How to Grow Your Small Business with Online Reviews

Small businesses can struggle to get an edge over larger competitors.

They don't have the built-in name recognition of a big brand. Advertising dollars are limited. The latest technology is expensive beyond reach. And many aren't able to compete on price.

But there is one area that the big chains consistently overlook—online review sites like Yelp, OpenTable, and TripAdvisor. These sites can be the great equalizer by allowing small businesses to advertise a superior customer experience at little to no cost. 

And the best part? Most of the big companies don't get it.

I recently partnered with Jess Greene-Pierson, Director of Go To Market at the customer insight software firm, Womply. We facilitated a webinar to answer three key questions:

  1. Which review site do customers depend upon the most?

  2. How can negative reviews help your business?

  3. How can you earn more positive online reviews?

You can watch the webinar to get the full story, or read the highlights below.

Customer giving five stars in an online review.

Which review site do customers depend upon the most?

This data comes from a recent survey I conducted of over 1,000 adults in the United States. You can read the full story or just skim below.

The number one review site, by far, is Google:

Pie chart showing the most popular online review sites.

What makes it so popular is Google is the place to go when people search reviews without realizing they were looking for reviews. You can try this yourself with a little experiment:

  1. Think of a type of business you might need to find (restaurant, dry cleaner, mechanic, or anything else).

  2. Try Googling the type of business. Ex: "pet store"

  3. Notice what comes up after the ads.

Google suggests top-rated businesses with high ratings that it things are near you. The results show the star rating for each business along with a handy map.

A couple of years ago, I needed to find a pet store as I was driving through Tucson, Arizona. Look at what happens when I Google "pet store tucson." 

Google search results from “pet store tucson.”

Notice these are all local businesses. The big chains like Petco and Petsmart don't show up. This is the small business advantage!

How can negative reviews help your business?

Many small business owners live in fear of a negative review.

Customers exaggerate. Some reviews are fake. Negative reviews can feel like a personal attack. And even legitimate complaints stay online long after you've learned from the problem and fixed the issue.

The good news is negative reviews can actually help!

Researchers at Northwestern University discovered the optimum rating on an online review site is 4.2-4.5 stars. That's because 80 percent of customers seek out negative reviews when evaluating a business. They want to see what customers complain about and how the business responded.

During the webinar, Jess shared an example from Seafood Kitchen in Atlantic Beach, Florida. The owner, Nathan Stuart, regularly responds to negative reviews and asks upset customers to give the restaurant another try.

Slide from online review sites webinar.

One customer, Alvin F., changed a two-star Yelp review to four stars as a result of Nathan’s outreach. This is arguably more powerful than a five-star review because it shows a customer was upset (that happens) and the owner made an effort to make things right.

You can’t expect every customer to change their rating, but you can still make a positive impression on other customers by responding professionally and helpfully. It turns out, there's a quirk in psychology that makes other customers more likely to empathize with you if you handle the complaint politely without getting defensive.

How can you get more reviews of your business?

Jess suggested several straightforward dos and don'ts on the webinar:

Slide from online review sites webinar.

Yelp specifically forbids asking customers for reviews, but many major platforms are either silent on the issue or actively encourage it. Google, the most important site for reviews, actually publishes this guide to help you get more!

Take Action

To summarize, your business is more likely to get noticed if:

  • You have an active profile on Google and lots of positive reviews. 

  • A few negative reviews can give your business credibility.

  • Be proactive, but professional, about asking customers to review your business.

If you don't have an active Google My Business listing, you can easily get started with this handy guide from Womply.

You can also watch the webinar replay.

Why Companies Fail to Respond to Customers

Matt Beckwith is a huge Chick-fil-A fan. Well, at least he was until the company repeatedly failed to respond to a simple question about ice cubes.

Beckwith tried calling, but wasn't able to get a live person on the phone. So he turned to Facebook Messenger and sent a message on two separate occasions without getting a response.

As he wrote on the ICMI blog, his enthusiasm for Chick-fil-A has suddenly dampened.

Companies failing to respond to customers is an epidemic. Customer relationship management software provider SuperOffice emailed 1,000 companies for its 2018 Customer Service Benchmark report; 62 percent did not respond.

Social media software company Sprout has found that, on average, brands reply to just 1 in 10 social media messages from customers.

Surely we can all agree that not responding to your customers is a recipe for failure. So the really big question is, "Why don't more companies respond?"

Here are a few reasons.

Man waiting for a call to come through on an old, red, rotary phone.

Reason #1: It's Not a Priority

Most customer service leaders would say that responding to customers is a priority. But there's a big difference between saying something is a priority and actually putting the investment and resources into making it a priority.

Companies routinely fail to provide customer service channels with adequate staffing and resources. This is especially true with written channels such as email and social media.

For example, smaller companies often have phone agents handle email in between phone calls and other tasks. This workflow naturally puts email in a backseat position. Customer messages languish in a general inbox until someone has a free moment to check them.

Data released in 2017 by the consulting firm Execs in the Know showed that the customer service department does not have any ownership of social media in 49 percent of companies. The same report also revealed that 22 percent of companies don't train their social media agents.

Graphic showing which departments own social media.

Companies that truly want to respond to customers provide adequate resources.


Reason #2: It's Not in the Plan

Contact center consulting firm Services Triad conducted a survey of 32 contact centers in Quebec to see what actions they took to ensure they had adequate staffing. While narrow in scope, I believe the results mirror what you'd likely find around the U.S. and Canada.

One question asked contact center leaders whether they forecasted customer contact volume for various channels. This is critical, since accurate forecasting allows you to have the right number of agents available to meet customer demand.

The results were startling:

Chart showing percentage of contact centers that forecast volume for various service channels.

The data shows that 35 percent of contact centers have no idea how much email volume to expect on a given day. That number jumps to 66 percent for social media. These contact centers simply react to what they get. Many customer service leaders have told me their teams often get overwhelmed.

The same survey found that even the phone forecasts were lacking. For example, 56 percent of contact centers do not include time for customer follow-ups or callbacks in their schedules. Many contact center agents are closely monitored for how well they adhere to their work schedule, a practice which actually discourages responding to customers.


Reason #3: Automation

Automation has been offered as a solution to help companies respond faster to customers, but it's not without challenges.

Sometimes automation doesn't work. We've all suffered the embarrassment of trying to use the self-checkout kiosk at a store, only to need an associate to help us out. There are also plenty of examples of tone-deaf automated messages inserting themselves into social media conversations, like this one.

Other times it just feels cold. There's nothing like getting a boilerplate "Dear Valued Customer" email to make you feel like you are anything but valued.


Take Action!

I recently joined forces with my friend and customer service writing expert, Leslie O'Flahavan, to host a webinar to show you how to balance speed and quality when responding to customers. You can watch the webinar here: