Responding to Negative Reviews – Your Prospects are the Real Audience

Ted Paff is the President of Customer Lobby, an on-line solution to help local service businesses to get, manage and publish reviews. Ted called me when he read my principles of a review program post to introduce himself and his company. We had a far ranging conversation that covered everything from the economy to parents but always came back to conversation about reviews and their role in the online world.

I was particularly struck by his company’s approach to finding the lemonade in the lemon of the negative review titled: Negative Reviews Increase Sale and the idea that the response is as much targeted at future customers as the reviewer. I asked him to write a guest blog detailing how he and why he would suggest responding to the negative review :


So you got a negative review about your business.  Although it stings right now, what you do next has a bigger impact on the ultimate outcome of this situation than the negative review itself.  Your actions will determine if this event enhances your reputation or becomes an embarrassing smudge.

Should you Respond and What to Say

As much as you might want to, you can’t profitably respond to all negative reviews.  Never respond to a review unless you can do Step 1 and Step 2 below (Step 3 is optional).

Step 1:  Own the issue.

Your first objective in a response is to communicate that: you are paying attention to the issue; the issue is important to you; and that you are sorry the reviewer had a problem.  Your prospects will be reading your reply with rapt attention.  Write this for them. Tell them that when someone has a problem, your business will hear them.  It doesn’t matter if the reviewer lied or only told half of the story – own whatever issue they wrote about.

Step 2:  Describe how future customers will not have this issue.

A critical part of any response is to tell your prospects that something has changed and this issue will not happen to them.  This is a golden opportunity to market your business.  For example, writing that ‘we have put a new process in place…’ tells your prospects that your company is good and is getting better.

Step 3:  Offer to fix the issue

Your business will spend a lot of time and money on sales and marketing.    Although you can’t always fix every issue (sometimes you don’t want to), your offer to fix a reviewer’s problem is a great marketing investment.   In the response, suggest that they contact you directly so you can try to resolve the issue.

Guidelines for your Response

Write it with your prospects in mind.  Before writing your response, think about who your audience is.  Although your response should be addressing the reviewer, the vast majority of the readers of your response are likely to be your prospects. Writing your response with the majority of your readers (a.k.a. your sales prospects) in mind will help you set the right tone.  For example, write about your company’s commitment to customer satisfaction.  Your response should not try to change the reviewer’s mind or dispute the facts as set out in the review.

Don’t be defensive.   One suggestion we often give to our clients is to send a draft of your response to someone that doesn’t work at your company.  Ask them to delete anything that sounds defensive.

Take your time.  A negative review most likely made you angry.  Resist the temptation to reply quickly because, unless you have superhuman emotional control, the reply is likely to sound angry.

Keep it brief.  Resist the temptation to “set the record straight.”  The surest way to ensure that your response never gets read is to give your side of the story.

Writing a short, non-defensive reply to a review that owns the issue, describes how the issue has been resolved (maybe includes an offer to fix the issue) will earn you the trust of your future customers.


Another incredible resource in responding to negative reviews is a piece written last year by Miriam Ellis: Edit, Remove and Respond To Reviews – Tools For Conflict Resolution.

To get a sense of how far wrong things can go when an SMB decides to respond to negative reviews see Inc’s You’ve Been Yelped detailing how bookshop owner Diane Goodman, was “booked for battery and remanded to San Francisco General Hospital for a mental health evaluation.”

Review Case Study: With More Than One Employee Process Becomes Key

Don Campbell is president of Expand2Web which provides websites and Local SEO for small business owners. North Valley Optometry is owned by Dr. Tarryn Ngo, the wife of Don Campbell’s business partner Randy Hew. It has provided Expand2Web with a great case study on the impact of online reviews. Randy has been responsible for optimizing their web presence as well as implementing their online review process. The firm has 2 employees in addition to Dr. Ngo so process has become a key factor. Here’s Dr. Ngo’s story as told by Randy:

“Before connecting with Don Campbell last year my wife didn’t even have a website and only a couple of reviews (luckily they were good reviews) on Yelp. In July of 2009 we built her a website, optimized it and made it a focus to start asking customers for online reviews. Today she has close to 50 reviews on Google, almost 40 reviews on Yahoo and 6 reviews on Yelp which has taken about 6 months. It’s made a huge impact, the number of net new patients she is now getting on a monthly basis has increased roughly 30% and many of the new patients that come in comment that they have read the reviews online.

