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Using Reviews to Unlock Your Competitive Advantage

With Jeff Toister and Ali Schwartz

59 minutes

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Positive or negative, all reviews present an opportunity for your business. Some reviews tell you where to improve, while some provide insights into how you’re winning and retaining your most loyal customers.

Creating a customer-focused culture doesn’t have to be a complicated and daunting task. Join author, consultant, and trainer Jeff Toister for this recording from an April 2021 “ask me anything” virtual event, in which Jeff shares his expertise and experience, answering questions like:

  • What actionable information can you learn from reviews?
  • How can positive reviews create change in your business?
  • How can you make customer service a passion for employees?
  • How can you use reviews to drive new and repeat business across all platforms?

Learn how to create a guaranteed positive experience that leaves customers happy and inspired—making them more likely to write a review.

Jeff Toister Author, Consultant, and Trainer

Jeff Toister is an author, consultant, and trainer who helps companies develop customer-focused cultures. He’s written four books including The Guaranteed Customer Experience. Thousands of customer service professionals around the world subscribe to Jeff’s Customer Service Tip of the Week email. More than 500,000 people on six continents have taken one of his video-based training courses on LinkedIn Learning.

Ali Schwartz Senior Marketing Manager at Yelp (moderator)

Ali is passionate about helping local businesses navigate their online presence. She’s responsible for planning and hosting Yelp’s educational events, such as webinars and summits, as well as speaking on behalf of Yelp at trade shows and conferences. Ali provides business owners, managers, and marketers with the tools and resources to help them thrive in the world of digital marketing. Ali is constantly sharing her knowledge and insights with business builders and operators, advising on topics like reputation management and customer service. Ali is a wealth of knowledge and a great go-to for all things Yelp!

•  Overview
•  Top 3 myths about Yelp reviews
•  Role of reviews
•  Making customer service a passion for employees
•  Addressing the importance of reviews to employees
•  Responding to negative reviews
•  Responding to positive reviews
•  Engaging customers through reviews
•  Mistakes around approaching reviews
•  Closing advice for business success


Ali: We are very excited to have Jeff Toister here with us today. He is an author, a trainer, a business consultant, a jack-of-all-trades and has so much insight and experience when it comes to customer service, reviews, and using reviews in an effort to unlock your competitive advantage. We have some amazing questions that were submitted beforehand, but we’re also going to be taking live Q&A throughout. We’re not necessarily only saving that for the end. So please, separate from the chat feature, use the Q&A feature and ask us some questions throughout. We will certainly make sure that myself and the Yelp team is sifting through them and get those questions over to Jeff.

Before we get started, I just want to introduce myself. I’m Ali Schwartz. I’m the senior marketing manager for Yelp. I’m based out of New York City, so you very well might hear some sirens, fire trucks, police cars, folks yelling, very common to hear that in the heart of New York City. So, I apologize in advance, but at least you’ll get a little bit of that NYC love. Before I turn it over to Jeff, I want to give you a brief overview of what we’ll do.

We will talk about the top three myths that it comes to when folks think about Yelp reviews in particular. Then, we’ll turn it right over to Jeff. We’ll ask him a ton of great questions, and he can speak to a more general outlook, not just Yelp specific. We’ll be taking live Q&A throughout, so pop into the Q&A and type your questions live, and at the end, depending on time, we’ll be able to do straight live questions and we’ll talk through some resources.

Top 3 myths about Yelp reviews

Myth 1: People only write reviews if they’ve had a negative experience.

Ali: I’ve heard this countless times over my six years at Yelp, and folks who don’t write reviews themselves, so business owners, managers like yourselves think other people aren’t writing reviews unless they really hated something or had a horrible experience. That’s not necessarily the case. We have tested this time and time again, quarter after quarter for the last 15 years that Yelp has been around. There are actually more 5-star reviews on Yelp than 1-, 2-, and 3-star reviews combined out of millions of reviews on the platform. That data tells us that people want to have a positive experience. People want to write about the good and are writing about the good.

