Principles for a Review Plan: Considerations in encouraging customer reviews

Asking for feedback & testimonials from customers has been a long term practice in the business world. The practice has morphed to some degree by new exposure that on-line review platforms have provided to this information. The rewards are much greater and the affect of running afoul of the community standards can be severe. Yelp may think that “soliciting reviews” is somehow inappropriate but it is a practice that has been going on forever in one form or another. Whether Yelp wants to use those reviews is their business decision. However from where I sit, facilitating a clients ability to provide feedback was and is an appropriate activity for a business to engage in.

That being said, engaging customers in the review process can be much like sex…it can go from the sublime to the immoral in 6 seconds flat. Sometimes the difference between right and wrong is just not that great and some folks seem to miss the distinction all together.

Here are some guiding ideas that I use when considering and analyzing plans to ask for reviews. These are posited more as principless than best practices, things to think about when designing your review policy.

There are a number of different ways to structure a review program. How each business specifically sets it up will depend on the comfort level of the owners, their level of tech savviness, the tools at their disposal and their understanding of their clients. These principles can function to guide your plan’s specifics.

So rather than providing you with a specific formula for your review process I am taking a step back and offering up a framework of “principles” to help you think about the program that you do implement. This framework has proven incrediblty helpful as I work with different business owners establishing a truly functional review program and process that works for them.

Customer Considerations

Easy Whatever system you implement for the customer, it should be so dead simple that they just don’t have to struggle. The least number of clicks, the straighest path, the least to remember should all be ideals of whatever system you put in place.
Choice This correlates to the above. You want to provide your customers/clients with a range of sites so as to be compatible their online behaviors. It is hard to know if they prefer leaving reviews at one place or another. The more comfort they have with your suggestions the more likely they are to leave the review. You need to be where your customers are. In setting up your program asking them what they prefer is a good idea.
Ethical Whatever review process you choose, it should be open, transparent and beyond reproach. An unhappy customer is bad enough but one that thinks you are scamming the review world will be relentless.
Business Considerations  
Integrated into Business Processes For a business, saying you will do something versus actually doing it, is a matter of the process being easy for employees and a required part of the internal procedures. This may require employee training and perhaps new procedures to be sure that the ask for reviews happens.
Regularity Reviews are like traditional testimonials. If they all occurred last year or the year before both potential clients and the search engines are going to wonder what’s up.
Diversity of review sites Putting your eggs in one basket is never a good strategy. For example Google has been known to periodically loose reviews from one source or another.

It is also difficult to predict next year’s review site winner and the looser. Being in a range of places protects against both eventualities.

Leverage If one review can be seen in 4 review site instead of just one then all other things being equal, a review placed there is more valuable. For example even though CitySearch is declining in popularity, they still have 25 million uniques AND share their reviews with Google, Yahoo, MC and more giving you an opportunity to have the review seen 100 million times
Plan for the Bad Review Even if you run the best business in the world, you will sooner or later, get a bad review. Decide ahead of time how it will be handled and who will handle it. Ending up in argument on the front steps of the customer is a no win situation and some thought put it in how you are going to respond will avoid the worst outcomes.

What broad principals for a review program would you add to or subtract from the list?

They are flexible to handle most situations but structured enough to provide guidance so that if the clients meets these standards their efforts are likely to meet with success. It allows the business to prioritize the principals so that if compromises need to be need it will be clear what the trade off is.

Yelp with restaurants and TripAdvisor with hotels live in a world where motivated reviewers take great pride in describing the good and the bad about businesses. From Yelp’s current point of view all reviewers should be self starters and cover the businesses they like as well as the ones that they don’t.

But most businesses live in a world where the only person that is motivated to write the review is the one in a hundred or the one in five hundred that was just so pissed off about something that they just had to tell the world. The loyal customers that come in to the shop, day in and day out never think to sing your praises as they have just grown accustomed to great service and friendly staff.

Certainly incenting reviews is a slippery slope. Some behaviors like paying for reviews (hmm…is Yelp holding a double standard here) or self generated reviews clearly fall on the side of inappropriate. Some, like offering discounts on future sales fall into a gray area. But should a business ever actively ask customers to leave reviews? Is there ever a way or a time to for a business to encourage customers that really love them to speak out? Yelp thinks not.

I, on the other hand, think that if done carefully and thoughtfully, with a clear vision as to how and why, asking for the review AND facilitating the customer’s ability to leave a review can do more than help your business. It can gently introduce the customer to the otherwise complicated world of reviews, it helps the consumer understand how critical it is that their voice in support of the great local business be heard and it can provide the web with meaningful review content of businesses that otherwise would be absent.

Clearly, there are three constituencies that need to be satisfied for any review program to work well and the above principles only address two- the customer and the the business. The third constituency is comprised of the search engines and review sites. While it is important that reviews meet the criteria of search engines, I think that the above rubrik does as good of job as satisfying their needs as is possible. It may not be possible to make them all happy and the decisions that you make might involve some compromise that offers your business the most benefit.

Over the next week, I will be publishing some case studies and interviews of a variety of ways of garnering reviews, some well thought and successful and some not so well done. Hopefully you will be able to get some ideas on how you might structure a similar program for yourself or your clients.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Principles for a Review Plan: Considerations in encouraging customer reviews by

16 thoughts on “Principles for a Review Plan: Considerations in encouraging customer reviews”

  1. Great baseline Mike. For me, the biggest challenge when working with clients on this is the integration. If you are going to be successful and lasting with it, you need multiple contributors.

