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Keep it positive

Online reviews can make or break your store; learn how to respond to negative comments and encourage positive ones

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By Phillip M Perry
Published: June 13, 2017
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Used to be, a retailer built a solid reputation with quality merchandise, friendly service and a charming smile. Today’s world is more complicated. Customers are sharing their good and bad shopping experiences on review sites such as Yelp, Google Plus and Angie’s List, and on social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The power to polish or tarnish a business image has largely been handed over to a horde of faceless reporters.

“Online comments will become increasingly important to retailers because of the growing power of social media,” says Daniel Burrus, a Hartland, Wis., business consultant. “As a business-image builder, the use of social media is a ‘hard trend’ that will become more prevalent.”

The “social” part of that trend, says Burrus, carries the payload. “We humans are social beings. When a technology satisfies that need, a revolution is created.” Smartphones, in particular, give customers the power to broadcast a shopping experience instantly to friends and strangers alike.

The stakes are high: Positive reviews and comments attract more customers. Negative ones can be the kiss of death.


Take charge
If all this makes the online world seem like a scary monster, take heart: You can bridle the internet beast and turn its power to your advantage. “Many people don’t think of their online presence as something that can be monitored and built,” says Hersh Davis-Nitzberg, a Beverly Hills, Calif., consultant. In fact, he says, a carefully designed image-improvement plan can raise your profile as a quality retailer.

How? Davis-Nitzberg suggests letting a few key principles guide your actions. The first is to realize that building a great reputation means more than responding appropriately to negative reviews. “You need to do more than just repair damage that is done online,” he says. “You also need to create a positive image for your brand.”
Before you do either, you need to decide which sites to monitor. The internet is huge, and trying to keep an eye on too many possibilities will be counterproductive.
 
“You need to understand your centers of influence,” says Andy Beal, a Raleigh, N.C., consultant. “Where is your target audience? Where do they hang out online and directly discuss your business? Don’t just assume the answer is Facebook and Twitter. Maybe people are going to Yelp, or Angie’s List, or a special forum.”

One way to find the answer is to use Google to search for your business name or industry keywords, says Beal. “The most active communities will show up higher in the results. You can also search your competitors’ names to find out where they are focusing their efforts.”


Eliminate the negative
So a bad review happens to you. What should you do? Avoid the temptation to ignore it. A lack of response makes a terrible impression on the public. People will think, “That retailer doesn’t care about taking care of customer problems.”
 
At the same time, avoid a knee-jerk response. “If you get a negative review, do not start an argument online,” advises Michael Fertik, executive chairman of Reputation.Com, a Redwood City, Calif., reputation management firm. “Pause and take a breath. Analyze the review before taking action.”

Fertik suggests beginning with an assessment of the quality of the review. Is it written in all caps and filled with exclamation points? People are likely to discount the poster as a dubious source of information. In such case, you might post a reasonable response such as, “Thank you for your feedback. We are taking steps to resolve this issue.” That will communicate your concern to other customers reading the reviews, without raising undue hopes that you will be able to mollify a crank.

What if the review is written thoughtfully, with a reasoned analysis of the purchase event being assessed? Readers are likely to take it more seriously, and you’ll want to spend more time responding. Burrus suggests starting with a statement such as this: “We’re very sorry you had a bad experience at our store. We want to make every effort to make things right.” With these words, you show you’re on their side rather than an adversary.
 
Next, says Burrus, invite the customer to invest in a solution: “What would it take to make you happy?” This throws the ball into the customer’s court, and invites a response that will provide you with valuable insight into how to resolve a sticky situation. “The words ‘What would it take?’ are the magic ones,” says Burrus. “Let the customer tell you.”

The customer’s request may be for much less than you might think. Very often, says Burrus, all the customer wants is an acknowledgement that a complaint is justified, that a transaction did not go off as planned. “People really want to be heard,” says Burrus. “So instead of protecting your point of view, agree with them.”