Myth 2: I have to pay Yelp to receive 5-star Yelp reviews

Ali: This is definitely not true. The only thing that you actually get when you pay Yelp is more exposure or access to certain features like hiding competitor ads. You’re paying for prime real estate on Yelp. It has absolutely nothing to do with reviews. The way that you’ll notice is that we have folks that have a 3-star overall rating that are current paid clients, and there is no correlation between our paying clients, our advertisers and reviews. There’s no big red button on the backend here at Yelp HQ where we can click it and all of a sudden, the negative reviews disappear and 5 stars start rolling in.

Yelp is such a trusted site because of what we call a “Recommendation software.” On some Yelp pages, you’ll notice recommended reviews which is what you see in the overall star rating. We have a section for non-recommended reviews. Our recommendation software is a completely automated algorithm, and it does not look at things like if the client is paying us, if it’s even a 5-star or a 1-star. It’s actually only looking at the quality and the authenticity. Does it seem like a trustworthy review? Did that person search for your business? What has the activity of that user done on the backend? It’s all in an effort so that we can serve up the most trusted content to consumers, and it would be a very biased site if all we were doing was serving up reviews that businesses either created fake profiles and wrote about themselves, or businesses only ask their loved ones who really do love them to write reviews, or on the contrary, businesses wrote negative reviews about other competitors. 

So, it’s looking at all those things and more to make sure that we are only delivering the most trusted content for our users which makes Yelp very important, which is why businesses should pay attention to it. That’s why we have Jeff here today to talk even further about how to have a customer service mindset and how to use reviews to your advantage.

Myth 3: People only use Yelp for restaurant or write reviews on Yelp just for restaurants

Ali: This is also not true. Here is a recent breakdown of where people are writing reviews across every industry on Yelp. Home and local services and restaurants are tied. Home and local services are anything from your print shop to your plumber, and people are writing a lot of content about their experiences there as well as restaurants, shopping, beauty and fitness, etc. That myth and that mentality of restaurants or Yelp being only for restaurants makes sense because people eat three times a day. Food is a need, so folks really rely on Yelp when it comes to restaurants. But it’s not the only thing and not necessarily the top thing that people are using Yelp for or contributing content for.

All of that being said, I want to turn it over to our amazing guest, Jeff Toister. Jeff, I’m going to invite you up on this virtual stage here with us. You can put your camera on. I am so thankful to have you here today. Thank you for joining us. We are so excited to have you. Jeff is very, very accomplished. He knows everything when it comes to customer service, customer reviews, how to handle them, what to think about the good ones, the bad ones, how to get more of them. I mean, really every bucket when it comes to reviews, Jeff is your guy. I can’t say enough good things about you. I’m going to put myself on mute, pass it over to you. Just tell us a little bit about yourself to get us started, and why do you think reviews are so important?

Jeff: Well, thank you Ali. I really appreciate it. Thanks to everybody who is tuning in today. I’m excited to be joining you. I saw a lot of great representation for, as Ali said, not just restaurants but the people who are tuning in today, all kinds of businesses, so it’s very exciting. My focus is really on customer experience, customer service. I’m an author, so I do a lot of research and I talk to a lot of business owners, and that’s part of the fun for me. I’m excited to share a little bit with you today, and in particular about my new book, “The Guaranteed Customer Experience.” There’s one particular aspect that we’re going to focus on, which is understanding why your customers come to you, why they love you, and how you can do more of that. That’s really what the book is all about, and then framing what I call an experience guarantee around that.

Role of reviews

Buc-ee’s success through reviews

Jeff: I’ll give you a real quick example and we’ll tie this right back to reviews. If you’ve ever been on a road trip, you know that there’s sometimes miles between stops. I was on a road trip just this past weekend, and the big conversation is, “Where are we going to stop?” You need to get gas, maybe some snacks, but if we’re being honest, you need a restroom. It’s tough finding a clean restroom when you’re on a road trip, and for some reason, the gas stations and convenience stores haven’t figured this out. From station to station, it’s completely inconsistent. There’s one company which I wrote about in the book. It’s called Buc-ee’s. If you’re in Texas, you know Buc-ee’s. They’re starting to expand in the Southeast, and they figured this out. Why do people go to Buc-ee’s? There’s a few reasons. They have lower prices on average than their competitors. They’ve got some of the biggest selection that you could imagine for a convenience store. Their convenience stores are Texas sized, huge.

