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Behind the Review | Using online reviews to strengthen your business



No small business owner wants to get a negative review. But according to customer service consultant Jeff Toister, even negative feedback can help you refine what you’re doing right. “Negative reviews are an asset—they are not a liability,” he said. “The overwhelming majority of consumers look at negative reviews, and they’re looking for consistent themes. And they’re also looking for how you respond.” 

Author of a number of books on customer service, Jeff Toister has developed plans to help small businesses build excellent customer service. Among his tried and true strategies? Getting and responding to reviews. “Always understand that reviews are marketing for your business—and whether it’s a positive review or even a negative one—how you handle those reviews can help your business and attract new customers who get what you’re all about and are looking forward to a great experience,” he said.

Jeff Toister

One of Toister’s key findings is that negative reviews can show you flaws in your business that you might not have seen for yourself. “We have to ask ourselves as business owners: What can we learn from this? And how can we move forward?” Toister said. “Because even with the most unreasonable Yelp reviews, there’s some kernel of truth that tells you, you know, what? We can learn from this experience. We might get this type of customer again.” 

Responding to reviews in a polite, professional manner shows current customers you value their business and potential customers that you’re open to feedback. Moreover, businesses without any negative reviews can also be a turn-off, Toister said. “If you don’t have any negative reviews, customers don’t trust you. Studies have shown that if we’re looking at Yelp ratings, for example, a business with a 4.5-star Yelp rating tends to do more volume and attract more customers than a business with a 5-star rating. It feels more real.” 

Online reviews can also help small business owners identify pain points in their products or service. Even the outliers—reviews from people who just complain to complain—can teach you something about your business. “If you have a 3-star average, that doesn’t mean that all of your customers are upset,” Toister said. “It means you have some customers who really, really like you. You probably still have some 5-star reviews. And the question for a business owner is: What are those customers saying? Because that’s probably your strength, your competitive advantage.” 

Once you’ve identified your competitive advantage, or the strength that sets you apart from the competition, it’s important to communicate it to your team. Many Yelp reviewers mention a connection they made with employees, who are front line of your business and often the first point of contact. They need to be invested in your vision for it to be successful—and likewise, you should play an active part in your team’s wellbeing.  

“As a business owner, you have to articulate the vision for the business,” Toister said. “What are the standards of service that we expect? To you, it’s obvious. To your employees, it’s often not obvious. They’re coming in with their own agenda, their own perspective, and many small business owners tell me in particular, the people they hire don’t have a lot of experience.”

Small business success depends on a lot of factors, but you can eliminate a few if you follow Toister’s advice on handling your online reviews. 

  • Play to your strengths. Use your reviews to see what makes you stand out from the competition, according to your customers. 
  • Make employees aware of and a partner in your vision. This will empower them to help build excellent customer service. 
  • Use negative reviews to your advantage. They can help you find pain points in your product or service, which gives you a chance to fix them. 
  • Be genuine, professional, and polite in your responses. High-quality responses resonate more with potential customers than a fleet of 5-star reviews. 

Listen to the episode below to hear more from Jeff Toister, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from business owners and reviewers every Thursday.


Behind the Review, episode 37 transcript
Using reviews to unlock your competitive advantage

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Normally, I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur and the reviewer about the story and business lessons behind their interaction. But this week I’m having a conversation with Jeff Toister. An author and expert in all things customer service. Let’s give our conversation a listen.

EMILY: Okay, perfect. So let’s just jump right in then. Jeff is an expert in all things, customer experience. He’s an author, he is a business consultant, and he’s also a researcher. So much of his expertise comes through in storytelling, but also just hitting you with some facts, hard truths, and realities of what business owners are dealing with and what you all as listeners are dealing with when it comes to customers, and online reviews, and customer service.

I’m really excited to talk about all things, engaging with your clients, and doing that in-person and digitally. Jeff, why don’t you give the listeners a little bit of an introduction and context on yourself, your experience, and some of those books you’ve written. 

