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Do you vote with your wallet?

Sometimes I ask my friends if they write online reviews, such as those on Yelp or TripAdvisor. The reply I often hear is “I vote with my wallet” or “I vote with my feet.”  In other words, if a business fails to meet their expectations, they move on to a competitor.

In my view, online reviews are one of the best things to happen to businesses.  Before, if people just walked away, a business owner was really in the dark, unless they received a complaint on the spot, or afterwards. I feel in the majority of cases, people simply chose not to spend their money on that business anymore.  At least with online reviews, you have a clear identification of the problem, and you have the opportunity to make changes that may benefit your business.

I write online reviews, but I try to keep most of them positive.  I would feel terrible if a review put a business in jeopardy over some small thing I experienced, that could just be a fluke.  However, if a business makes the kind of error that they could have easily avoided, that is another matter.  For example, I wrote a couple of good reviews for a local sandwich shop I liked.  Over the past few months, I noticed, with every visit, that while the shop increased in popularity, it also got more and more dirty.  It was obvious no one was cleaning the bathroom, the doors, sometimes the floors.  On my last visit, I took one look and turned around.  Then I wrote a review, because it was clearly time for this restaurant to clean up their act.

Inefficient restaurant servers or inattentive managers?  That has to be pretty egregious for me to write up in an online review.  After all, anyone can have a bad day.  But if someone is gratuitously rude, and it’s a place I have patronized often, I will do one of two things. Usually, I vote with my wallet.  I can almost always find a competing business that will show me more respect as a customer.  The other is that I will write an online review — but I try to keep it in the spirit of constructive criticism.

A prime example of this is something that happened to me this week.   As a woman who often travels, shops, and dines out with her child, I am (unfortunately) accustomed to discrimination.  If I told you the kind of treatment we have received in some places, you would not believe it.  I receive significantly better service when I am in the company of a man in nearly all settings.  Because of this, when I find a store or restaurant that treats my son and me as customers worth valuing, that place gets my loyal business.  Clyde’s of Mark Place (a local restaurant) is one such example.  My child (who has autism) does not appear as a typical child. He’s not disruptive in public, but he does have repetitive movements with his hands.  When we go to Clyde’s, we invariably receive a warm welcome and perfect service.  And we leave a 25% tip for it!  In fact, if there is a place we like, we kind of make it a point to spend some money there, compliment the manager on a restaurant, and leave great tips.  Because for us, although we are polite and dress nicely, it’s not a given that we are going to get good service in the businesses we frequent (unless we are accompanied by a man; then there is a noticeable increase in attentiveness).  Am I loyal to Clyde’s of Mark’s Place?  You bet.  Let’s just say that every special dinner we celebrated this year — from Christmas Eve to Mother’s Day — we’ve spent our money there.  Not just because we like the food — I can cook at home! — but because of the way we are treated by the staff.

On the other hand, Total Wine.  This year, I have probably spent about $300 in wine and beer purchases at the Total Wine store in Alexandria, Virginia.  Not a fortune.  But I also bring my boyfriend there, who has easily spent more than a $1,000 on beer and wine.  We have been loyal customers because the wine specialists are helpful and friendly.  Going to Total Wine is like getting a mini-education about wine, and their recommendations have been terrific.  So, this week’s visit was a huge disappointment to me.  I visited Total Wine with my son — it was the first time I had gone there without my boyfriend.  It was late afternoon and the store was nearly empty. I planned to purchase a number of pumpkin ales to review for my Halloween themed blog, and I was pretty excited about it.  On finding the beers and ales, I notice that each bottle had a descriptive label on the shelf.  One mentioned, for example, that it was brewed back in George Washington’s day.  I thought that would be very interesting to add to my blog.  But I had already visited their website before coming to the store, and I knew that information wasn’t on the website.  Was I going to have to copy all the shelf label text down?

There is a counter at the front of the store where the managers work.  In a friendly way, I approached the counter and the manager asked (without smiling) if he could help me.  I saw him cut a look at my son (who was behaving) that was not very friendly.  I’m used to that, however, so I told him I was writing a blog article about pumpkin ales and that I was intrigued by the shelf labels, and wanted to mention the information in my blog.  Could I take a picture of the labels so I could note the text in my blog when I got home?  In a dismissive way, he said I can’t let you take photos in the store. I understood that, most stores have a policy like that.  Well, then do you have suggestions, I asked?  I told him I had looked on the website but couldn’t find any information about the beers.  He said, grudgingly, I could print the descriptions for you.  That would be great! I responded, smiling.  BUT he said, you’ll have to buy the beers.  He said it in a way that seemed to suggest that I wasn’t going to buy the pumpkin ales.  I looked at him curiously.  I intend to buy them, I told him — I’m reviewing them.  He didn’t say anything in response, so I said, feeling rather awkward at this point, So…I’ll just bring my choices to the counter, if that’s okay?  He kind of grumbled yeah, turning away from me.  As he did, I saw him look at my son again.  This time, he shook his head, as if in disgust, or disbelief.  I’m not sure why — my son wasn’t doing anything but standing there, waiting for me.  The entire time, the manager didn’t make any eye contact with me.  The short interaction left me feeling unvalued and embarrassed.