There’s one thing that they do better than everyone else: They have the cleanest restrooms of any convenience store chain in America. Because of that, they can advertise it. They promise you, when you see their billboards, we have clean restrooms, that gets you to come in. They deliver on that promise. When you get in, the restrooms are actually clean and huge—some of the biggest ones even have little lights above the stalls. Red means “Hey, someone’s in here, green means “Come on in.” They have people constantly patrolling to keep them clean, and that third element where they can really make it a guarantee is if anything goes wrong, there are employees on hand right then and there to fix it, make it right, and keep the restrooms clean.

Here’s the tieback to what we’re talking about today. If you look at Yelp reviews for Buc-ee’s locations across the entire chain, 46% of those reviews will mention the restrooms. That’s how we know this is the thing above all else that customers really care about, that people mention over and over again. I’m excited today to join you and talk about how you can look into your reviews and find out what really sets you apart from your competition.

Ali: That’s so fantastic. I’m just reminiscing about being on the road. It’s true that I’m always thinking about “I want to make sure I’m going into a clean restroom.” Through my course of talking to thousands of business owners, it’s really easy to stay in the mentality of a business owner, but taking that hat off and putting the consumer hat on, asking “What is someone looking for? What are their expectations when it comes to your business?” In this case, the rest stop, it’s the bathroom. But what is that thing for your business and how can you have your own secret sauce.

Actionable insights from reviews

Ali: We’re going to cover everything from how to respond to the bad ones, the good ones, how to get more of them, all that good stuff, but I’d like to just start a little high level and hear from you about what actionable information can you learn from reviews and how do you go about doing that.

Jeff: I think we’re used to the idea that if there’s a complaint, maybe we can get something constructive, and that’s certainly true. We’ll talk about that I think a little bit later, but I think there’s something even more important. If you look at a business with even an average rating, there are still customers giving that business 5-star reviews because they love that business. The key, I think, for any business owner is to figure out why and what they love so that we can focus our advertising, we can focus our operations, we can focus our service. 

I’ll give you an example. There is a wine bar in Portland, Oregon that I absolutely adore called Oregon Wines On Broadway. I discovered this wine bar when I was staying nearby on a business trip and just wanted a place to get a glass of wine. I love wine, I wanted to discover some great Oregon Pinot, and maybe just chat with some locals at the bar. This is the greatest place in Oregon I found to do that. What’s interesting is right now, they have about a 3.5-star rating on Yelp, and I think for a business owner, you might say “Oh, that’s not so good.” That’s true. It could certainly improve in some aspects, but look more closely at the reviews. The reviews are very consistent, both the good ones and the bad ones—they tell you what they stand for. What do they stand for? This is the place to go if you want that locals’ vibe, to meet other people, and certainly to get a really smart person who knows their wine to guide you through Oregon Pinot Noir. It’s also not the place to go on a first date because it is salty in there. The language is coarse, the service is not that refined “How may I help you today? It’s like, “What are you doing in here? Come on in.” That’s the kind of attitude that you get. The 1-star and 2-star reviews reflect that: “Oh, I went there, and they were a little abrupt with me,” but that’s not the place for you then.

I think as a business owner, when you look at your reviews, this tells you who you need to be focused on. If I’m Oregon Wines On Broadway, you need to focus on the person who wants to come in, have a good time and explore wine, and don’t focus on that couple looking for that special romantic date. That’s just not the place for them. If you look at your reviews and what people consistently mention as great, that’s probably where your secret sauce lies.