From a Local SEO standpoint North Valley Optometry comes up in the 7 pack on several keyword search terms for San Jose and related terms for optometry. What gives us a real competitive advantage is in the 7 pack North Valley Optometry has 40 more reviews than it’s closest competitor which makes it visually compelling for potential customers to click on our local listing.

North Valley Optometry online reviews

The process of asking for a review online is a simple, but getting online reviews is takes time. This is the process we use:

  1. Dr. Ngo (my wife) simply asks the patient some time during their visit to the office if they would be open to giving her business an online review. So far every patient she asks has said “no problem”.
  2. Next the office writes down the name and email address of the patient on a clipboard
  3. At the end of the week one of the girls on her staff types in the patient names and email addresses into a Google spreadsheet that we share.
  4. I copy those email addresses into an email template we created which is a short note asking for an online review with links directly to the Google and Yahoo local listing site.

The follow up email makes it easy for the patient to just click on the links and write a review. Originally the office tried giving the patients a piece of paper with the links on it as a reminder to write a review, but that wasn’t very effective. I think one of the main keys to getting customers to write a review is to make it easy for them.

That’s another reason why we only ask for a review on Google and Yahoo. Most people have a Google and/or Yahoo account so it’s easy for them to write a review. On other directories like Yelp, City Search or Insider Pages most people don’t have accounts already created so it’s asking a lot of a patient to create a new account and than write a review. From a search perspective most customers find North Valley Optometry on Google or Yahoo so it only makes sense to have reviews right there next to our business link in the search results.

Yelp is extremely popular in the silicon valley, but we don’t really bother with it. We found that Yelp will take down the customer reviews if the reviewer isn’t an “active yelper” and consistently reviewing many businesses. And the same problem as the other directories, if the customer isn’t already a Yelper they would have to create an account before giving a review which is a hassle.

Even though everyone has the best intentions to write a review we found that only 10-15% actually write a review. Most likely it’s just one of those “extra” things to do that gets lost in their daily activities of life. The office policy is to only ask the customer once for a review and they don’t give any incentives to a customer for writing one. So when we send the follow up email we want to make sure the request is reasonable and easy for them to follow through.

As you can see the process is pretty simple. At first just remembering to ask the customer for an online review was the biggest challenge. Once the office became committed to asking for a review it became a natural part of the conversation with their patients and implementing the rest of the process has been very easy. Getting a lot of online reviews doesn’t happen over night, but if you’re committed to the process it all adds up over time.

Out of this experience and the experience working with our other customers in local seo Don and I came up with this brainstorm for the myReviewsPage tool to help small business owners like my wife to monitor and build their online reviews.

We’re just starting to implement this free tool at North Valley Optometry. My wife likes the fact that at a click of the button she can monitor all of her reviews on the major directories. The email template is easy enough that they are going to start sending the review email request while the patient is in the office instead of having to go through all those extra steps of writing the patients info on a clipboard and than sending all the email requests at the end of the week or month. I’m hoping the timeliness of sending the emails will also help increase the number of patients that actually leave a review.

Google Directions Widget Goes Wacky

David Rubin of Quintessential Interiors pointed out a strange bug in the Google Directions widget where it will only calculate distances in kilometers even on US based sites and domains. He noted:

I have come across another Google problem that seems to be right up your alley.  While testing the Google Directions Gadget that I installed on a site I noticed that all results give distances in kilometers instead of miles.  Also, the gadget results tend to be somewhat slow and unreliable, resulting in a scripting error on some pages.  The only support available is in the help forums, which indicate that the distance units are determined by the country origin of the domain, and cannot be manipulated by the webmaster.  Interestingly, every site in the Google Gadget examples, including Harvard University, Dartmouth University, Atlanta-Hartsfield Airport and others all display in kilometers.  I’m pretty sure these domains are US based.

I’m guessing that what is going on is that the gadget is directing to a Google server somewhere overseas.  This would explain the slowness of the results and the wrong distance units.  If I’m right it means that the gadget is looking at the Google server location and not the requesting site’s location.  Just a guess, because, as we all know, Google provides no support.

It seems like Google continuously rolls out some great stuff, but it’s buggy and unsupported.  Then they move on to more great stuff without really getting the last great thing right.  I may be overstating things, but it seems like a path to becoming one big heap of mediocrity. Thanks again.