As I continued shopping, I wondered why he treated me that way, and why he had looked at my son like that. He treated us as if we were going to steal something from the store, in a way.  He was really unfriendly to us.  At least, that’s how I felt.

Did he not like kids?

Did he not like kids with autism?

Did he not like women?

Did he not like bloggers?

Did he have a thing against pumpkin ale? 🙂

I couldn’t figure out why he had been so cold to me, and by extension, to my child.

All the excitement I had about this store, which I had patronized and raved about for three years, began to dissipate in that moment.  It’s one thing to be rude to me; quite another to look at my child like a cockroach!  Now, will that experience make it into an online review?  No, of course not.  It’s too intangible.  I’m not sure other people can relate to it. Discrimination is a subtle thing, and a subjective thing.  Therefore, if a place just makes me feel unwelcome for no apparent reason, in an instance like this, I simply move on.  I vote with my feet.  It’s not worth it to me to put it in a review, because the experience is so subjective (and possibly unique to me).

But I was there for pumpkin ale, and I had drove 17 miles to get it, so I wasn’t about to let him discourage me from my mission.  As I turned away and collected the beers, however, I have to admit that I felt dejected.  I put my selections in the shopping car and went in search of the wine my boyfriend asked me to get for him.  As I did so, I ran into Vince, who is one of the wine specialists at the store.  He greeted me warmly (he remembered selling wine to me and my boyfriend a few weeks ago), and then proceeded to cheerfully upsell me to a $25 bottle, as well as to enthusiastically convince me to purchase six more bottles of wine he felt I really should have. Vince is a delightful person with a true passion for wine and I really couldn’t say no, and I’m happy with the purchases.  I was thinking about the contrast in approaches between two people in the same store, and whether Vince’s attitude cancelled out the manager’s.  I was undecided.

At the checkout, I met another nice person staffing the cash register who agreed with me that Vince was a swell guy.  While I was buying all this wine and beer, I hoped against hope that the redheaded manager would turn around and see all the beer and wine I was purchasing — and eat a slice of humble pie. But he didn’t, or if he didn’t notice (again, we were one of the few customers in the store), he didn’t bother to say anything.

As I left the store, I almost wrote it off as a flukey bad experience.  After all, I liked Vince and I valued his help in helping me find wine.  But I did find that all the helpfulness was negated by the way I had been treated by the store manager.  I can forgive so much in a business, but not rudeness — especially when I am friendly  — and dirty looks at my (well-behaved) kid are a deal-breaker any day of the week.  So, that will be my last trip to the Total Wine store in Alexandria.  There are a number of places to buy wine, much closer to me.  I don’t think I could ever shop there again without a bad taste in my mouth.

So, this is my marketing message for businesses today.  We’re in a recession.  Remember, you may not get a second chance.  The smiling woman you see in jeans with her disabled child — she may actually be a very good customer.  She may be a person who brings other customers to your store. The problem is, if you assume she isn’t, you may never get a second chance with her, or any other customer who votes with their feet.  You should hope they write an online review so you can know what’s wrong — otherwise, you’ll never know why your competitors are getting your business.

How to manage online review sites associated with your business

Good online reviews can make your business, and bad online reviews can break your business.

If you listen to anything I’ve told you about marketing your small business, let it be this: proactively take control of your online reputation, as much as you can, now.  Sometimes there is damage that cannot be undone later.