Making customer service a passion for employees 

Ali: That’s so fantastic. You have the best stories and anecdotes. I could listen to you all day. Part of the path to getting more reviews and getting more positive reviews as a whole is putting the customer first and creating that fabulous 5-star customer service experience, which your book talks all about. I’d love to hear from you, how can you get employees, especially folks that maybe are part-time—they of course are never going to be as invested as maybe the business owners and the business managers that are on this call—how can you get them bought in and feeling passionate about not only providing a great experience but really wanting from a branding perspective of that business, representing the brand, and giving all they got?

Jeff: You touched on Yelp myths at the very beginning. I want to touch on an employee myth, and that is this notion that employees need to be motivated. They don’t. There’s a lot of research that has gone into this. I’ll give you the high level. Employees don’t need to be motivated. The issue is that they get steadily demotivated when they feel like they aren’t able to do a good job, have a good time at work, and be successful. If you hire right, your mission as a boss or business owner is to avoid demotivating employees. So, how do you do that and how do you get them to really have that, not the same level of passion, but a similar level of passion to really represent your business? 

There’s three things I think you need to do as a business owner or a business leader:

1. Make it clear to all employees what your business stands for

What is the goal? What does great look like? As a business owner, too often it’s in your head. You know what you want, you know what your vision is, but your employees don’t. So until your employees understand this is what we stand for, this is our secret sauce, they can’t know it, they can’t read your mind. 

2. Make sure that employees understand how they personally contribute to that 

I think that’s very important. Sometimes, the business owner will articulate a particular vision. Employees will be like, “Great, but I’m here part-time. What’s my role in there? What am I supposed to do? What are the right behaviors?” So, you need to educate, train, and coach your employees.

3. Enable your employees to do a great job

One of the most important things as a business owner is to enable your employees to do a great job. Sometimes, that means getting out of their way, and sometimes that means giving them the tools, the resources, and the authority to do a great job. If you can do that, then their natural motivation that they had when they walked in the door is going to rise to the surface. They’re going to represent your business well. 

So, the key is it’s not motivation, it’s preventing demotivation. If you hire the right people, they’re going to do a great job for you.

Addressing the importance of reviews to employees

Ali: That’s fantastic. Just education, communication, sounds so simple, but when implemented, it can really be the difference between demotivated and motivated. It could be the difference between a 5-star experience and a 3-star experience. It really makes a difference. In that same vein, what do you do if not everyone feels that customer feedback and reviews in general, from a staff perspective, is important? They’re bought in and motivated employees in general, or they’re not demotivated rather, but what do you do if there’s maybe a lack of awareness around the fact that reviews are important and a lack of wanting to address feedback?

Jeff: I think you hit the nail on the head that reviews are important, and that’s a key thing. Not just positive, good reviews, but all reviews. I remember a story of a restaurant owner, I will not name this person, but they had gotten some really negative reviews on Yelp and their response to that was to print out the reviews, tack them to a bulletin board, and basically had this threatening message “Hey, if we keep getting these negative reviews, people are going to get fired.” Imagine getting that message from your boss. Does that put a smile on your face? Do you want to be friendly when that’s the communication you’re getting from the business owner? Of course not. I think we really want business leaders and bosses to let us know that we’re always trying to improve but we still got your back. So, how do we do that?

First, we have to go back to your previous question. We have to be clear on what we stand for. This is who we are, this is who we’re trying to be. If we let a customer down, we’re going to fix it and on the other hand, if a customer wanted something from us that we just don’t provide, you get the angry customer that says, “Hey, I showed up on Mother’s Day with my party of 15 and you couldn’t sit me, I’m angry.” You can’t take that out on your employees, you have to have their back on that. That’s the first part.

The second part is, if we’re going to take reviews seriously, we’ve got to look at them. We’ve got to share them with employees, and to me a best practice is taking that information and doing something with it, having a discussion about it.