I created a new widget for a site I was working on and confirmed the weird behavior. But I think there may be a more likely theory: Google has joined an international cabal to help push the US market into the metric world. 🙂 Here is the widget for you to try:

Garnering Reviews – A Mom & (no) Pop Shop finally Hops on Reviews

Barbara Oliver and Co. Jewelry, an owner operated jewelry store with one part time employee in Buffalo, NY was referred to me by my sister about a year ago for help with marketing of her “new” website.

Like many small businesses she has trouble integrating new procedures whether from inertia, fear or lack of time. Getting her involved with establishing a review process was a struggle. When I received this email on February 13th of this year I felt like she had finally hit escape velocity (the place where the client no longer needs hand holding):

Hi Mike, this week 6 new customers in the store based on reviews alone.  6 sales, have I mentioned lately how much I love you? If we continue to do this right, I can forego some of the expensive advertising and build up my wallet and our businesses.  WooHoo



The review process that we set up has been made so that it is as simple as possible for both her and her clients. She will ask appropriate customers at the time of providing a receipt if they would be willing to leave a review. She qualifies them and with the younger ones that are comfortable leaving reviews at the site of their choice, she just makes the ask. If they are older or less confident she shows them and provides them with a url: on a small slip of paper. The url is set to redirect to the review section of her jeweler testimonial page.

On the bottom portion of this testimonial page the visitor will find a list of review site urls for her business from which to select. Being on her testimonial page, folks seem to get a sense of other comments and confidence from the fact that others have endorsed her. They can choose the site with which they are most comfortable. This allows the customer a certain freedom and avoids forcing the choice. My theory at least is that in the case of an angry customer, seeing other testimonials and reviews might temper any venom.

It was very difficult initially to get her to ask. She was reticent and did not remember. But she started seeing some ranking benefit and vowed to “do better”. I even put a note into her monthly analytics report to automate the “nag”. After a rocky start and 8 months of monthly reminders (automated, verbal & emails) she has integrated the “ask” into her write up routine and has started to get regular reviews at a range of review sites that are now showing up in Google. The reviews are coming in at a steady pace with a nice mix of diverse sources. You can see some of them on her Places Page.

Could you provide a brief overview of your process to garner reviews?….

I simply ask after a sale or service has been concluded if the client would mind reviewing my business, as it does help me grow.  I do find that it is peoples’ nature to want to help you if you have made them happy.

How long have you been actively seeking reviews?

Since last year around January 2009 (Editors note: we started the process in January but she actually started asking reliably in September)

What has been your experience with customer reviews?

I know have 16 very favorable reviews and have watched my presence rise.  The influx of new clients is actually measured as more than any other form of advertising that I have invested in previously.

The internet marketing we have implemented aided my business growth more than I could have imagined.  Although reticent at first to ask clients to post reviews, as they did start to appear, so did new customers. They came in pre-sold on our service and products ready to do business just based on what they read from others.

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

We created a spot on my web site to make it a breeze for customers to input their thoughts.  By keeping it simple for even non-computer savvy clients, I get a lot more reviews  from a less limited client base, who might feel overwhelmed by having to search out the method of posting reviews.

What review sites do you recommend to customers? Why?

Google,google,google, then Citysearch, Insiderpages, Yelp (just started) & Yahoo Local just to mix it up a bit.

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

None, that’s what Mike does, he handles all my web and computer needs,usually before I know I need them. Typically, he gives me new ideas for ways to grow and expose my business.  Then the dinosaur in me fights the idea as I am change resistant.  Then we do it his way and it always works.

Do you incent clients in any way to provide reviews?

So far, a handwritten thank you note and a diamond made of chocolate. Happy customers genuinely want to help you grow.

I always tell them or show them to make it easier.

How do you handle negative reviews?

Have not had to deal with that yet. So far so good.

How has the world of online reviews impacted your business?

I truly have seen a big increase in new faces that are buying.  Usually the client starts the introduction with “I googled jewelers and I loved your reviews”. I have spent a fortune on TV, radio, print and yellow pages.  I honestly can say that the increase in reviews has given me an immediate satisfaction with a venue of clients I know was not reaching before. The importance of reading someone else’s opinion is so very strong.  I am having my web site redone now to mirror the strength of the ratings. I am now able to reduce my advertising budget and put the money into more inventory with the 7 to 8 new faces I see each week.