We all know if you are in business for any length of time, someone you deal with is going to be unhappy.  The amount of damage to your reputation that can result from that unhappy customer (or ex-employee or competitor) depends on how much disaster mitigation you put into place before the negative review is posted online.  And that requires some planning (which is where I often come in).  Here are four ways you can mitigate for the worst:

  1. Publish as much content online for your business as possible. This should be an ongoing effort. Create a Facebook Page for your business, a Twitter account, Flickr photos, and a YouTube channel.  Create a LinkedIn Business Listing and claim all your listings online.  If you get a negative review — and that’s all that people see about your business when they search for you online — you’re in a bad place.  But if you’ve taken the time to deliberately market your business: collecting and publishing testimonials, publicizing good reviews when you receive them, uploading images and video, writing a blog or managing a Facebook Page — then you are in a much better position.  Then, the negative review may not be the first thing a person sees in the search engine results, and the good content will balance the bad.
  2. Don’t let your customers leave unhappy; fix the problem now. Constantly check in with your customers before they have the chance to write a bad review.  Don’t wait until your guests check out of your hotel or bed and breakfast to ask them how things are going — call the first night and make sure everything is to their satisfaction.  If you manage a restaurant, make sure you walk the floor and ask each and every customer, every day, every meal, if everything is completely to their satisfaction.  And if it isn’t — do anything you have to do right then to make it right.
  3. Make it easy for people to review your business online. You can prevent fallout from negative online reviews by encouraging online reviews.  To do this, post links to review sites on your website, blog, and Facebook Page for example, so people can easily find your listings and read other reviews.  Most online reviews tend to be positive; Yelp claims that 85% of their reviews are 3 stars or higher.
  4. Develop a way to keep track of your customers so you can promptly respond to complaints posted online, whenever possible. For example, if someone makes an appointment for service, you probably have their phone number.  If you then discover that the person has written a negative review, you can contact that person to learn more.  In some cases, the person may go back and revise their review! It is worth almost any effort to turn that situation around. Monitoring your reviews are key; you have to have business listings with review sites and Google Alerts in place to quickly respond.

Sure, there are some customers that will never be satisfied, but heed my advice: take your online reviews seriously.  Negative reviews — approached the right way — can be a positive thing for your business!  They are not a forum for excuses, but they can be an opportunity to tell your story, and to turn things around, even get advice.  They can help you identify trouble spots and service issues that can keep your business from getting more negative reviews.

Here are five important online review sites, plus strategies for dealing with them.

Yelp Reviews

Last month — in one month — 38 million people visited Yelp, which features reviews about  everything from dentists to realtors to restaurants (see chart for breakdown).  If you do not have a business listing on Yelp, you can create one. If you do have one, you should go ahead and claim it (it is free), and upload as much content as you can: upload photos, logos,  special offers  You can also monitor activity on your listing — all for free.  You have the option of responding publicly or privately (or both) to reviews on Yelp, and Yelp provides excellent guidelines for handling both negative and positive feedback from reviewers that I recommend all business owners read.

TripAdvisor

TripAdvisor attracts 35 million visitors monthly who read the restaurant, hotel, and attraction reviews.  If you have a restaurant, hotel, or attraction, you MUST claim your TripAdvisor business listing and take full advantage of the free features it offers business owners, including the opportunity to respond publicly to positive and negative reviews.  You can also upload images and video on TripAdvisor.  Think about that: you could upload video testimonials.  TripAdvisor is tremendously influential and provides a way for you to enter the conversation.

Google Maps/Google Places

You may have a business listing for Google Maps or Google Places.  If you do, you should claim it (it is free).  If you don’t, you can create one for free, and I recommend that you do.  Unless you are a very small business, chances are one will be created for you eventually, if you do not, and this is a listing over which you want to have as much control as possible.

The bad news is you have virtually no control over the the reviews posted on your Google listing, which includes both reviews posted directly on the site, as well as reviews found on TripAdvisor and elsewhere online.  It’s hard to tell who the reviewers are, and you cannot respond to the reviews, publicly or privately, and there is no real way to remove a listing, unless it was fraudulently put up.

Yahoo Local Reviews

Yahoo Local doesn’t wield the power of Yelp — it appears to receive about 11 million views per month — but it does offer free business listings.  It is possible to comment on the reviews that are posted there.

Facebook Page Reviews

If you have a Facebook Page, you have the option of putting a Reviews tab on your Page.  Should you do this?  In my opinion, no.  Facebook Page reviews are not that searchable.  I think you should have a tab for reviews on your page, but you can create that manually with FBML and add your reviews, list style.  Then you can add a link to Yelp or TripAdvisor to encourage your Facebook Page users to visit those sites and review your business.

Should you pay for online reviews?

I hope you know that the answer is no.  You should not hire someone to do this, or ask a friend or family member (unless they identify themselves as such) to write online reviews for you, or reward people for good reviews.  People see right through that.  Good thing, too, as ex-employees and competitors are not above writing fake negative reviews to sink a business.  Sylvia Rector, a restaurant critic, has identified several ways that she and other savvy review readers may suspect the veracity of a review:

  • The reviewer only has one review.
  • Several reviews are written in one day.
  • There are few specific details but extreme opinions.

Has your business been reviewed online?  How did you respond?  What are  your plans for managing online reviews?

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