I’ll go to a third step, and this is what elite businesses do: They don’t wait for the reviews, they gather their feedback. I hope you don’t mind, this is an opportunity for me to give a shout out to my favorite restaurant, Antica Trattoria. It is in La Mesa, which is just outside of San Diego. It is the best Italian food in town, but let me tell you a secret that makes them great. I’ve been going there for years, and a couple of years ago when I was dining, a waiter came up to me and said, “How was your meal tonight?” And I gave him the, “It was okay.” And instead of saying, “Great, I’ll move on to the next table,” he said, “I know this is one of your favorite dishes, why is it just okay?” I explained to him—it was their famous lasagna—I said, “It’s just not the way it normally is. Here’s what I experienced tonight.” So, I wasn’t trying to get people in trouble, I wasn’t upset, not at all. A couple minutes later, the owner and the head chef, the same person, came over to me. “You didn’t like the lasagna? Tell me about it.” We talked about it for a moment and figured out they had a new cook who didn’t have the lasagna recipe quite right.

Before reviews or anything else, that moment when you’re face-to-face with the customer and you say, “How is everything?” That was a real question in Antica Trattoria. They took that feedback seriously and saw the issue. The chef said to me, “The next time you come back, you’d better order the lasagna again because you know you’re going to love it.” And I did. That probably more than anything else tells employees like my server that feedback is incredibly important, that we want it and we’re going to use it.

Responding to negative reviews

Actionable insights from negative reviews

Ali: Those are great tools to keep in mind, and that business is so fortunate to have a customer like you that takes the time to communicate and take the next step with questions, and really leaning in ultimately to the potential of feedback as opposed to shying away from it. I think this is a perfect segue to talk about what might be on everyone’s mind, which is those negative reviews, how to handle them, and what to do when they might get a negative review from someone who had a complaint or feedback similar to yourself but didn’t raise that in person at all. They paid and left quietly, and then next thing you know it’s a 2-star review, “I used to love this restaurant, but my lasagna was no good anymore.”

In that type of situation where there wasn’t an opportunity to rectify it with that customer in person, what do you do? Before you answer that, I want to remind folks that we are pulling these questions from what registrants submitted ahead of time, but we will be incorporating live questions. So, go into that Q&A feature, type us your questions, and we’re going to send them over to Jeff. So Jeff, what do you do when you have some feedback that’s less than positive online? How do you handle it? What do you do?

Jeff: This is really difficult for business owners and leaders, because that negative review feels like a personal attack. It feels emotional. When we feel like we’re attacked, we want to lash out. I want to acknowledge that it’s not easy. I want to give you a very bit of counterintuitive advice to follow when you get that negative review, but you first have to understand your emotional response in the moment—it’s not going to be helpful. Take that deep breath, push that aside. 

Now here’s what you need to know. That negative review, believe it or not, is a big favor. It can help you attract more customers if you use it correctly. Let me explain exactly how this works.

First, customers don’t trust businesses that don’t have any negative reviews. It doesn’t feel authentic. You can’t be wonderful to everyone. In fact, research has been done, and they show the sweet spot is not a 5-star average rating. Your revenue typically as a small business is best when your rating is somewhere in the 4- to 4.5-star range. So, negative reviews can help. 

The second thing you need to know is that negative review is not just that customer ranting, it is an opportunity for you as a business to demonstrate that you take feedback seriously. So customers, when they look at reviews, they don’t just look at positives, they look at the negative reviews anyways. They will be there. So, if you respond in a very professional and helpful manner, then you are helping not just that customer but also every other customer who reads that review understand what you’re all about.

Here is the fun part. Research shows that if we see someone who is inherently unreasonable and then we see a reasonable response from the other person, we tend to empathize more. A person leaves a 1-star review and says, “I can’t believe the dry cleaner was not open at 7:00 PM on a Sunday. I have to get my suit cleaned for a big meeting Monday morning. One star.” Most customers will read that review and go, “That’s inherently unreasonable.” So, you have to understand that. Now, if you write a response that says, “I’m so sorry we weren’t able to take care of you. Our normal business hours are…, and if you come in next time during those hours and you have a rush, we do have a rush program to make sure we get your suit pressed and cleaned on time.” It’s reasonable, helpful not just for that person but for everyone else who reads the review. Again, research says they’re probably going to empathize with you and feel that you are more credible based upon that response. So it’s tough, you got to set those emotions aside and realize that negative reviews are doing you a favor.