    Having your staff, website and other processes working together to foster feedback is a major undertaking for many businesses, large or small. I’m looking forward to your case study postings.

  2. Aaron

    that’s a great point. How would you posit the idea as a principle? Or does it make more sense to include that idea in the Process category?

  3. Hi Mike,
    Excellent idea putting together this framework for small businesses to think about online reviews. It’s a touchy subject for small business owners.

    I love this statement from your post:

    “But most businesses live in a world where the only person that is motivated to write the review is the one in a hundred or the one in five hundred that was just so pissed off about something that they just had to tell the world. The loyal customers that come in to the shop, day in and day out never think to sing your praises as they have just grown accustomed to great service and friendly staff.”

    That’s exactly why businesses need to be proactive (and transparent) in handling their online reviews.

    I look forward to the rest of this series!

  4. @Don

    I wonder though, if being “too” proactive might have consequences of its own. IE by having 10 or 20 or 30x more reviews than the nearest competitor whether it might become counterproductive either from the user perspective or the search engine perspective.

  5. Good point Mike. If there is a huge disparity then the reviews might not be as believable. That’s why I think its important that the reviews all be authentic, and not “manufactured” (as in hiring someone or providing incentives.) People can see right through inauthentic reviews.

    So there must be a balance – with few reviews the business is at risk of being affected by one customer having a bad day, but over-doing it with way more reviews than is normal in an industry could be counter-productive.

  6. Mike, thanks for taking such an in depth look into reviews. Just as SEOs have always been an integral cog in the spam machine, we are also a big part of the review “problem”. It’s the nature of our business to identify components of the algorithms and then look for loop holes and ways to exploit them. Usually, by the time the our tactics become common knowledge in the world of Search, Google is implementing ways to devalue their effects. Then, we move on to the next big ranking factor and try to find ways to manipulate it. Right now, reviews are a big Search ranking factor, so SEOs everywhere are scrambling to figure out how to help their clients get more of them.

    Reviews, however, are much more than just a ranking factor in the Search results, they are also a ranking factor in the real business world. Published opinions, whether justified or not, can drive a multitude of customers through your doors or cause prospects to mercilessly shun you. For this reason, businesses (and SEOs) need to get the whole review process right. Reviews published online are likely to exist forever and they will influence a business long after their impact on Search rankings fades.

    For this reason alone, we all need to remain totally transparent and white hat. Those who are not may positively influence their Search rankings today, but find themselves making headlines tomorrow as the people who faked or bought reviews. And by then, the SEO company that put the scheme together will be long gone.

    I look forward to the rest of your research and analysis of reviews and the review process!

    1. @Mary

      Thanks for your insight! You have identified the intrinsic conflict of interest that exists in the review world which I am hoping has become obvious to those reading the series.

      It is my observation, though, that Google has in fact already devalued reviews. Not so much by marking down their importance as by adding new additional variables for ranking. My experience is that reviews provide an initial “bump” particularly if a business listing has been “quiet” but that there is little increase in value after that first little benefit. Ranking does not continue to improve as more and more reviews come in….

      But as you point out, and the case stuides point out is that consumers trust reviews, at least in aggregate and they do influence where to buy strongly.

  7. Mike,
    We’re working with a client now who has 10-15 locations and needs to develop a workable process across all of them for asking customers to complete a review. The role of consultant for this situation is mostly one of examining the company’s existing customer engagement process, and finding a natural & comfortable way to introduce the idea and make the ask. This part of Local Search consulting is so NOT about technology, and all about business process and customer relations.

    1. @Cindy

      So true…training and retraining until it is part of the culture seems critical. If it takes my one jeweler almost a year to “get it”, how long will it take 15 remote locations? Do they have a method currently for collecting emails? Is there a way to integrate it into the checkout?

      It will be an interesting story. Would love to hear how you make out.

  8. In our dark and scary part of Local Search (the dreaded locksmiths) the situation is now dozens of manufactured reviews for the dozens of front companies. So the Black Hats have taken over the review war for locksmiths already.

    I believe that is cases like this, it may turn our to add credibility to a site to have some, but not hundreds of review.
    Also a few bad ones means that that the reviews for your company are real.

    Thanks for the guidelines, looking to read more on this…

  9. As Dan Kennedy retells, “I don’t want enough proof, I want a PREPONDERANCE of proof.”

    If I were a business owner I’d print off this article and put it on my refridgerator and on my mirror and in my car. I’d buy you a gift. I’d hire you.

    But most of all I’d take action and implement what you recommend.

    The more reviews the better. The more you get them online the more you can print them off and use them for direct mail, instore, as postcards, as posters, as emails on newsletters etc.

  10. I am currently working on a providing this as a service for several clients, what a challenge it is to create a program that is ethical, yet simple to help generate the exposure that is becoming more and more important. Great thoughts in your post, and the other posts on your blog relating to this topic! Thanks for sharing!

  11. I need some help getting reviews. I need to make it super easy like you said, but not much of a computer person yet. I could use some help. Please. I have been doing this for 17 years and great at what I do. I got one bad review and need it to disappear with good reviews. I have many past customers that will help me.

  12. @Shirley

    There is no fast way to make the review disappear. You need to put in place a slow, steady program of asking existing and new customers for feedback and reviews.

    If you have no budget, don’t want to use the reviews for SEO, don’t need to understand which clients were happy etc this can be done with a handout like .

    If on the other hand you want to put in place a long term automated solution then you would want to look at something like Reputation Builder or GetFiveStars.

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