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Using reviews to help your business shine and improve

Jeff Toister, author of The Service Culture Handbook, shares ways that business owners can analyze online reviews to save time and improve their business.



Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

As a small business owner, you most likely launched your product or service for a specific purpose—whether you’re highlighting an underserved demographic, fulfilling a need, or solving a problem in your community. But how do you know if you’re truly achieving your goal?

According to Jeff Toister, a leading customer service expert, reviews can be that source of truth. While your business plan and mission keep you on track, direct feedback from your community can help you determine whether your goals are translating to your customer experience. Reviews help you identify what you do best, and in turn, communicate to future customers how you plan to do even better in the future. 

“Always understand that reviews are marketing for your business,” Jeff said. “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.”

Below, Jeff explains three ways that you can use customer reviews to your advantage, from identifying what customers love about you to highlighting those strengths in your review responses.

1. Identify what customers love about you

“Even if you have a 3-star average, that doesn’t mean that all of your customers are upset. It means you have some customers who really, really like you,” Jeff said. “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.”

Your strengths—the reasons why customers love you—might differ from your initial goals, so it’s important to hone in on those that matter most. For example, Jeff points to a cafe he frequents called Simple Coffee House. It’s the kind of place you go to meet up with a friend or get some work done. And while Simple Coffee House does have great coffee and customer service, that’s not why customers love them. 

Instead, most Yelp reviewers praise the cafe’s large number of outlets—available virtually anywhere you sit, so you can plug in and work by yourself or with a friend. Many also mention the cafe’s record player, which plays jazz and pop music from the sixties and seventies. 

“The shop itself had a great vibe, the owners were helpful and friendly, and they even had a record player (actual vinyl) as their main source of music,” wrote one reviewer, who docked two stars for the coffee quality but loved the overall experience. 

Leaning into those strengths—the thoughtful, low-key ambiance—has helped Simple Coffee House find its niche in an industry dominated by businesses with more resources. “They’re never going to be more convenient or drive a faster service than maybe some of their competitors,” Jeff said. “So they’re using [Yelp] intel to say, ‘Well, what can we be good at? And let’s be really good at that.’”

To identify what customers love about your own business, try Jeff’s systematic process for analyzing reviews.

2. Identify places for improvement 

Reviews show both ends of the spectrum: what customers think you do well and where you might be letting them down. Just as you can use reviews to hone in on your strengths, carefully analyzing critical feedback—which can come in the form of unmet expectations—can help you determine how to improve your business. 

Jeff shared an example of a California chain of tire shops, Discount Tire, which is known for exceptional customer service. Their techs will fix a flat tire, even if you didn’t buy the tire from them, he said. Not only that, but they also make time in their schedule to get you back on the road as soon as possible. 

“But if I look at Yelp reviews for my local Discount Tire, they all say the same thing—the positive and negative ones,” Jeff said. “The positive ones: ‘You got me in and out real fast.’ And the negative ones: ‘I had to wait a little bit too long.’” 

To Jeff, this signals that time management is very important to Discount Tire’s customers. No one wants to be stranded waiting for flat tire repair—especially when they have places to be.

Jeff’s analysis suggests that being prompt and on time is one area for improvement. But since customer service is already a priority at Discount Tire, it might also mean the business could focus on setting expectations: Give customers a clear, reasonable estimate of their wait time, and they’ll feel taken care of. 

Jeff added: “Even with 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?’” 

3. Show off your customer service

At some point, every business gets a negative review. But instead of being frustrated by critical feedback, Jeff recommends using it as an opportunity to show off your customer service and business practices.

“Negative reviews are an asset. They are not a liability,” he said. “The overwhelming majority of consumers look at negative reviews. They’re looking for consistent themes, and they’re also looking for how you respond.”

Responding to reviews shows people what to expect from you when it comes to customer service. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate to customers that you take feedback seriously and are willing to listen—even if you have to correct the record slightly. 

For example, Jeff recently left a review for Idyllwild Design Center. The owner, Jennifer, responded to his review with a personal comment that left a lasting impression on him. “It probably took just a few extra seconds to write that response, but it made me feel great and also signals any other buyer that this owner cares about her business,” he said. 

Even when Jennifer has received negative reviews, she responds professionally and thoughtfully—letting others customers know that she cares and has done what she can to address the issue. “I am sorry to have an unhappy experience with any customers and hope to show people that we go above and beyond to make all of our customers happy,” she wrote to one reviewer. 

To learn more about how to highlight your customer service through review responses, read these tips for getting more out of your customer reviews

Interview by Emily Washcovick and editorial contributions from Jeff Toister


These lessons come from an episode of Behind the Review, Yelp & Entrepreneur Media’s weekly podcast. Listen below to hear from 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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