NEW YORK — People are talking about your laundry business. Do you know what they’re saying?
The answer can spell the difference between success and failure. Positive reviews on Internet message boards help boost revenues and fatten your bottom line. Negative reviews can spike your best business plans.
“People are increasingly putting reviews online as the Internet becomes more social,” says Daniel Burrus, a business consultant based in Hartland, Wis. “All of the reviews are in the cloud and available for anyone to read.”
And read they do: For many businesses, social media are quickly becoming the best sources of new customers. Just a few of the most popular sites are Yelp, Twitter, Angie’s List, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube. A recent study from Harvard Business School revealed a direct correlation between star ratings on Yelp and revenues at a business.
Why the upturn? A big reason is technology’s growing heft. “Our main computing device is shifting from the laptop to the smart phone,” says Burrus. “And unlike our laptops, our smart phones are always with us.” Smart phones are constantly getting faster at processing data. That helps people quickly post reports on their business experiences while searching for the most highly ranked providers of goods and services.
WATCH THE SITES
Watching for reviews about your laundry business on social media sites poses a challenge. Monitoring them all would take a lot of time, and time costs money.
What to do? Set up an automated search to alert you whenever your business is reviewed. Google offers the most popular of such alerts. “Google Alerts are easy and free,” says consultant Bob Phibbs, Coxsackie, N.Y. “You can create an alert that sends you an e-mail every time your business name is mentioned online.” If such alerts are too numerous, you can specify that Google send you a consolidated report once a day. (Google Alerts is at google.com/alerts).
You should also set up an alert in Twitter to let you know when your business is mentioned in a Tweet. Twitter is especially important for your online reputation because people with smart phones use Twitter all the time. Your customers are most likely already using Twitter, and you want to pay attention to what they say. (For information, go to twitter.com/alerts.)
Bonus tip: Ask your customers what Internet sites they use to find businesses like yours.
RESPOND TO NEGATIVE REVIEWS
Every business will get some negative reviews. “People gripe for a lot of reasons,” says Phibbs. “Maybe they did not get waited on fast enough, or maybe a coupon expired and you didn’t honor it.”
When your business receives a negative review, it’s important to respond with an online message that prospective customers can see, says Phibbs. “Posting a response shows you are listening to your customers and taking action.”
Avoid impersonal or canned posts. Compose your posts in words that directly address the complaining customers’ concerns, suggests Phibbs. “Personalize your message with words such as ‘I own the business with my wife Mary and we are sorry to hear you had a bad experience.’”
Your responses should also note that you are attempting to improve whatever areas the customers found lacking (cleanliness, customer service, employee friendliness, etc.). “Finally, invite the customer to contact you,” says Phibbs. “Include an e-mail address or phone number.”
Carefully written responses can turn a negative situation into a positive one. Paying attention to customers and taking action on complaints can build loyalty. You can even turn an angry person into a raving fan.
From time to time, you will run into a review that, while legitimate, comes from a customer who is simply being unreasonable. “You often have outliers on the negative side, because the unreasonable customer can be very vocal,” says Greg Sterling, a San Francisco-based Internet analyst.
“While most consumers are reasonable and will look at the consensus and not ascribe too much weight to a single negative review, it still has to be addressed,” says Sterling. Post a response in terms that illustrate the importance you place on the area the customer has addressed. Emphasize that you intend to do better in the future.
Bonus tip: Look at negative reviews as informal customer surveys that help you identify and rectify business problems.
HANDLING ILLEGITIMATE REVIEWS
Social media have their dark side: Not all negative reviews are legitimate. What do you do if you suspect a negative review has been posted by a competitor, or by a disgruntled former employee?
One thing not to do, says Burrus, is stir the pot. “Don’t create a fight and don’t incense people in ways that make them do more negative things.”
Stay positive, even in the face of unfair practices. “If the poster is a competitor, post some evidence to the contrary underneath what they wrote,” suggests Burrus. “You might say something like, ‘Here is a link to 50 customers who disagree with you.’”
And what if the poster is a former employee? “Have your lawyer contact the person to let them know they must cease and desist,” suggests Burrus. “Let them know they cannot smear a reputation without ramifications.” A legal letter can convince the person to remove an offending review.
The challenge is even greater for sites that allow anonymous postings. If a review is blatantly unfair (for example, a personal attack on an employee), you can contact the site and ask that it be removed.
Finally, there are the gold diggers. “Some people will give you bad reviews in hope that you will contact them with deals such as half off a future purchase,” says Phibbs. Don’t take the bait. Instead, post a reasonable response that conveys the actions you are taking to provide quality service.
RESPOND TO POSITIVE REVIEWS
Your good business will likely get a lot of positive reports. “It is just as important to respond to good reports,” says Phibbs. A simple “Thanks so much for the compliment” may do for a general report, but take time to address any specific topics the customer has mentioned. (It’s not necessary to respond to every favorable report once you start getting more than a handful).
Phibbs suggests printing good reports and posting them on the wall in your store, perhaps under a headline such as “Raving Fans of Our Business.” Copy them to your website and to your Facebook page as well.
Bonus tip: Don’t be afraid to ask people to post good reviews. But avoid offering rewards for doing so: Websites frown on that practice.
MONITOR YOUR REPUTATION
Google Alerts, as already mentioned, is a great service for getting a heads up on the lowdown. But you may want to invest a little more time and effort into managing your reputation. That’s where online reputation tracking services come in. “Most small businesses don’t know about the many online reputation tracking services, and just search their business names once in a while,” says Sterling. “Yet the specialized services can give you important information.”
You can have reviews sent to your mobile phone and have message threads with negative reviews tracked in real time, giving you granular control over responses. This can be particular helpful when damaging disputes break out about your business. In contrast, says Sterling, e-mails from Google Alerts do nothing more than inform you that a post has been made, and even that information arrives after a time lag.
Be aware that Yellow Pages and newspapers may include reputation-monitoring tools in advertising packages. That can reduce your costs considerably.
Maybe reputation monitoring seems like more trouble than it’s worth. Keep in mind, though, that your business is at stake: More people than ever are turning to online reviews for help deciding what business to patronize.
Indeed, every online review site is a valuable suggestion box for your business. “There is a great deal you can learn from reviews,” says Sterling. “They can help you think of new products and services for your customers. Be open and embrace them.”