JEFF: Well, Emily, thank you so much for having me. My background is really in customer service training. And the puzzle I was always trying to solve—I think a lot of small business owners are trying to solve—is how do you get employees to do what you want them to do? You know, provide great customer service. Do the job you’ve hired them to do. So as a trainer I was always just focused on solving that problem. And so many years ago, when I left the corporate world and started my own business, that question is the question I’ve always pursued.

I’ve written a number of books around those topics, including Getting Service Right. Which is about hidden obstacles, outstanding service. The Service Culture Handbook, which is how do you create a culture where everyone’s obsessed with customers? And my latest book is the Guaranteed Customer Experience, which explores this premise that we can win and retain customers just by keeping our promises.

But again, if you’re a business owner, you know that making promises and then getting your staff to keep those promises, that’s a bigger challenge. So that’s the question I’m always pursuing. 

EMILY: I love that. And you know, we’ve done a number of things together for folks who are looking for other stuff, we’ve collaborated with Jeff on. There’s a great webinar my colleague Allie did. And she had you telling a bunch of stories, but one of my favorites is the Buc-ee’s story. I would love it if you could give that story to our listeners and also provide a little context around that connection between their goal and their expectation that they set for their customers.

JEFF: It’s funny that when you mentioned Buc-ee’s, I know people listening are either going Buc-ee’s YEAH. Or who’s Buc-ee’s? There’s no middle ground on this topic of Buc-ee’s. So if you’re not sure who Buc-ee’s is or what they are, it is a chain of gas station, convenience stores primarily located in Texas. They are starting to expand in other states in the Southeast. 

And the best way to describe them is just think of a time when you’ve been on a road trip. And one of the biggest things that people worry about on a road trip is finding a clean restroom. And it’s amazing how many gas station brands haven’t figured out how important this is. Because you go to one and it’s fine. And you go to the next one and it’s a disaster zone. And then the one after that, there’s a huge line, or it’s broken, or you have to get the key. It’s got like a tire attached to it and it’s just a horrible experience. So Buc-ee’s, the thing that they might be most famous for is the restrooms. They have been voted as having the cleanest gas station restrooms in America. And when you walk into a Buc-ee’s restroom, it just isn’t about being a little bit cleaner, having a little checklist on the door that Jeff was in there and he inspected it an hour ago. No, what they mean is these restrooms themselves are bigger than the average gas station, convenience store. They’re enormous. You’ve seen some that have 20-30 stalls, and the way they’re designed is they’re spotlessly clean. I was in one in Luling, Texas. And I’m the kind of person who’s got to count these things in the stalls, there were no less than eight rolls of toilet paper there. You’re not going to run out when you’re at Buc-ee’s.

And the cool thing is once you’ve visited the restroom, you’ll visit the rest of the store. It’s an amazing wonderland of snacks, treats, merchandise, and even barbecue. But it starts with the restroom because that’s what the road trip customer’s most worried about. And if you look at Yelp reviews for Buc-ee’s, 46% of those reviews mention the restrooms.

So this simple thing that no other chain has been able to figure out, Buc-ee’s has made the one thing that’s going to get you to come in. And when they deliver on that promise each and every time, it gets you to keep coming back. And if you’re listening and you know Buc-ee’s, I know you’re nodding right now going, you have, they have some really great restrooms.

EMILY: That story is just so impactful when you think about what any business could glean from reviews, right? It’s everything you’re doing well. Everything customers consistently think no matter who they are, what time of day they come. But it’s also what you’re not doing well. It can show you both ends of that spectrum.

Can you talk a little bit about that constant need for business owners to improve and how they can look at reviews from that lens? 

JEFF: I think one of the interesting things about reviews is understanding, I think a lot of business owners do. Is that if they’re marketing, right, who’s looking at your reviews? It’s probably a prospective customer that’s looking at your reviews and other similar businesses. And they’re trying to decide, is your business the right one for me to give a try. And the challenge for businesses, it’s not just positive reviews, but what do those specific reviews say about your business? 

And even if you have a three star average, let’s say. That doesn’t mean that all of your customers are upset. It means you have some customers who really, really like you. You probably still have some five star reviews. And the question for a business owner is what are those customers saying? Because that’s probably your strength, your competitive advantage.

