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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. 

These lessons come from an episode of Behind the Review, Yelp & Entrepreneur Media’s weekly podcast. Listen below to hear the conversation with Emily and Jeff, or visit the episode page to read more, subscribe to the show, and explore other episodes.

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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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