Asking for Reviews – UMoveFree Finds the Groove

Nick Barber is President and CEO of UMoveFree, the largest apartment locating service in Texas. UMoveFree is a free service that helps renters in Texas find a new apartment each month. Nick called with some questions about Google Maps and we had a great conversation about his company’s review strategy. Nick agreed to share his review gathering story and tactics.

MB: Could you provide a brief overview of your process to garner reviews?

Nick: When we started taking an active role in our online reputation management I noticed, like I’m sure many business owners notice, that the review sites are more likely to attract a customer that has a negative experience than a positive one.  That is, even if the overwhelming majority of your customers have positive things to say about your product or service, those customers are more unlikely to post their opinions online than the few customers who have negative things to say.  The trick is to identify your satisfied customers and give them a voice.  I think this starts by making certain you run a good business with a strong focus on customer service.  Our strategy focuses on giving our happy customers a strong voice…that means we have to first have overwhelmingly happy customers.  I think it’s worth saying that no matter what you do, if your customer satisfaction is bad then your online reviews are bound to be bad as well.  On the other hand, if you have great customer satisfaction it should be relatively easy to make the online review sites reflect this truth…so long as the business is taking an active approach.

How long have you been actively seeking reviews?

About 6 months.  We got to the game late but we made it a major focus once we showed up.

What has been your experience with customer reviews?

Great.  Some consultants will say “Reputation Management” is trying to de-rank the review sites and rank “other” alternative pages that are created for this purpose.  We started with this strategy and put out new content (articles, press releases, etc) that were essentially a pseudo brochure for the brand.  These articles were optimized for brand name keywords and then we worked to get page one of a brand name SERP to be covered with this content.  This was mildly successful but had a temporary shelf life.  In my opinion Google has a vested interest in ranking the legitimate review sites on a brand name search…If someone is doing research on your brand that’s what they want to see, and there’s no way you can trick Google with a bunch of brochure-like articles.  We dropped that approach and instead focused on making sure the pages that are bound to rank were likely to give customer a positive impression of our brand.  Again, this all about having good customer service and making sure you leverage those happy customers.

What process have you implemented to make it easy for your organization to get reviews and for clients/customers to give them?

We have changed the culture so that everyone is aware this is a major goal for the company.  When we encounter an extremely happy customer (which happens often if you’re running a good business) we simply take the time to point that customer in the right direction.

What review sites do you recommend to customers? Why?

Picking sites that are easy to post a review on is the best strategy.  If it takes 10 steps and a double email confirmation the customer is likely to give up.  We’ve had the best success with Google Local, Yahoo Local, Bing Local, JudysBook, CitySearch, MerchantCircle, and InsiderPages.

What is your experience with Yelp…

We avoid them like the black plague. You can find a lot of articles on the subject so I won’t get on a soap box…but we’ve had around 30 satisfied customers post positive reviews on Yelp and none of them posted to our profile.  When we asked why we were told that the customer has to be an “active Yelp user” or the reviews will not show up.  When we asked what constitutes an “active Yelp user” we were told that formula was proprietary and confidential.  Of course, this didn’t stop them from making a sales call and offering us assistance in getting more positive reviews on our account.  After doing some research and realizing this was a much bigger problem with other business owners, and that they were involved in a class action lawsuit for similar accusations, we just decided to avoid them all together.

What were the barriers to getting a smooth process set up?

It has to be consistent and sustainable.  Every employee has to be aware of the project and empowered to get involved; not just the marketing and management departments who rarely interact with customers on the ground.  For instance, if the receptionist has a chance phone call with an overly appreciative customer their immediate response should be “we really appreciate your positive comments…would you mind if I send you an email with a link to our XXXX business review profile…it would mean a lot to us if you take just a moment to share those thoughts with other potential customers”.

Do you incent clients in any way to provide reviews?

NO.  We decided this could potentially destroy our credibility.  The last thing you want is a customer you thought was happy that turned out to be not so happy posting a comment like “don’t believe any of these positive reviews, this company offered me a bribe to post a positive comment on this site”.  We even included a section in our policies and procedures handbook.  Offering incentives for a positive review will land you in serious trouble with the big boss…posting a fake review will cost you your job.

Do you make your review process explicit on your website?

No, but we are in the process of overhauling our site and it will be on the new site.

How do you handle negative reviews?

Actively, immediately and seriously.  Here’s an example…Check out the review and comments from “HeaS” on 9/5/2009:

http://local.yahoo.com/info-18620194-umovefree-irving;_ylt=AlySqGlgA1irDpE5n2OMSNaKNcIF;_ylv=3?tab=reviews&allreviews=1#reviews

How has the world of online reviews impacted your business?