I’ll give you an example. There’s a coffee shop in my neighborhood. It’s a single location. They will never out-Starbucks, Starbucks. Starbucks is THE giant. Everybody knows them. They are on top for convenience. So what this coffee shop does, it’s called the Simple Coffee House. They are the place where you go to meet a friend. Or maybe get some work done. And how do they do this? If you look at their reviews and the attributes in the reviews, it specifically speaks to a few advantages that they have. One is the amazing amount of outlets virtually anywhere you sit, at least inside, there are outlets. And so you have a place to plug in and if you’ve ever worked in a coffee shop, you know that is extremely important. There’s also an amazing amount of seats. So if you’re trying to meet a friend at a coffee shop, one of the challenges is you may or may not have a comfortable place to sit and have a conversation. Having a huge seating area at Simple allows you to feel confident. Anytime I go there to meet friends, there’s going to be seating.

The other thing they do is they have this old record player and they play jazz and light pop music from the sixties and seventies. And it just sets this really cool kind of chill vibe. And if you look at Yelp reviews, I think something like 20% or in that neighborhood of reviews mentioned the record player specifically.

So, oh yeah, they have great coffee and they have great service. But when you look at what customers consistently talk about, it tells you they’ve understood what their advantage is. And they are highlighting that advantage because they’re never going to be more convenient or drive a faster service than maybe some of their competitors. So they’re using that intel to say, well, what can we be good at? And let’s be really good at that. 

EMILY: Yeah. And I think a lot of businesses go into business wanting to serve a certain demographic, or solve a certain problem, or provide a solution in a community. And so reminding yourself what that is and confirming that that is being translated to the customer experience is so important.

I recently interviewed a restaurant owner who was telling me a little bit about his perspective on that, as well from the vantage point of knowing who they don’t serve. And understanding who they’re not made for. And I think that’s important too.

EMILY: I want to change gears a little bit and talk about employees because I think a lot of business owners have to acknowledge that the more employees you have, the more opportunity there is for things to potentially go wrong. And also the more people you have to create your incredible experience and share the vision of your business. So it can be on both ends. How do reviews help business owners that you’ve talked to make impactful changes with employees and glean insight? But also what are some times when business owners have to take the side of their employees and acknowledge that reviews need to be read and looked at with a grain of salt?

JEFF: Well, I think there’s a lot to unpack there and let’s start with that business owners, particularly small business owners, they’re absolutely wrestling with that decision of do I hire people? Who do I hire? How many? Knowing that they’re going to represent their business and so it starts long before the review I think. As a business owner, you have to articulate what’s the vision for the business. What are the standards of service that we expect? To you, it’s obvious. To your employees, it’s often not obvious. They’re coming in with their own agenda, their own perspective, and many small business owners tell me in particular, the people they hire don’t have a lot of experience. They need to be taught. So it really starts there. 

The second step then is making sure that your employees feel empowered and you used the term, I think this is so great, that you’ve got their back. That you’re looking as long as you’re there doing what you’ve asked them to do and trying hard, that you’re going to take their side.

And I’ll give you an example. You know, you’ve mentioned a restaurant, I’ve been in a restaurant before where if you give feedback about a meal, I’ve actually had a server return to the table in tears because the chef and owner yelled at the server for delivering the bad news about the mistakes coming out of the kitchen. Well, guess what your employee will never do that again. They will never share that feedback. But the customer will when they leave the restaurant and post on Yelp right? 

On the other hand, my favorite Italian restaurant, shameless plug for Antica Trattoria, it’s the best Italian food in San Diego. Here’s what happens if you have feedback about the meal. I go there a lot. And one of the very few times my meal was not amazing, it was just okay. My server asked, how was your meal? I said, it’s okay. They picked up on my hesitation, asked me for details. Shared that with the chef and owner, who then came to my table and said, tell me more.

And think about that proactiveness. So instead of me just running to Yelp and saying, let me tell you about this terrible restaurant. They actually identify and solve the problem right there, because the employee knows the chef actually cares about this feedback. And it turns out they had a new cook who hadn’t quite mastered a recipe. And it was a simple fix, and they were able to fix it right then and there. And they never would have gotten that feedback in a timely fashion if they hadn’t. 