Ali: It is so true. I know specifically that Yelp research lends to that, and we see about 30% of the time, two things happen. One, the customer that wrote that negative review when responded to politely and professionally, they feel like they were seen, heard, and that their problem was addressed. They are 30% more likely to go back and actually update their rating from 1, 2 or 3 to a 4 or 5. That just shows you again the power of folks wanting to connect, and it can seem or feel like sometimes, when it comes to reviews in general, people really want to talk about—I can just speak to Yelp in particular—they really want to talk about the positive experiences that they’re getting.

When you have a 1-star review not from the nicest person in the world and it’s a middle school size essay on the page, it’s just a dagger to the heart. It’s hurtful and frustrating. Like you said, Jeff, I can’t echo it enough, responding professionally and politely is the absolute way to do it and engaging customers.

We were recently working with a tattoo shop, and he had someone who wrote that exact scenario: just a very frustrated customer, the negative nancies of the world, the unpleasable folks, nothing you say or do is going to help this person. They’re not looking for anything. They just want to rant a little bit. I kid you not, there have been dozens of customers that have come in because of the way the tattoo shop owner responded, and they saw that and thought to themselves, “Wow. They can have that empathy as an onlooker, as a consumer, as a potential customer. They can see someone really ranting.” Think about if you see that stuff going on in person, someone screaming in an owner’s face in person, and the owner remains calm, cool, collected, you respect and appreciate that. That makes you have that empathy, and so I couldn’t agree more.

Benefits of responding to negative reviews

Ali: Jeff, I see a couple questions here about responding to reviews and responding to those negative reviews, do you recommend that business owners and managers respond to negative reviews no matter what? So whether it’s an accurate negative review or the rant, do you think that a response is always necessary?

Jeff: I do, and for a couple of reasons. 

One, it shows that you care. It shows that you’re active, and again, keep in mind, your response is not just for that customer, it’s for everyone else who is reading the review. So, if the review is unreasonable, a professional, polite, helpful response is going to draw more people to your business because they see that. On the other hand, sometimes negative reviews are true. They’re accurate, and I think a helpful response there as well tells customers “Hey, no one’s perfect.” But you’re trying to get it right, and you stand behind your business.

I recently did business with a company called Idyllwild Design who do flooring, window covering, and all kinds of design elements for your home. I found them on Yelp. They had a great reputation and a negative review that really stood out for me. The negative review said, “I was really upset because of the items that we ordered.” I think they ordered flooring, “It took longer than expected to come in, and there were a couple of broken pieces, and that took longer to resolve.” The owner’s response was phenomenal. One, this happened during COVID where I think as customers, we know that supply chains are stretched thin. So, the owner was contrite but also saying, “Here’s what we’re trying to do.” And the second thing is, the owner was taking responsibility for the part that they could take responsibility for. So, I saw that as a consumer and said, “Nobody’s perfect, but it looks like they really care about making it right.” I didn’t hesitate to give them a call. They replaced the blinds and shades in a vacation rental property I own and did a fantastic job.

So, to your point about how we see those responses, that can just draw more customers to you as they read their negative review and they see how you as a business owner or manager respond to that.

When to respond

Ali: Such a great learning opportunity for consumers to see how that business owner and manager speak to people in general. It can really entice someone to become a customer or a repeat customer in general. We have a live question here that is asking about a timeline for responding to those negative reviews—24-hour turnaround, two-week turnaround. 

What would be your suggested timeline as far as when is the latest you should really address it or get back to someone?

Jeff: Ideally ASAP for a couple of reasons. 

One is that the person who is writing the review is really upset. They’re doing it to seek some sort of validation to vent, and maybe to take out some sort of measure of revenge on your business. The longer that review is up there without your response, the more likely it is for other people to see it. So, the faster you respond, the better.