If the original review was thoughtful and carefully written, the customer will likely respond with a reasonable request. Agree to what the customer asks and post instructions on how the customer can participate in resolving the matter. If the request is unreasonable, post a thoughtful alternative. Keep negotiating with the customer until the matter is resolved.

And now the best news of all: Reviews can be changed. “When you respond to negative reviewers from a customer-service perspective, they can turn into your best advocates,” says Davis-Nitzberg. “They can change information they have put on the web by stating, in effect, ‘This company reached out and changed their business practices to better address the issues we had.’ ”
 
To some extent, you can take the conversation “offline” and deal with the person via emails or phone calls. But if you do so, be sure to post details of what you’re doing in the same online thread as the original complaint. And don’t forget to post the final resolution of the issue so the public can see the entire picture.
 
“Even if you end up not giving the person what they want, the dialog will show people that you care and that you want to make things right,” says Burrus. “People see that you are trying.” And when it comes time for customers to make a purchase, they will patronize the retailer who has exhibited a concern for customer welfare.

Always consider a negative review an opportunity. “When anyone posts something negative, you have been given a fantastic gift,” says Burrus. “What you do next can turn them into a raving fan. Address their issue, acknowledge that it is a problem, then resolve it. Do it online and the public will see it.”
 

Accentuate the positive
In the best of all worlds, all of the online reviews of your business would be positive. But that likely won’t happen. And the fact is that an occasional negative review, if handled as described above, does little or no damage. “The problem is not a negative review but the scarcity of positive ones,” says Fertik. You want to achieve a good proportion of the two.

People tend to post reviews only when they are upset. So you need to take steps to make sure your happy customers share their experiences. “Smaller businesses need to be actively getting their ratings fans, their best customers, talking about them,” says Burrus. “And one of the ways to do so is to make it easier for them.”

Here’s one way to do that: Suppose a customer makes a gracious remark about your service or merchandise. You might respond by asking, “Would you mind sharing your experiences by putting out a tweet or posting on Facebook?”
 
There are other ways to encourage customer feedback, says Davis-Nitzberg. “Send email to people who have been customers. Ask them about their experiences. Then ask, ‘Would you like to share your experience?’ And provide them with links to review sites.”

Brick-and-mortar stores have an advantage because they can encourage a public dialog at the moment the customer is buying, says Fertik. “Have an iPad on hand and ask, ‘Can you share your experiences online right now?’ Or plug each customer’s contact information into an email system that generates a request when the customer gets home.”
 
At the very least, give each customer your business card with your Twitter and Facebook handles. And when good reviews are posted, take action. “Thank people who say good things,” says Beal. “And you can also post their quotes on your website. That helps enhance your reputation even further.”

Do not pay for reviews. That is called “astroturfing” because it is the opposite of “grassroots.” This is often against the rules of review sites and can get your listing flagged. That’s bad for your reputation. The above suggestions maintain a distinction between openly soliciting reviews and asking people to share their experiences.


Beyond reviews
There is much more to building a great image than monitoring your reviews. You can also take positive steps to communicate your expertise and professionalism.
 
Here again, the Internet plays a critical role. “Provide information that is of value to your public,” says Beal. “Join internet forums and post advice of real use to your customers and prospects.” Post useful information on your Facebook page. Create how-to video guides and tutorials. Consider putting together short clips of customers using your merchandise. These “soft sell” approaches will establish your business as a source of expertise.

What materials will people find most valuable? Ask your customers for guidance. Sometimes your most loyal ones are the best sources of ideas because they are thoroughly familiar with your merchandise and services.


All of the above image-building techniques share the same driving force: The desire to run a customer-focused business. “Earn the trust of the public by responding to customer complaints, providing useful information and answering people’s questions,” says Beal. “Then, when it comes time to buy, people will patronize your store.”


Phillip M. Perry is an award-winning business writer based in New York City. He has written on employment law, finance and marketing for more than 20 years. Email: philcape@yahoo.com.
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