We see this as a major competitive advantage.  We have great customer service and by taking an active approach our online review profiles now reflect this…

I always tell our sales reps that if your customer is considering using another company, tell them to check the reviews of us and our competitors online and let me know every time they still choose the other company…I’ve never lost a customer after they do the research.  The reviews are legitimate and they are the best marketing pitch we could ever give a customer that is considering using our service.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Asking for Reviews - UMoveFree Finds the Groove by

43 thoughts on “Asking for Reviews – UMoveFree Finds the Groove”

  1. Great interview Mike.

    A few of our clients have found that the best way to get reviews is to build it into their business process. One of our clients (a local service business), at the completion of every sale, asks sales person to ‘rate’ each customer’s satisfaction on a scale of 1 (very happy) to 3 (had issues). The sales people then compete for the most number of ’1′ rated customers in a given month. This business invites each ’1′ rated customer to review the business and follows up with every ’3′ rated customer personally to find out what they could have done better.

  2. Excellent interview, Mike. Ted, I am an advocate of your services. A comprehensive local business review management system involves monitoring reviews (a la Marchex Reputation Management), taking action/responding to reviews publicly and privately, and proactively generating reviews.

  3. @Tom
    Thanks! Have you used the Marchex system?

    @Ted
    Welcome! Using the review process for both process improvement AND review generation is an excellent use of resources. Since the ask is being made anyways, the business should generate as much information as possible. I, though, am of the opinion (that not all of my clients or peers share) that every client should have an equal opportunity to review your business online. This is difficult, as you know for many business owners to accept and not a little scary but the reality is that 9 out of 10 or 95 out of 100 with 5 stars represents a much more accurate view to the world and a much more believable one.

    Often, after they business has gotten 10 or 15 great reviews, I nudge them to open the process up to everyone.

  4. I have used the Marchex program and I like where they are going. I have requested additional functionality within the program so I may monitor hundreds or thousands of locations in one dashboard–time-stamped and sortable. I need this type of solution to manage reviews for clients that are national/global brands.

  5. I respectfully disagree with many of my peers about the ethics of providing incentives such as coupons or exclusive offers in exchange for feedback in the form of a review.

    Look at it like this–let’s say you visit Burger King and on the back of the receipt they offer you a coupon code for a free whopper in exchange for providing feedback on an “800″ number. Managing local business reviews with a similar process is a best practice as long as there is total transparency.

    My clients aren’t asking for positive reviews, just frank reviews in earnest–incentives are a tool to capture the feedback. I know some people will disagree with my recommendations, but that is where I stand.

    I also have clients actively responding to local business reviews by identifying themselves as a representative or owner of the business, and publicly addressing any issues–positive and negative. This is a form of social media and I advocate being part of the ongoing conversation.

  6. @Tom

    As I pointed out yesteray, I think incentives fall in a grey on the ethics side (and the business case side) and they can go either way depending on how they are handled.

    In Nick’s case, since his initial review strategy was to just ask the happy customers, I think he was right in not incenting them. It does create a certain ethical problem and he felt that the business risk was just not worth it. I understand that.

    But if as you point out, EVERYBODY is asked then the incentive is not inappropriate. If they increase the “participation rate” by a significant number and are totally transparent than I would not have a problem with them.

    That being said, my experience is that it is unnecessary if you really are adding significant value to the customer’s transaction and they will gladly leave you the review.

  7. As a consumer, I want to know if a review was solicited, even if there were no incentives involved. Like many people, I interpret the number of reviews as a signal, and that signal is a lot less useful if a subset of business is soliciting reviews.

    I realize that soliciting a review isn’t black and white. But I can understand why a review site would discourage the practice in general. Whether / how a site can determine that a review was solicited is another question entirely.

  8. Mike,
    I can tell from this post that this is going to be a great and insightful series! Nick has shared some great stuff here.

    A couple of points I wondered about…

    Avoiding Yelp. I’m not sure how you can do this. Yelp is a major player, and deciding not to interact with them ensures that any negative reviews will go unmitigated. Again, I’m shocked to hear another honest business owner describing an unsavory Yelp situation, but at the same time, I’m not sure if it’s ‘safe’ to avoid Yelp. Their presence is almost synonymous with user reviews.

    Responding to reviews. The example given was really wonderful, but there’s no way to do this in Google Maps. How does Nick handle negative reviews when they appear in Maps?

    Super start, Mike!

  9. Hi Daniel!

    It is an interesting dilemma. On the one hand Google and Yelp reward businesses with more/good reviews. On the other they do or might punish those businesses that encourage their customers to review them. Or if not punish them then minimize the value of those reviews.