On the other hand, as a small business owner, responding to reviews is not your only task. Part of the challenge is what’s reasonable? How can you respond quickly when you have so many other things to do? One of the things that I recommend is just setting aside a little bit of time each day to look at your online reviews on whatever platforms you know your customers are active, whether it’s Yelp, Google, OpenTable, Tripadvisor or whatever your business is using to communicate with customers or customers are using to communicate with you. Scan for those reviews and write a brief but helpful response. You can’t work 24-7, and so it also helps to have a trusted manager or leader in your business who is also empowered to do the same thing. I think that’s helpful as well.

To me, ASAP, but of course we have to balance that. I know business owners, especially small business owners, are incredibly busy.

Who should respond 

Ali: At Yelp, we do encourage the business owners we talk to, because these businesses are your babies, right? If you know that managing the reviews, the response, and the engagement surrounding reviews, there is going to be no way that you can’t put the caps lock on and start banging on the keyboard. You delegate that job to someone else permanently or have some checks and balances in place if you know “I get really hot-headed when it comes to anything that’s not a 5-star rating.” Delegate that task for someone to be managing that flow of reviews that’s coming in.

Jeff: You make a really good point because circling back to your response is not just to that customer, it’s to everyone. I think we can all relate to this. If you come across two people who are arguing, as a third party, you’re not looking at those two people and saying, “Who is more right? Who do I like more?” No, you’re just like, “Ah, two people arguing, I’m getting away from this.” And that’s what a really angry response to an online review looks like to every other customer. Two unreasonable people versus just one. So, I love your point about maybe you’re not even the right person to respond. Maybe you have that level-headed person who is always so happy, and they’re the perfect person to write those carefully worded responses.

How to phrase a response

Ali: We have another live question that speaks to apologizing or saying I’m sorry in the response. What are your thoughts on if there is total accuracy versus only maybe a little bit of legitimacy in the negative review? I think what they’re really saying is they don’t want to self-incriminate or make themselves look some type of way, that this is a norm within their business, even if there is some legitimacy to the review. So, what about actual phrasing of response and the best way to approach that?

Jeff: There was some research released last year that suggested minor transgressions, minor things are the substance and content of the review. A “Thank you” is more powerful than “I’m sorry.” So, if I’m reading a review and someone said, “Hey, there was a delay and I was kind of mildly upset about that.” As a business owner, I’m going to get more traction with that person and people who are reading it by saying, “Thank you for sharing that feedback. I really appreciate it. Here’s what we’re doing about it.” So, it’s a little counterintuitive, but some of those studies were actually done in a restaurant setting with actual reviews, and how willing people were to leave a review and what the substance of those reviews were.

So, minor transgressions, a “Thank you” can be very powerful. If the situation is partly accurate, we also know that when customers get very emotional they tend to exaggerate, so it might be partly inaccurate. I think you can apologize for the part that’s true such as “I’m so sorry you had to wait, and I really appreciate you sharing that feedback. Here’s what we’re doing about it.” To me, it’s very rare when you’re worried about wait time, or my meal wasn’t delicious, or they didn’t get rid of the termites. Those are very rare instances. With that small slice, maybe be really careful about how you phrase things, but realize from the customer’s point of view they’re looking for validation and sending this out to the public because in their minds, they’re perfectly right and reasonable.

Use sincere and honest phrasing. I think people can tell when you are not being sincere. To me, that’s probably more important than the specific phrases. Just to circle back, minor things, a “Thank you” appears to be more powerful than “I’m sorry.”

Responding to positive reviews

Ali: I love that, and “Thank you” is a complete sentence and a powerful one. You talk about making sure that you are sincere, which I think is a great segue into talking about positive reviews and how to use them to your advantage, how to share them out, and what to do with them. I think we could really just start with responding to positive reviews and making sure that you come across as sincere. How do you avoid saying the same exact thing when you’re responding to positive reviews? Do you encourage a response at all to positive reviews?

