How to Make Online Reviews Work For You

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When you have dreams of opening a restaurant, you probably don’t think about the damage one person can do to tarnish your reputation, but if you’re not careful, that’s what can happen with online reviews.  

The Internet has done more for the restaurant industry than any other single technology, and while this can help you get business, it can also hurt you if you don’t know how to handle it.

Take a minute and think about how people find restaurants these days, especially compared to just a few years ago. While diners used to have to find restaurants through word of mouth, paid advertisements or driving by, these days finding a restaurant is as easy as doing a Google search for a type of restaurant and name of a city. This is great for restaurant owners, as it can be free advertisement, but think about what else someone might see if they stumble upon your restaurant name in a search engine.

Never has posting a public review for anything been so easy. Consumers can review everything from the comfort of their own homes — and restaurants are at the top of the list of places people like to review. Reviews used to be in large newspapers, written by a single restaurant critic; these days, everyone is the critic. Sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, and even Facebook and Twitter, are all resources diners use to find restaurants, check them out, and then review them.

You can’t stop people from leaving reviews of your restaurant, and once they are out there, there’s nothing you can do about them, so rather than fighting the idea that anyone under the sun can leave you a bad review, it’s time to embrace the trend and make it work for you.

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Why Online Reviews Matter.  First, let’s talk about why online reviews matter and what they can do for you. Reviews on popular sites like Yelp are often the first thing people see when they do a web search for your restaurant, even if they’re looking for your hours or menu. Too many negative reviews and people that may have come into your restaurant might never make it through the door.

While that might sound scary, a lot of good reviews can also make people show up in droves, so it can work in your favor. Of course, getting positive reviews is much harder than getting negative ones; people are much more likely to offer complaints rather than praise.

It helps to keep up with what people are saying about your restaurant, but responding is key.

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Handle Negative Reviews With Care. Since people are much more likely to leave negative reviews, how you handle them is important. Your first instinct is probably to get mad and fire back a defensive response, but don’t do that just yet.

Remember that on most sites, your response will be seen by everyone that reads the original review. If you fly off the handle and get angry, you only make your restaurant look worse, even if you have a point. Your response should be professional and apologetic, and it should not sound like a scripted response. Ask that the customer contact you privately to make amends, and offer compensation in private (offering a free meal on a public site could encourage negative reviews from unscrupulous customers.)

Do not use insults, name-calling, or otherwise derogatory language to handle your response. If you are unsure how your words come across, have someone read the response before sending.

Also, before responding to a review, ask yourself if there is truth to it. If the reviewer claims you’re local ingredients aren’t really local, and you know they are, don’t fire up a defensive response that is a lie. It will come back to haunt you.

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Don’t Do Anything Unethical. There are plenty of way to manipulate online reviews, but you should think twice before proceeding with anything that would cause bad press if it came out. This includes posting shill reviews about your restaurant or your competitors, and enacting revenge on anyone that leaves a negative review. Sites like Yelp have complicated algorithms that can detect shill reviews, and they are often removed,  but if you’re found out to have participated in such practices, you’ll lose more business than you could ever gain.

It’s also a gray area to ask your customers to write reviews of your restaurant, and this includes asking family and friends to write reviews. Reviews in general are only helpful if they are honest and having a bunch of solicited reviews ruins the system for everyone. You should also never offer anyone anything for a review, including free meals, coupons, or entries into a contest.

With this being said, it is okay, however, to simply mention that you can be found on Yelp or other sites. A simple window decal or sign near your register should do it.

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The Secret to Rave Reviews. So now that you know about bad reviews, how do you go about getting good reviews?

The secret to good reviews is really no “secret” at all. It’s actually simple, and you should be doing it regardless of whether you get reviews or not. What’s the secret? Provide good service and make sure your restaurant is a place where people want to come. The reviews will come in, although it will take time.

You should know why you are in business, and who your core customer is. Not all reviews are created equally — locals tend to have higher expectations than travelers, but both groups do reviews. Go out of your way to run a good business and the good reviews will come.

There is one thing to remember that will help you get the good reviews you’re after, and that is to understand why people write reviews in the first place. People write reviews for things that are out of the ordinary — either good or bad. They rarely write about middle of the road experiences. So do something amazing that no other restaurant in town does. Learn your regular customers’ names, and remember their orders. Create amazing specials. Offer a free dessert to regulars on occasion, just because. Come up with ways to surprise and delight people, and they’ll want to talk about it, just as they’ll want to talk about it if you make them angry.

It’s important to remember that you can’t please everyone. You’ll have diners that get upset, and nothing will please them. They’ll even write bad reviews now and then. Do your best to make them happy, but sometimes nothing works, and that’s okay. As long as you go out of your way to run a good business, the good reviews will outweigh the bad.


Do you leave online reviews? If so, tell us about it!


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