They Reach Yelp?


According to a 2013 National Customer Rage Study, more than a third of customers take their complaints online—to Yelp, Twitter, Facebook and TripAdvisor, among other sites.

Yelp reviews in particular can have a big impact, especially on small brick-and-mortar businesses. A Harvard Business Review study found that an extra star on Yelp can boost a restaurant’s revenue by as much as 9 percent. It’s easy, then, to imagine what the reverse might do.

“My small business is heavily reliant on our Yelp reviews for new customers, and the one time we got a really bad review, I was terrified,” says Lily Starling, owner of Downtown Davis Massage and Wellness in Davis, Calif. “The whole week that it was up I noticed a definite downturn in our business.”

Starling took the right approach to resolving the issue and contacted her unhappy client privately. The following day, the client changed the review from one to five stars, and included a paragraph lauding Starling’s professionalism and her business.

Ideally, however, businesses want to intercept poor reviews before they ever hit the web. We spoke to three companies that are using strategies to successfully avoid negative reviews. Here, we highlight tactics your company can use to follow suit.

Give Customers the Chance to Vent

While angry customers are nothing new, the ability to vent online, where a bad experience can remain documented forever, makes negative reviews extremely risky for businesses.

“If guests are unhappy, they go to websites like TripAdvisor, and they voice their opinions. They go on social media and they trash the place,” says Robert Irvine, chef and Food Network host of Restaurant: Impossible. “Social media has such a far-ranging touch that it can make or break a restaurant—and I’ve seen it break restaurants.”

While it’s not always possible to prevent a frustrating experience, you can re-channel customer frustration. This is precisely what technologist Bernard Briggs had in mind when he created Humm, an on-premise feedback system that uses an Android tablet to survey guests about their experience before they leave the building.

In other words, the first venting of emotion happens offline. This information is immediately updated to a dashboard, and managers can receive alerts of complaints via text or email.


The Humm feedback system, provided by Chris Marsh

“When someone’s upset, what’s the best thing to do? Let them vent,” Briggs says. “If you don’t give them an outlet, they will vent anyway. The longer they hold that in, the more eruptive it can become. [In creating Humm] we knew that if we short-circuited that anger, the customer would be magnitudes less likely to go online.”

So far, this strategy has worked. David Tripoli, operating manager for Truluck’s restaurants, has handed out the Humm tablet to customers along with their bill for the past 10 months. In this time, Tripoli has seen negative comments drop by 31 percent on the review sites that matter most in the restaurant industry: Yelp, UrbanSpoon, OpenTable and TripAdvisor.

Irvine, a Humm business partner, also directs his restaurant’s servers to drop off the Humm device along with the bill. Guests are reflecting on their meal and their service at this point, which means they’re more likely to deliver feedback.

Customer experience strategist Adam Toporek says this type of targeted feedback request can be highly effective. He explains, “You want to look at it from the standpoint of, ‘Where in the customer experience can we check in with our customers and find out how they’re doing?’”

Make It Very Easy to Complain

Like Twitter and Facebook, Yelp is an appealing place for angry customers to vent because of how easy it is to do so, and how effective a bad review can be. “Negative reviews are the best way to get a business to change for the better,” says Vanessa, a Yelp reviewer. “I’ve had much better resolutions and better responses going somewhere [businesses] actually seem to care about, their public image,” agrees Erica, another Yelp reviewer.

To counter this impulse, businesses must make it very, very easy for customers to complain to them, says Janet Wagner, director of the Center for Excellence in Service at the University of Maryland—easier than venting to Yelp. This means making your company’s phone number widely visible in every on-premise location (as well as your website, if you have one), and making sure employees respond quickly to calls.

For Castle Hill Fitness, a small Austin gym with stellar online reviews, their easy-access feedback solution is surprisingly simple: a large bulletin board on display at the end of a row of treadmills, with pens and cards close by for members to jot down their feedback. To satisfy the urge to complain—to staff as well as fellow members—a dissatisfied customer need only post their comment.

Castle Hill Fitness

Feedback board at Castle Hill Fitness

A quick glance at the board reveals that clients don’t hold back, either. Next to one customer’s complaint that a change in class schedule had prevented their attendance, for instance, was a staff member’s handwritten response thanking the client for their feedback, assuring them they’d consider a change and suggesting other classes to try out.

Customer relations manager Celeste Cyr says Castle Hill borrowed the bulletin board idea from Whole Foods four years ago, when the gym was looking for a more visible feedback mechanism. “I think people complain online if they don’t believe they will be heard or if they don’t trust your business to listen or respond to their needs,” she explains.

The feedback board is just one part of Castle Hill’s four-pronged approach to obtaining customer feedback. The gym also surveys clients by email with Constant Contact, an online marketing company for small businesses, solicits feedback through Twitter and sends personalized check-in emails to guests three times during an annual membership cycle.

Front-desk staffers ask customers how their workout was as they leave, while the gym’s open-door policy allows customers quick access to the fitness concierges who handle membership—their office literally has no door.

Wagner says these multiple feedback mechanisms work because they cast a wide net. “Give your customers as many points of contact as you can,” she advises. The results speak for themselves: Castle Hill’s last two-star Yelp review was written in 2010.

Let Customers Complain Anonymously

When Oren’s Hummus Shop first opened in 2011, co-founder Adi Bittan thought customers would forgive its first-week blunders—especially with her business partner, Oren Dobronsky, greeting each table to ask for feedback.

“We didn’t really expect to see bad Yelp reviews in the beginning,” she says. “We thought, ‘this is exploratory mode and everyone understands that we’re still learning. But no; customers don’t owe you anything.”

The reviews, both positive and negative, came quickly. So Bittan did what Starling had done, and tracked her dissatisfied reviewers down. She was most alarmed to learn that customers who had smiled and said “Everything’s great!” in response to Dobronsky’s questions had still written bad reviews. “They said, ‘I’m embarrassed,’ and, ‘Oh, this is my M.O. I’m a Yelper; I do this as kind of a default,’” she says.

Realizing that in-person requests weren’t an effective way to get honest, accurate feedback, Bittan began to experiment with new methods. She posted signs requesting customer comments and made Oren’s email address more visible, but found that customers worried about being placed on marketing lists.

So she provided comment cards, printed feedback requests on bill folders, business cards and receipts, and posted signs that displayed the restaurant’s phone number, encouraging customers to text in their complaints.

While Bittan says texting was a good start, by this point she had begun to think about customer feedback on a grander scale. She wanted to change consumers’ default feedback methods and convince them that, before turning to Yelp, they could take their complaint directly to a business owner or manager to resolve—without revealing their identity.

Five months after opening Oren’s, Bittan and Dobronsky developed a mobile app that would allow customers to file a complaint anonymously, called OwnerListens. The app sends complaints (along with questions and compliments) to business owners by text or email, and allows them to quickly respond to dissatisfied customers without ever knowing their personal contact information.


OwnerListens screenshot, provided by Adi Bittan

Like her earlier feedback experiments, convincing customers to use OwnerListens still required signage, Bittan says. “The more you explain why you’re asking, the more likely you are to receive feedback,” she says. She recommends posting something such as, “Please send me your feedback because I want to improve; I want to serve you better.”

While Bittan acknowledges that tracking the impact of OwnerListens on social complaints is tricky, as there’s no way to know for sure that you’ve prevented a bad review, it’s worth noting that Oren’s Hummus Shop now holds an average rating of four or more stars on Yelp, TripAdvisor and UrbanSpoon.

Respond to Customers in Real Time

Some dissatisfied customers may not wait until their experience is over before taking to Yelp to lodge a complaint. “I have dined at a restaurant and finished my ‘negative’ review even before my meal was done bc I was so upset,” says a Yelper named Angie, who’s written 249 reviews since 2010. “I wantz to be heard!”

But for a business owner, being able to respond to negative reviews in real-time is a daunting challenge. “When you talk to consumers and ask them what kind of timeline they’re expecting, people are now wanting answers within minutes,” Bittan says. “As business owners, we have to react faster. We have to solve things on the fly.”

Even if you’re unable to provide an immediate solution, a quick response “stops the customer from continuing to stew on the issue and delays the immediate urge to go online and post about their bad experience,” she explains.

Since incorporating Humm at Truluck’s, Tripoli says his response to restaurant snafus has gotten faster. As soon as a Humm complaint about undercooked salmon or a gripe about a hostess’s demeanor is sent to his phone, he calls the location to make sure staff are doing everything they can to resolve the issue.

Bittan recommends gauging the nature of the complaint to determine a response time frame. While a dirty bathroom should be cleaned immediately, a complaint about a rude receptionist may need extra time, as owners should first speak to the employee in question.

Either situation, however, should receive an immediate acknowledgement. Bittan recommends responding with something such as, “Thank you for the message. I’ll look into it and get back to you in no more than X hours.”

“Send that immediately, and then follow up with the actual content of your response as soon as you’ve established the facts and how you’d like to react,” she says. “If you send feedback to business owners, they have to be able to respond and it has to be quick and authentic. If they wait until they get home and get in front of the computer, it loses that nice, real-time aspect.”

Tripoli, on the other hand, does not instruct employees to approach customers who have voiced their complaint via Humm—he believes there’s a reason a customer has filed a complaint in a computer system rather than discussing it with a human being. Instead, Truluck managers review feedback and follow up with guests the next day, by phone or email.

These are just a few tactics companies are using to successfully avoid negative online reviews. What techniques does your business use? Share your experience by leaving a comment below.

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About the Author

Victoria Rossi writes about topics related to customer service, retail, and help-desk management for the Customer Service Investigator blog. Before joining Software Advice, Victoria reported for various magazines and newspapers, in addition to work as an editor and writing coach. She holds a master's degree in journalism and a bachelor's degree in history.

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