So by the time it gets to the Yelp review, we’ve probably missed a few other opportunities. And now we have to ask ourselves as a business owner, what can we learn from this? And how can we move forward? Because even the most unreasonable Yelp reviews, there’s some sort of kernel of truth that tells you, you know, what? We can learn from this experience. We might get this type of customer again. How can we avoid the situation, and do even better the next time around? And of course your employees are a big part of that process.

EMILY: Thank you for always dealing with my loaded questions. You did great breaking that out and down for us. Okay, I love that story. I really think a lot of business owners sometimes forget because we’re so obsessed with the online and managing it, that there is an opportunity in person. So that’s just a good reminder.

Read the body language if you own a brick and mortar, teach your employees how to read body language. Check in, ask questions, get that feedback, or confirm that the experience was meeting their expectations. I think that’s great. Something else you and I are always telling business owners though, is the cost of doing business is sometimes negative reviews.

And maybe it’s just a negative Nancy, right? Like we know those people, maybe it’s a true thing that happens. Sometimes experiences aren’t five-star. Sometimes mistakes do take place. But also sometimes, you just really have someone that you’re not going to be able to please. And I would love you to give our listeners some context around maybe how to feel about that.

How can we get over that? It’s an emotional thing. So, if you could walk us through that. But then also hit these guys with some of the facts about critical reviews and human behavior, when it comes to seeing negative reviews online.

JEFF: I think we need to start with human behavior, because if you are a business leader and especially a business owner, a negative review, it feels like a gut punch, it’s personal.

And it’s like someone is announcing on the town square that you are a bad person. It’s hard to get over that. So let’s just acknowledge that. The great thing about reviews though, is they’re not a real time conversation that someone’s filming. Like you have the opportunity to take a deep breath and get some perspective.

And so here’s the perspective, I think, is very important for business owners to have. Number one, negative reviews are an asset. They are not a liability. Now, if all your reviews are negative, you’re in trouble. But let’s assume that most of your customers are happy and negative reviews are occasional. How are they an asset? Because when people are looking at your business, as a prospective customer, consumers look at negative reviews. The overwhelming majority of consumers look at negative reviews, and they’re looking for consistent themes. And they’re also looking for how you respond. If you don’t have any negative reviews, they don’t trust you. And studies have shown that if we’re looking at Yelp ratings, for example, a business with a four and a half star Yelp rating tends to do more volume and attract more customers than a business with a five star rating. It feels more real. So those negative reviews are helpful. But the next step is okay, what do we do with them?

Well the most important thing is that business owners respond to every single review, not just the positive ones. The negative ones as well. And when you’re responding, keep in mind, you’re not really responding to that customer. I mean, there’s tools to allow you to respond privately to deal with specific issues. The public response though, that’s for every other customer who reads the negative review, and then will assess your reasonableness, and your customer focus as a business leader. So if you fire off, ‘here’s why you’re a jerk and you’re wrong.’ That’s not going to win you new customers. That might even send a signal that well, this business owner is a little upset. Maybe I’ll go somewhere else. 

On the other hand, if you respond to the review in a way that is very polite, very professional. Even if you have to correct the record just a little bit, it sends a signal to other customers, hey, this person really takes this feedback seriously and they listen. And so that really leads you to that third step is if I look at a business’s reviews, I often will see consistent themes, even with the ones that are positive reviews. 

So here’s an example, one of my favorite businesses is a company called Discount Tire. And if you’re not familiar with it, it’s a tire shop, but they are known for exceptional customer service. And some of the things that they do that are amazing is they will fix a flat tire if it’s repairable, even if you didn’t buy the tire from them. And if you think about what’s a good time to get a flat tire, the answer of course is never. And they usually show up while you’re late for work. The idea that they’ll fix this for free, and they make time in their schedule to get you in and out. I’ve had it happen to me several times. In and out in less than 45 minutes, free repair to a flat tire that was going to ruin my day. But if I look at Yelp reviews for my local discount tire, they all say the same thing, the positive and negative ones. The positive ones you got me in and out real fast. And the negative ones where I had to wait a little bit too long. So when I look at that, even an organization, a business that does a tremendous job, there’s themes in those reviews, even the negative ones that tell me, here’s the thing we really have to get right, if we want to please our customers. 