Oh…and if you need some advice on buying jewelry …call Barbara Olive and Co Jewelry at (716) 204-1297! She does a great job matching the man (and woman) to the right jewelry. Tell her I sent you. 🙂

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… Continue reading Asking for Reviews – UMoveFree Finds the Groove

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.
Continue reading Principles for a Review Plan: Considerations in encouraging customer reviews

Are the SEO Oneboxes Returning to the Google SERPS? Nah…..except in Duluth

Marty of Aimclear sent this screen shot of what, at first glance, appeared to be a spammy onebox for the Google search SEO Duluth and perhaps foreshadowed the return of SEO to the 7 Pack after their banishment:

Neither is the case. Apparently there is a Physicians Assistant in Duluth by the name of Kengo Seo. As is often the case with Medical Practioners the listing sites that Google referenced had the last name first and it was added to the index that way.

Now if the good Dr. Seo would name his first child, Aimclear, Marty would be sitting golden.

Google Maps: Citation Conflation or Where have my Citations Gone?

Mathew Hunt of Small Business Online Coach, recently pointed out what appears to be a new bug in Google’s clustering algo that causes one business’s citations to show up on another business’s Places Page.

It appears that Google Maps, when scraping multiple citations for different businesses that appear on a single unstructured web page, not only conflates the citations for that specific page but brings along other citations not from that page, from one business to another. In my case a number of citations from one of my clients transferred to another client. They are not in the same industry, nor the same part of the country. The only thing they had in common was that both have citations on my client list.

Here is an example of the problem where a number of citations from The Option House Restaurant in Bradford PA appeared on the Sports Reaction Center Physical Therapy (Bellevue WA) Places Page. From the Sports Reaction Center Places Page:

The problem showed up only after I added the Sports Reaction Center to a list of clients that I maintain. That list, which has often shown as citations for individual clients on their Places Page, is not highly structured and initially the two listings where adjacent to each other. Historically citations from the list passed to local clients with no problems. Here is a screenshot from the Google cached page scraped on Feb 4th that seems to have precipitated the problem:

I have changed the page by adding separators and moving the two listings apart to see if clusters will return to a normal state. It appears, given that the problem is being reported in the forums, that it is a bug caused by the mechanism that assigns citations to each business’s cluster. In my case, and I am sure in others, it is not a competitor’s skullduggery. It seems likely to occur to businesses in the same local market that are listed adjacent to each other on a web page that Google does not parse correctly and will, like listing mergings, cause hard feelings amongst close competitors.

Hopefully it is one that Google will address quickly as it will play havoc with the quality of the Places Pages and potentially with ranking.

Google Jazz Interface and the 7 Pack Are Evolving – How will it affect organic display?

The new Google Jazz interface has received another facelift (thanks Barry) and continues to evolve. Initially the new interface, which was rolled out on a very limited basis in November, was showing only a 5- Pack of local listings. Earlier this month it was modified once again to show the 7 Pack. The new tweak cleans up the interface by eliminating the color block and a number of menus along the left hand side.

I was curious how the display in its current configuration affected the presentation of local and organic search results on a range of displays. The Google result page scales from just over 800 pixels to just under 1280 pixels. In the 800 range, things are cropped and above 1250 pixels or so it stops scaling. What will then show to whom on the new display?

I have captured images at pixel widths of 800, 1024 and 1280 both with and without sponsored ads at the top of the display to determine what will show. For the purposes of the capture I shut off tabs and other enhancements that a typical user is unlikely to be using. According to 76% of browsers are displaying at more than 1024×768 resolution with only 20% at 1024×768 and 1% at 800×600. Even if w3schools stats overstate the actual resolutions due to the sophistication of their audience, their trend line is accurate and it shows 1024 heading to oblivion within the next few years and 800 x 600 nearly there.

Here is the new Jazz interface at 1280 x 1024 with sponsored ads at the top. In this view (which over 76% of users will see) there are still 3 organic results plus a universal result showing (click to view the images at full resolution):

In the worst case scenario of a 1024 x 768 display with sponsored ads at the top the user will see two organic results:

To see all of the screen captures at resolutions from 800 on up……
Continue reading Google Jazz Interface and the 7 Pack Are Evolving – How will it affect organic display?

Developing Knowledge about Local Search