    Right now, Google, by virtue of the Local 7 pack showing so widely, is essentially creating new behaviors on the part of those business owners. How they (you) respond to the new behaviors creates a certain dialectic.

    A case in point is Google’s high priority on a business’s name to determine relevancy thus effectively incenting certain less than thinking businesses to change their Google business name to a search term. Now some very large percentage of businesses have changed their name to “Search Phrase, City”….hardly productive. Take a look at the search for holiday apartments tenerife spain. Google has effectively let this problem grow over to the point that in some searches 100% of the names are fabricated.

    Reviews, I suppose could face a similar fate. They could be spammed, manufactured and otherwise distorted. Google’s behavior will dictate the outcome. If, like in the case of the Business Title case they wait for 3 years to change their algo…a lot of useless information will be in the index.

    At this point, a business encouraging a client to go to a review doesn’t seem to me to fall into this same category of behavior and to some extent is creating new reviewers and new content for the internet. Especially if handled correctly.

    Like any Google decision, a decision by these businesses on how to tread these waters needs to be evaluated on both the business case and the ethical considerations…hopefully striking a balance that all three parties, the consumer, the business and the review sites find acceptable.

  10. Hi Miriam

    I agree. A business can’t avoid Yelp….and for me the answer lies in providing choice to the consumer.

    Make it easy for them to leave reviews at any site that they want to. If they prefer Yelp then Yelp it is, if they prefer Google or Yahoo or whatever then so be it….for me the goal is to make the process painless for everybody and in the end the customer should have the choice to review, not to review, to do a good one or a bad one…

    On websites that I am building these days, I put links to all of the review sites that make sense and figure that the customer is smart enough to pick the one that they prefer. If the occasional review gets deepsixed by Yelp (or Google) so be it. Although if the consumer chooses Yelp, one would assume that the likelihood of them being an active Yelper might be higher…..

    That is why I don’t like the idea of having a review kiosk in situ. It seems way to coercive to me.

  11. I agree that spammy business titles are a problem, and one you’ve covered very well on this blog. And we’ve seen a variety of questionable online review practices over the years.

    I agree with you that a review’s being solicited does not inherently make it spammy or abusive. But if, as a consumer, I don’t know it’s solicited, I will overestimate the popularity of the product or service. And there’s research suggesting that consumers pay a lot of attention to quantity of reviews (e.g., Yong Liu’s work on word-of-mouth marketing).

    Perhaps review sites shouldn’t wade into this distinction, especially given that there’s a lot of gray in what constitutes soliciting a review. Or they could let users make their own decisions about reviewer credibility. I don’t think there’s an easy answer yet, and it will be interesting to see how the dynamic between consumers, business, and review sites plays out.

  12. @Daniel

    It’s exciting times that’s for sure…lots of changes on everyone’s part… is Yong Liu’s work available on line (for free)?

    Mike

  13. Wow – I had no idea there would this much interest generated from me answering Mike’s questions…but the comments are engaging and made me contemplate the subject(s) even more.

    RE: Providing Incentives
    I can see a situation where it could be done ethically…but in my opinion it’s a bit grey and just not worth the risk. More important, it shouldn’t be necessary if your providing exceptional customer service. The most credible review is one where a customer had good (or bad) things to say and they wanted to voice that opinion for the sake of voicing it. In our case, the customers that post a review clearly want to voice their opinion; otherwise they wouldn’t take the time to do so. In nearly every case they are already providing a positive review via an email or phone call to one of our employees…That’s an indication that they loved the service they received and want to tell someone about it. We just explain they have an opportunity to repeat those comments on a review site where more customers can see them.

    RE: Solicitation
    I can see an argument where our strategy is lumped in with “solicitation” and I’m not necessarily disputing the label. But I think it’s relevant to point out that we are not soliciting the customers testimonial – the testimonials come in on our their own when you provide good customer service. We just explain to the customer that we appreciate their comments, and if they want to let other customers know they can do so by sharing the same thoughts online. Solicitation or not, we try hard to be careful and ethical in the way we treat online reviews.

    RE: Providing Choice
    I completely agree. Let the customer review where they want to and give every customer the opportunity to do so. We are putting together a reviews page on our website where customers will have a catalogue of review sites to choose from for this very reason. With that said, if a customer wants to provide a review and doesn’t have a preference I see no harm in providing a few options to choose from – that’s just an extension of great customer service in my opinion.

