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AKRON (July 7, 2014) — The online reviews arena can be tough. There are quite a few websites out there and it might seem overwhelming to keep track of them all.

However, with these sites, the consumer has a lot of power in their hands.

It is not just one customer with a bad experience about a product, service provider or retailer telling everyone they know. It’s that one customer having the ability to tell a mass of strangers searching for service reviews online. In a mere few seconds, your business could get blasted—and if you’re not paying attention, what does that mean for your business?

For example, one of my cousin’s friends had her wedding cake made at a local bakery, but the strawberries dripped and fell off her cake. She was very upset about this because worrying about your cake is not something you want to do on your wedding day. Now, I have never met this person, but I read about it because it was all over my Facebook News Feed. I started looking more into her complaints because I was shocked the company was not replying at all.

This woman had screenshots of the proprietor saying he was afraid that would happen, etc. and people were commenting they would never go there — yet the bakery was not apologizing or anything.

So why pay attention to online reviews?

This woman posted complaints on the company’s Facebook page, yelp and Google. I even found a local news story about the bakery where this woman commented about her experience and another person replied with her own pictures of a failed cake the bakery made for her. Maybe this wronged customer is overreacting. Maybe you don’t agree with her tactics. Regardless, if you are not aware of your online space, if you are not being proactive, this is the type of discourse that can happen about your business—whether or not you choose to participate.

Some dealer thought

One day I had the pleasure to get a call from Steve Bader, owner of Eatontown, N.J.-based Rayco Total Auto Repair. He was telling me about how he had some really awful experiences with online reviews. Mostly, he said, they were coming from a disgruntled ex-employee who keeps slamming his business online.

Steve said one thing he doesn’t really understand about online reviews is why there is no validation process. How does anyone know the writer really patronized the business?

Regardless of the online reviews, Steve said his business is doing well. Although he does not understand the process, he is still paying attention to the online reviews so he knows what is being said about Rayco. He thinks there should be some kind of proof of service.

He suggested that when a person is writing a review they should have to upload a receipt with it. He thinks that’s the only real way to prove the reviewer has indeed been a customer of the shop.

Although he has opted to remove his listing from the Yahoo search, Steve said he has been having success with Google lately.

Straight from the source

After speaking with Steve, I wanted to immediately bring up these thoughts to someone at an online review site to see what they had to say about it. I reached out to Ken Kupchik, director of content strategy at Mechanic Advisor, and we got to talking about this topic. He said although the verification process is a valid concern, Mechanic Advisor does take steps to weed out fake reviews.

For instance, all reviews on the site are audited by a human — they’re not just posted without any questions.

“A good majority of false reviews are easily detected because they don’t speak to the actual services of the shop or are extremely vague,” he said.

For instance, if someone posted “Joe was terrible, he can’t do repairs,” that would be a red flag. Any review that does not meet Mechanic Advisor’s quality guidelines are removed immediately.

Additionally, any person or Internet Protocol (IP) address that submits multiple reviews is flagged. This is so people cannot use multiple accounts and just blast the site with reviews.

“We sometimes see accounts that will post reviews across multiple shops,” Ken said.

“Many of these accounts appear to be shops trying to give their competition negative reviews. If we detect this, all reviews will be removed.”

If a shop is monitoring its page and feels like something faulty is going on, it can contact Mechanic Advisor, which in turn will reach out to the submitter to confirm the claim. At this point, if necessary, it will ask for a proof of service, Ken said.

As far as receipt verification goes, Ken said he thinks requiring receipts to submit a review would make the process more complicated and would discourage potential reviewers—with both positive and negative comments—from being posted. However, with the company’s procedures in place, it is on the lookout for false reviews.

Advice on tackling those reviews

While positive reviews are great, even the negatives can serve a purpose, Bill Martellaro, national sales manager for Net Driven, said.

“Everyone has a bad hair day,” he said.

No one — and that includes a business — is perfect. If a business has all five stars and great reviews, it just doesn’t seem real. It looks suspect to anyone looking up those reviews because, even with product reviews, someone will give it 4 out of 5 stars, he said.

The best thing you want to do with a bad review, Bill said, is get in front of it.

“That way, if it’s a bad review, you can really respond to it and you can turn a negative into a positive,” he added.

Bill suggested setting up a Google Alert with the name of your business so you know when something is being said about the company.

If you do get a bad review, you do not want it to fester out there without a response. If you do not know it’s there, you cannot respond to it.

“Speed is of the essence,” Bill said.

For some more advice on tackling the negative reviews, listen to the audio clip featuring Bill speaking about tips to handle the negative aspects of the reviews.

At the end of the day, you want others to see you are proactive, Bill said, but you also want to save that customer “because that angry customer, that customer who feels like they got poor service…they’re going to tell 10 people. A happy customer sometimes doesn’t tell anybody or they tell one.”

Honesty’s the best policy

When you are responding to reviews, or commenting online at all, you always want to be honest. There have been tales of misleading behavior that can ruin a company’s reputation.

Right now, Bill said the top online review sites for the industry are: Google (Google+ and Google Local), yelp, Yahoo Local, City Search and Facebook.

One of the first things a dealer wants to do is to claim its business page on these sites, or have your website provider do it on your behalf. Bill said this is a service Net Driven does for its customers.

“What will happen sometimes if you don’t pay attention to it…and it doesn’t happen all the time, especially in our industry, but a competitor can claim those pages or somebody else that just wants to hurt you,” he added.

If you do go to claim your page and see someone else has, there is a process for getting it fixed, but it may be painstaking, Bill said.

One of the best ways to start being proactive after claiming your page is to just ask your best customers if they wouldn’t mind posting a review. He said that the more positive reviews a business gets, the more that will push any negative reviews further and further down the page.

Since Facebook is still the largest social media network and one of the top online review sites, Bill said he knows some shops that create QR codes in the showroom so people can easily see it when they are waiting for their service and Like your page and/or leave a review.

“The data shows that…once you get to 1,800 likes and things like that, it really has a very, very positive affect on your business,” he said, adding why social media can be important for branding.

What can we take away?

The online review system does not seem to be going anywhere any time soon, so as a business owner, you should be paying attention. Even though Steve had trouble with it, he clearly knew what was being said about his business online. If you never check out what people are saying about your company, how would even know if there was a problem?

It has been about 3 ½ weeks since I first came across that cake compliant. The bakery has still not responded online at all, but there have been quite a few people who’ve posted that they will not order from this bakery because of these complaints.

As a business owner, you want to make customers happy so they keep coming back. By not seeing what’s out there about your business, you are opening yourself for these conversations to go on without you. And that can be dangerous.

______________________________________________

Tire Business reporter Jennifer Karpus can be reached at jkarpus@crain.com, or Tweet her at @jenniferkarpus.

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