Bill Gates once said, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” The question then is, how do you make those unhappy experiences—mostly in the form of negative reviews—into learning opportunities for you and your business?
Most of the time, online reviews are the most authentic form of feedback you can receive for your small business. Your customers might not feel comfortable expressing their happiness or disappointment with your product or service in person, so many of those people can and do leave feedback for you in the form of online reviews.
Using the review process to your advantage
Jeff Toister, a leading customer service author, consultant, and trainer, handles customer service issues every day. He’s written a number of books on customer service and works to make sure his partners provide their consumers with the best possible service. That extends beyond the doors of your small business and into the world of online reviews.
To enhance your customer service efforts and get a leg up on the competition, Toister created a systematic way of analyzing your reviews—allowing you to identify what’s working well and what you may be able to improve.
1. Sort Yelp reviews by date
This is an essential first step in tackling your reviews. You’ll want to sort your reviews by date with the most recent at the top. Reason being, a problem you had months (or even years) ago might be resolved already or may no longer be a concern for your customers. The more recent the problem, the easier it will be to resolve publicly and make right with your customers.
2. Build a check sheet
This is a Toister must-do, and it’s an easy way to find your pain points.
Take a sheet of paper and make five columns, labeled 1-5, which stands for the number of stars in the review. Look at each review, and make a list of the key themes, common complaints, or praises, and write them down under that column. Writing the details down under the column with the review’s corresponding star rating helps you see more clearly what type of feedback is coming from each rating level, whether it’s one star or five stars.
Take this example of a 4-star review: “I had a wonderful time dining with my husband on date night. The host was very welcoming, and the atmosphere was great. One of our side dishes came out lukewarm, but overall the taste of everything was exceptional.” Under the column marked 4, you might write down: date night, welcoming, atmosphere, lukewarm food, flavor, and taste.
Repeat for the remaining reviews. As you come across those themes again, put a check next to it. In the end, you should see some common connections between reviewers.
3. Find the recurring themes
The words or phrases with the most check marks by them are your recurring themes, and they can be both pain points and areas where you excel. Do most reviewers love your food but feel unimpressed by the service? Do they love your product but find your location to be intimidating or difficult to access? Look also at each of the columns to see what type of feedback is generally coming from both the lower ratings and the higher ratings.
We all know that people are wowed or unimpressed by varying things (some more passionately than others), but when you combine the feedback into recurring themes, the results can give you a good idea of how most people feel about their experience with your business.
4. Investigate and analyze
Once you’ve identified your recurring themes, it’s time to take a closer look at them. First, identify if they are real problems. Some businesses thrive with walk-ins only, but if implementing a reservation or booking system can increase your customer volume, it’s something you should investigate. Some complaints might also just be outliers that in general don’t require action if they don’t affect the overall success of your business.
Sometimes a complaint is just about unmet expectations. In those cases, you may need to explain the workings of your business better or more clearly on your website and your Yelp Page, so there are no more misunderstandings. Small business owner Krisi Hora of Peg Leg Vintage describes a review in which the customer didn’t fully understand that her antique shop was more than just a thrift store:
“Essentially she thought we were a thrift store. So her main complaint was that she thought prices were way too expensive. She didn’t really understand the model of our store, where we take pieces and we refinish them. She thought they were all donations. And so I think really that wasn’t necessarily a bad review. It was just a person who was not as informed about it.”
In the case of complaints about poor service, this could be solved by better training your waitstaff or hiring new managers to handle staffing issues. If your location is difficult, that’s a more complicated issue driven by cost of rent and your ability to move. To help with the issue, take a look at what can be done to improve your location, whether it be better signage, more parking options, or longer hours.
One important point Toister mentions is the 1:5 ratio—for every one negative review published online, you can assume that five people experienced the same issue. So two online complaints about poor service means that ten people likely experienced poor service, which makes it a bigger problem, and one you should address as soon as you can.
5. Fix the issues and celebrate your wins
The purpose of all this work is to create an action plan for improving your business and increasing your revenue. If you don’t fix the broken parts, your service can’t improve, resulting in less positive reviews and perhaps even less business as a result. Take time to implement changes that work for your business and solve the issues brought up in negative reviews.
On the flip side, celebrate the parts of your business that people love, and use those positive reviews to promote your business and celebrate your staff. If reviewers rave about how quickly your technicians came to fix their plumbing problems, share that feedback with your staff and consider baking “speedy service” into your marketing materials and on social media. If everyone raves about your cafe’s dark roast coffee and chocolate croissants, have your staff share with new customers that those are the fan favorites. Nearly 70% of all Yelp reviews are 4 or 5 stars, so be proud of all the praise you receive.
It’s important to work through the entire review process without skipping any steps. If you jump to conclusions and make changes without thoroughly analyzing the impact on your customers or your business, you might make a costly change that doesn’t improve the issues at hand. And always remember when replying to complaints online: Your tone must stay professional. Getting angry and replying in haste could cost you more customers.
These exercises can be done as often as you think necessary: once a month, quarter, year, depending on the volume of reviews you receive. If you stay on top of what your customers are saying in the online reviews, the faster you’ll be able to respond and adjust your business operations accordingly.
How can a negative review help your business?
There are many ways negative reviews can improve your small business or service; you just have to know the characteristics of negative reviews and how they can be advantageous.
Helps you improve and innovate
When looking for ideas to improve your product or service, there’s no better performance indicator than the people who actually frequent your business and use your product. They are interacting with your business and services in a way you can’t. The reality is that it can be easy as a small business owner to become blind to the faults in one’s business. A well-written negative review can be constructive and show you the places where you can improve your products, services, and more. Best of all, it might give you the same insights as a costly consultant would—and it’s free!
Checks your problem-solving skills
A TrustPilot survey showed that new customers read both positive and negative reviews, and they use the negative reviews to see how you handle complaints. Is your tone snarky and unapologetic? Or do you apologize for the inconvenience and make sure it won’t happen again? Do you offer any recompense for the customer’s issue and try to make it right with either a new product/service or monetary compensation? These are all ways to make customers happy, but it’s true that replying to negative reviews can be tricky, especially when the feedback is triggering. Your small business is your heart and soul, so when replying to negative reviews, try to remember the immortal words of Tom Hanks’ character in You’ve Got Mail: “It’s not personal, it’s business” (even when it feels really personal a lot of the time). Keep in mind, most of the negative reviewers are just trying to be helpful.
There is no such thing as a flawless business or product. And that’s okay. Just a few negative reviews won’t stop most people from purchasing your product or frequenting your small business. But having no negative reviews at all is also a red flag for potential customers, who might see a page with all positive reviews as either fake or curated. Negative reviews can also highlight the positive reviews, and your positive responses to those negative reviews can only serve to build your brand reputation and consumer trust.