    RE: Avoiding Yelp
    Miriam is correct – there’s really no way to “avoid Yelp”. We’ve simply chosen to avoid any active involvement with the site. We will not be including Yelp on the review page of our website. I’m not an expert on the subject or the website. I just know it doesn’t make sense to a customer when they want to share comments, they post a review, and then it doesn’t show up on the profile. This combined with the wealth of negative press on the subject made the decision an easy one. If a customer finds Yelp on their own, so be it.

    My overall take on the subject is that companies should focus on creating satisfied customer first and foremost. If you get this right then openly appreciative customers are sure to follow…and giving that appreciative customer an outlet to share their opinions just seems like common sense to me. We have the luxury of helping a large volume of customers, and our employees know our expectations when it comes to excellent customer service. I think that’s made our job much easier when it comes to reviews. We can afford to take a less aggressive approach to solicitation and incentives because even with a low take rate we still get enough reviews to accomplish our goals. I can see where it would be much more challenging with a lower volume of customers and a different business model.

    Need more ideas or suggestions? I suggest you ask Mike…he has great reviews : )

  14. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am in the business of helping companies get reviews. That said, I think that asking for public feedback from your customers can only result in good things (this assumes that the review site allows all customers to post comments and that businesses cannot arbitrarily delete comments).

    Even if they try to cherry pick happy customers to be reviewers, businesses that provide a poor service/product are going to get very mixed reviews. More often than not, the companies that are actively soliciting reviews are the ones that know that they provide a better product/service than their competitors.

    In addition, one of the great things about social media is that it creates a check-and-balance on a business’s control over a transaction. As a consumer, I am happy to know that I have access to a public forum to discuss any issues. If a business has spent time and effort to solicit feedback in that forum, so much the better. I can be reasonable assured that someone from the company will care about and respond to my issue.

    I agree that soliciting reviews would skew the results if a reader were to only look at the average number of stars or total number of reviews to evaluate a particular business. But, I think that underestimates the sophistication of review readers. When I read reviews, I am reading for ‘why’. Although not all reviews contain it (not even all unsolicited reviews), the more reviews that are available, the more likely I am to find the true voice of the customer.

  15. @Miriam

    We respond to comments on Google by creating a review with the brand/business as the reviewer name, then identify ourselves as a business representative/owner.

    Here are some sample review types and best practice responses:

    The poor customer service review
    If a customer has been forced to wait for an extended period of time or was treated to a display of attitude, it is important to acknowledge the issue and ask for permission to discuss the problem offline, seeking a resolution. If the review is fake, there will likely be no response, but prospective customers will observe your sincere attempt to resolve the issue.

    The unsatisfactory product or service review
    If a product or service does not meet expectations, acknowledge the disappointment, share your determination to provide some redemptive options, and ask for permission to discuss the problem offline, seeking a resolution.

    The flawed/destructive product or service review
    Let’s say you’re a well-known dry cleaning brand with a couple thousand locations. One of your locations gets nailed with a horrifying review describing how a priceless wedding dress was destroyed by a solvent in the cleaning process. This can be an extremely distressing experience for a new bride. Acknowledge the sensitive issue and ensuing anxiety and suffering with a sincere, empathetic apology. Ask the customer for permission to discuss the problem offline, seeking a resolution. Make every effort to exceed expectations offline.

    The vile name calling and threats review
    Do not engage these types of reviewers, the reviews speak for themselves in a self-defeating light. Take action to have these types of reviews deleted by the business directory hosting the review. If the review is submitted through a Google Maps business listing, click the “Flag as inappropriate” link found under the review, and submit a report. Google will likely remove the review upon review.

    The brand champion review
    If the review is a genuine 5-star rave why not publicly thank them for their kind words and engage them on their observations? Of course this is a judgment call, but if the review provides valuable insight it is logical to build upon the comments. Imagine turning a forum for customer reviews into a glowing, ongoing conversation that increases conversions.

    Here’s another thought—reward prospective customers for researching your reviews. One example is to publish an exclusive coupon code or offer within your review section, driving prospects to a specific web page, microsite, or offline transaction. This is also a great way to get a feel for how many customers are sizing up your reviews. The perspective here is that reviews are part of your virtual brand real estate, why not strategically use this social forum to better serve customers and increase revenue.

  16. @Ted

    I couldn’t agree with you more that asking the public for feedback leads to greater communication and positive results for everybody.

    It would make great sense for Google to syndicate the reviews your company publishes in Place Pages–after all they are doing this for DemandForce which works with just a handful of verticals.

  17. We do the same thing as far as just asking for ratings. Another thing that worked well for us when we were first starting and needed reviews quickly was offering a $25 rebate if they rated us on any public website.