EMILY: Yeah, and I think you and I are very blunt when we’re giving this advice, but in that case, it’s like, sometimes your business is at the bad end of someone’s flat tire, right?

Like, you weren’t going to win no matter what happened, unless you could have teleported someone there, the minute the flat went. So, no matter what industry you’re in, you might be dealing with someone who is at a point where they’re just going to give a critical review. And instead of ruminating on that, being frustrated about that, and trying to get them to take it down, just use it as an opportunity to respond and reflect your customer service and your business practices to all potential customers. 

I think in these last few minutes here, I would love to give a little bit more tactical advice on responding. And also for you, your mentality about responding to everything. And I think you give some really good advice on this, so I’ll just let you run with it, but why respond to everything and maybe any tips and tricks on how to respond?

JEFF: Well, the reason I think you need to respond to everything is twofold. One is it acknowledges that customer, in particular, for taking the time to write in the review. Good, bad, or neutral. It also sends the signal to all of these other customers who are reviewing what others have said and how you’re responding, and they’re making a determination. So that’s really what the reviews are doing. They’re drawing in new business. And when you respond to every review that says, you’re active, you take it seriously, and this feedback is important to you. 

So that’s a very strong signal you’re sending to prospective customers.

Now, I think the challenge when it comes to how do I respond? Even with the good reviews, a lot of businesses will just, I got a lot of reviews. What do I thank every nice review? That may not add a lot of value. So one of the things I like to do is take something specific, especially with positive reviews, and I can still respond quickly, but I can talk about that specific item. So if I gave you an example, there’s a business I really like. It’s called Idlewild Design Center and it is a design center located in, drum roll, the town of Idlewild in Southern California, hence the awesome name. But they do a lot of great business. And my wife and I recently used this business to replace a bunch of blinds and shades in a vacation rental cabin that we own in Idlewild.

And so of course I had a great experience, so I go to Yelp, I leave a review. And what I love about what the owner Jennifer did was specifically calling out something about the review itself. That she appreciated that we were easy to work with. You know, something reflecting on that specific experience. And it probably took just a few extra seconds to write that response. Made me feel great. It also signals any other buyer that this owner cares about her business. 

Now here’s something else, and this is the bonus thing. When you respond actively, even to the negative reviews. I noticed that this design center had a negative review from a clearly unreasonable customer. When you take great care of your customers and you respond to everybody, politely and professionally. You will often see reviewers take matters into their own hands. And I’m guilty of this. I did this as well. I see a lot of other people do this. They will comment on a different review. And I didn’t call out the review specifically. But what I did say was the other reviewer talked about, you know, some sort of issue they had with communication or timeline, which I had none of those issues. So what did I do in my review? The communication was fantastic. The timeline was outstanding! And reviewers will do this for your business when you are consistently providing that great service that you’re known for. They will call out other reviews.

I’ll see reviews like, well, I don’t know what these other reviewers are talking about. Because the food here is awesome or the service here is fantastic or Emily is the nicest person you could ever interact with and should probably get a raise. And so when you are taking care of your customers in that way, you’ll often find your reviewers are helping send you that message.

EMILY: Yeah. And I think the key takeaway there is, engagement is so important. Making it a habitual thing that you’re doing is going to also change the behavior of your consumers and customers. Okay, we have to tell the last little piece of advice about, thank you versus I’m sorry. We got this incredible question when we did our webinar together, about: Do I apologize? Do I take blame when I’m responding to a critical review? And I think a lot of people wonder that. Does that help? Can you break down your advice on thank you versus I’m sorry. And how business owners can leverage that as a strategy when they respond.

JEFF: Absolutely. And this is research that I discovered, but did not do myself. I did write a blog post about it, but the research comes from other researchers. And what’s interesting about it, they did multiple studies around what is the best way to recover from a minor service failure. So that’s the emphasis. 

