Customer reviews are fast becoming the primary currency of business information on the web. Google Maps is putting increased emphasis on reviews, and has been aggregating business reviews from all over. And AT&T just announced the impending launch of a new consumer-review-focused site, buzz.com. Presumably some of the motivation behind the new site came from the fact that the review site Yelp.com is eating AT&T’s lunch. Specifically, Yelp.com is crushing AT&T’s Yellowpages.com site, in terms of unique visitors.
And Google, AT&T, Yelp and others are putting reviews first because that’s what consumers care about. According to Nielsen Online (April, 2009):
When making purchase decisions, North American Internet users trust recommendations from people they know and opinions posted by unknown consumers online more than advertisements on television, on the radio, in magazines and newspapers, or in other traditional media.
But there has been some backlash against this increased emphasis on customer reviews. Many businesses believe that review sites give too much power to a vocal minority. An Inc. Magazine article recently described a business owner who began fearing and harassing her customers because of Yelp. While the proprietor in question sounds a-few-monkeys-short-of-a-barrel, there is some validity to the concern. One or two unhappy customers can create a bad impression, and if reviews of a business are sparse, prospective customers have little else to go on. It can even create an atmosphere where subsequent reviewers feel they have to respond to the earlier, negative reviews.
On this topic I have an instructive anecdote concerning my former dentist, Shauna Gilmore. (Note that she is no longer my dentist because I moved too far from her office.) Several years ago, I recall getting an email from her office after an appointment. I don’t remember the exact words of the email, but it went something like:
Thank you for your recent visit …
We would love to hear from you how we are doing. We would very much appreciate it if you would post a review of your experience with us on doctoroogle.com.
Again, I’m going on memory here – I don’t recall the exact wording, but the gist was that they were asking me to write a review, positive or negative. Since I’d just had a very positive experience in her office, I was happy to take a few minutes to write a good review. And so did a lot of other people. If you have a look at the Good Dentist Guide for Denver, Dr. Shauna Gilmore is the highest rated dentist there is.
If, like Dr. Gilmore, you provide excellent service, think about respectful, unobtrusive ways you can ask your customers to review your business. Try to ask when you are still fresh on their minds as gratitude tends to have a very short half-life. And don’t ask for a positive review, just ask them to say what they think. For the most part, customers will appreciate that you value their opinion, and most if not all should have positive things to say. By encouraging a broad cross-section of your customers to speak out, you minimize the impact of a vocal few.
Also see this follow-up post: The Moral of the Story