  18. @Jake

    I think, like in your case, the dynamics of a campaign change over time. Particularly when getting started, the organization needs positive feedback and they might consider a temporary incentive….but after a while the program should be revisited, revised and hopefully improved.

  19. @Tom

    Your classification of the “review types” is very useful. Certainly there is more or less to gain given the reviewer.

    Be sure to stop by on Tuesday, as I invited Ted to write a guest post on responding to negative reviews.

  20. I agree and to be clear, our review rebate was publicly offered before the move. It was open to anyone who used our service no matter how good or bad their review was. It wasn’t something we offered just to a few really happy customers that we thought would say good things about us.

  21. Nick,
    Thank you so much for responding to my comment. I’m in total agreement with you that Yelp’s decision not to post reviews your customers would take the time to leave is absolutely unsatisfactory.

    Tom,
    How nice of you to respond to my question with examples of what you do. In practice, I think the tone of your responses to various sets of customers is perfect. Technically, though, I would be concerned that Google might not want you to use their review function in this manner. Every time you respond, this likely signals that a review has been left. But, if it’s being left by you (with totally good reason), I wonder if Google might have a problem with this. They didn’t design their review app to be used in this way. Mike, what are your thoughts on this?

    Miriam

  22. @Miriam

    I think it is not a use case that Google intended. That being said, they have not yet prevented it nor explicitly said that it was inappropriate.

    I would not do it on Google nor suggest it to clients but I could see that others might think it the best approach.

    Obviously, I think that Google should explicitly support both indirect communication to the reviewer and direct public response by the business sooner rather than later…

  23. Thanks for weighing in on that, Mike. I’m on the same page with you about this, and so wish Google would clearly facilitate an owner response feature. I’ve come across a few businesses using the review app as Tom is doing, and while I can certainly see that this is using creativity to find a solution for something Maps lacks, the bottom line is that such responses are going to up the total review count when they are not, in fact, reviews. I can see Google having a problem with this.

    Tom, have you ever thought about this potentially being a problem?

  24. I disagree with your opinion about asking the public for feedback leads to greater communication and positive results for everybody.

  25. Hi Daniel!

    It is an interesting dilemma. On the one hand Google and Yelp reward businesses with more/good reviews. On the other they do or might punish those businesses that encourage their customers to review them. Or if not punish them then minimize the value of those reviews.

    Right now, Google, by virtue of the Local 7 pack showing so widely, is essentially creating new behaviors on the part of those business owners. How they (you) respond to the new behaviors creates a certain dialectic.

  26. Interesting Question:
    Let’s assume that a customer leaves a great comment/testimonial/review on my blog. How does Google feel about that customer taking that same review and uploading it to my Place Page on Google?
    Does anyone know if having the identical or similar review on both Google and my blog is considered spam or contrary to Google’s policy, even though the review was posted to my site first? Could Google remove the reviews on my place page if they see the same review on my blog?

  27. @Bob

    It it is safe to assume that Google is capable of identifying duplicate review content. This became obvious during the TA/Goog spat when Google put syndicated reviews on Places pages rather than TA’s directly.

    So while it is not contrary to any policy it, like duplicate content on the web, is not going to help you at all.

    It is not clear why you would want a client to post exactly the same content in both places.

  28. Thanks Mike:
    Once a customer writes a review to my blog, it’s a very easy step for them to just copy it to my Google Place Page where it can be easily seen by searchers. I noticed in Google’s “Review Posting Guidelines & Policy” under the title of “Does Google Remove Reviews?, it reads as follows.
    “Nobody likes spam and it can only make its author look bad. Don’t use reviews for advertising or post the same or similar reviews across multiple places.”
    My concern is this. By making it very easy for my customers to copy their review to Google, does Google consider this against their rules. If not, what do you think they mean by, “Don’t use reviews for advertising or post the same or similar reviews across multiple places?”

  29. @Bob
    You answered your own question. I had forgotten about the review guideline: “Don’t post similar reviews across multiple places”.

    That is a clear violation of the rules. We know that they can detect duplicate review content (although whether they interpret your blog as a review source is another matter). Ultimately it does not behoove you to have the exact same review in two places.

  30. Thanks Mike:
    What do you think the consequences are for having the same review on my site and on my place page? Do you think Google will remove the review? Do you think Google will remove all of my reviews? Do you think they might go as far as removing my listing? At this point it would seem that the best course of action is to remove the reviews from my blog.
    Thanks Mike

  31. @Bob
    Their likely behavior (assuming the algo is this sophisticated and I don’t think it is) would be to tag the review on Google as spam and not show it.

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