So the setting was a restaurant and the order was either slightly wrong or was delayed. So really minor, not the end of the world stuff. And what they found was that when the server said thank you for your patience or thank you for waiting, the impact on whether or not that customer would then fill out a survey after the experience. And the quality of that survey were both improved with the use of thank you versus I’m sorry. Now, if they said nothing, like here’s your food, 20 minutes late. No acknowledgement. That was obviously the worst condition. I’m sorry does help. But for minor issues saying thank you has more power in terms of customer sentiment and potentially encouraging them to write that review down the road.

The caveat though is for major issues. I’m sorry we spilled scalding hot coffee on you. You know, thank you for accepting that scalding hot coffee. That’s not going to work, right. I’m sorry. It’s highly appropriate in that situation. And even there, the content of the apology has to be heartfelt. It has to accept responsibility and regret, and it has to talk about some sort of remedy. So if it’s just this flat that we hear all the time, I’m really sorry. We spilled scalding coffee on you. That’s not really going to cut it, right? You really have to mean it if you’re going to apologize, but back to your original question, minor issues, thank you turns out to be more powerful than I’m sorry.

EMILY: And I’ve been like, Jedi mind tricked by a server in that way recently, so I totally get it. And hey, we all talk about that when it comes to hospitality, right? It’s why you tell a customer it’ll be a 30 minute wait, and hopefully they get seated after 20 minutes, but certainly not 40, right? So it’s all about expectation setting. I think that’s so important. 

Okay. I need to give you an open opportunity. If there’s anything I didn’t let you share about customer service, reviews, how consumers look at things online. Anything I didn’t tee you up for? I think we went into a lot of great stuff. 

JEFF: We did. I want to give you one Jedi mind trick. Because I love that phrase and there’s a lot of them. But also I think one reminder then for your audience. So the Jedi mind trick, and this is where thank you comes into play. This turns your bad reviews into good ones. Your bad experiences and the good ones. It’s the preemptive acknowledgement.

And I’ll just use a restaurant example because we’ve all been there. If the wait is going on a little bit, right before the customer starts getting a little upset, if the server shows up like magic and says, hey, thanks for waiting, I really appreciate your patience. I’ve just checked on your order, it’s coming right out. We preempt any frustration and we turn it into a non-issue. Probably a positive one. If you don’t preempt that and the customer gets angry. Once someone’s upset, they’re looking to really get some retribution in some way. It’s hard to talk people down. And so that brings us back to looking at reviews.

I think the more as a business owner you can just prevent customers from getting upset, that’s the best way to prevent negative reviews. But if we go even broader, always understand that reviews are marketing for your business and whether it’s a positive review or even a negative one, how you handle those reviews can help your business and attract new customers who get what you’re all about and are looking forward to a great experience. So just understand that that’s the true purpose of reviews. And if you do that, the negative reviews, they’ll still feel like a gut punch. But you’ll get over that, and you’ll use those reviews to your advantage. 

EMILY: Fantastic advice. I think there are a lot of great takeaways from today, so thank you so much for making the time. I really, really appreciate it. 

One last time. Can you tell folks where they can get more information from you, find your books, and I know you’re normally pretty open to chatting with people, if they want to learn more about what you do and your expertise, any of that info you want to share for our listeners feel free.

JEFF: Sure. I’m really easy to track down. So I put my personal email and personal cell phone in all of my books. So in The Guaranteed Customer Experience, it’s on page five. So you don’t have to flip through the entire book. You can just preview it on Amazon. You can see page five. So I know I’m taking a risk, but I’m happy to have the conversation. 

Easiest way to find me in a resource that I think a lot of small business owners can take advantage of is I have a, I call it The Customer Service Tip of the Week. And I call it this because it’s one customer service tip once per week. And I sent it out via email. I know it’s very creative,  but it lets you know exactly what you can get and anyone can sign up for free. And so each week I just send one tip that you can share with your team or you can have them subscribe. And it’s a great way just to keep everybody sharp. But you can also reply to any of those tips and it goes directly to my email and we could start a conversation that way. So you could find that at my website, toistersolutions.com and sign up, get your team signed up and let’s start a conversation. I’m happy to help. 

The information above is provided for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice and may not be suitable for your circumstances. Unless stated otherwise, references to third-party links, services, or products do not constitute endorsement by Yelp.

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