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How to manage your reputation on customer review sites

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Word of mouth has always been a crucial factor in a company’s success, but that’s truer than ever in an age of online reviews and ratings. Here, your customers can be your greatest brand ambassadors or your fiercest critics.

Online review websites such as Yelp, TripAdvisor and Citysearch—along with a multitude of others—are growing in popularity with consumers who go online to check the opinions of others before shopping for products and services.

That presents a challenge for business owners who need to manage their company’s online reputation.

“Everybody is a critic now in the online world,” says Patrice Béchard, a Vice President at Montreal-based ID-3 Technologies, a firm that offers social media consulting services.

Typically, review sites offer 5-star rating systems and feature customer comments, as well as photos and general information about companies. A plan for managing these sites should be part of a larger social media strategy for your business, Béchard says.

“Think of everything that’s out there, including Facebook Places or Foursquare, not only dedicated review websites.”

Here are some tips for managing your company’s reputation on review sites.

1. Monitor

You need to know what’s being said about your business online. Do regular check-ups by searching on Google for mentions of your company. You should also set Google alerts to receive an email notification every time your business is mentioned online.

“If you don’t monitor what customers are saying, your business could be being bashed and you won’t even know it,” Béchard says.

Alternatively, you can hire one of the several companies that are in the business of monitoring and analyzing social media conversations about businesses.

2. Get involved

Responding to reviews can be delicate, especially if they are negative. But a little bit of common sense can go a long way.

If reviews are positive, the key is to simply say thank you in a brief and sincere way. This means you should avoid the temptation to try to make another sale, nitpick on minor points in the review or offer rewards like a coupon, discount or invitation to an event, says Yelp’s guide to responding to reviews.

“While a gift or an invitation sounds like a nice idea, it can also be misinterpreted as a bribe or payment for the review,” Yelp says. “Remember, this customer already likes your business—just use this opportunity to thank them and introduce yourself.”

In the case of truly excellent comments, you might want to ask the customer if you can use what he or she has said as a testimonial on your website or a presentation of your services, Béchard says.

Responding to a negative review is obviously more fraught with danger for your business’s reputation. It’s important to respond promptly and to maintain a polite, calm and neutral tone regardless of the language used by the other person.

Be truthful and transparent. Correct any misstated facts—yours and theirs but don’t delete bad reviews unless they are offensive, libellous or mean spirited.

Since reviewing is anonymous on many websites and information isn’t verified or filtered, “some of the comments should be taken with a big grain of salt,” Béchard says. Readers will judge the validity of negative comments on their own merits and in the context of other comments. Research has found a negative comment can actually add weight to positive ones because consumers become suspicious if reviews unanimously paint a rosy picture of a business.

3. Be honest

Don’t post fake positive reviews. The ruse will likely be discovered and then you’re really in hot water.

4. Act on feedback

Customer reviews are excellent business intelligence. Listening with an open mind to what’s being said about your business gives you the opportunity to improve your products and fix problems. And don’t forget to look at what customers are saying about the competition—there’s much to be learned there as well.

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