Jeff: I think you should respond to every single review. That tells everybody else you take these reviews seriously, and for the individual customer, it validates that they did a good job by spending a moment to give feedback. What do you write then? I find this challenging because I have to respond to online comments and reviews all day. I probably have about 50 a day that I have to respond to. So, on some levels, I think it’s okay if you use some repetitive phrasing and try to mix it up a little, but at a certain level, it’s just unavoidable. What I do try to do is I call out something specific that the person mentions. It makes it really clear I’m responding to you and I’m not just copying and pasting.

So, if someone is responding to a review in a hair salon and they said, “I can’t believe it. My hair looks fantastic and I’m so excited. This is perfect.” Then you respond to that specific thing, “Well, I hope your event went really, really well, and I’m glad you feel good and are looking good” That’s a quick response, but it speaks directly to the thing that the person said. Now, the next person gives a response and says, “Hey, my hair looks fantastic for these pictures I’m about to take with my family.” You’re basically setting the same response, I’m so glad that you look fantastic for the pictures you’re about to take with your family.” It’s sincere and direct, but it’s basically the same formula. So, it makes it a little easier on you, but it also makes it feel a little bit more special for the person who is seeing that response.

Actionable insights from positive reviews

Ali: Do you encourage any next steps after the response? A positive review comes in, you take the time to give a thoughtful response, then what do you do with that positive review?

Jeff: There’s a few things that you can do with positive reviews. Neutral reviews, even negative reviews are very helpful. One is let’s share that feedback. I think employees love hearing that they did something well, that they contributed to a great experience. On the other hand, if you can create a safe place where feedback is about growth and not about being punished, I think they want to hear those negative reviews as well. Something that’s a little interesting, a lot of positive reviews, even a 5-star review will have a couple elements in it that says here’s what I think you can do better. “I love you, you’re a great business, I want to keep being a customer. A couple things I’d like you to work on…” So, even in that element, sharing that with employees, discussing what we did well, let’s do that more often. Here’s what we can improve upon, let’s keep working on that. I think that’s very important.

The second thing is actually taking action. If you see something that is an issue consistently, do something about it. That’s very helpful, and even that can be reflected in your responses. “A lot of customers just like you shared that same feedback with us lately and because we’ve updated our policy. Here’s more information. Wow, you take this seriously, you really care about our feedback.”

The third thing is don’t be afraid to publicize these reviews. Don’t be afraid to let people know “Hey, we got some great reviews, I’m going to share it, I’m going to promote it. Customers really love us, here’s an example.” Tell other people about how great your business is. That can be a really nice piece of marketing.

Ali: I want to transition to speaking about how to get more reviews. It’s one of the most asked questions across the board that I’ve seen during my time at Yelp. Before we transition into that, I just want to take a moment, and we’ll do so again in another 15 minutes when we’re wrapping up. We have a couple questions coming in about how to get a copy of your book and learn more about the information that we’re both discussing. So, I just want to call our Jeff’s website, which is, where you can find more. If you go to, you can get a copy of Jeff’s amazing new book that’s coming out and also just learn more about some of the stats that Jeff is uncovering.

Then on the Yelp side, if you want to know more about our recommendation software, and what goes into making sure that the content and the reviews that are coming to the site are trusted, you can actually go to All the stats we talked about, about responding to reviews, specifically on Yelp, and how many reviewers are reviewing certain categories will be very transparent on that site. 

Engaging customers through reviews

Ali: Jeff, talk to us about how I’m a business and I’m desperate to get more reviews. How do I do that without making the customers feel icky?

Jeff: We’d probably do a whole webinar just on this topic, but let’s unpack this a little bit. As a business owner, I often think asking, finding the question behind the question is very important. When someone says, “How do I get more reviews?” What do we really mean: “How do we get more positive reviews?” Tell me if I’m wrong in this one, what do they really want: “How do I get these reviews to bring in more customers?” 

I want to look at the big picture. It’s not just how many reviews I get, it’s how I’m using online review platforms like Yelp to make my business attractive to new customers. It starts at the very beginning where a customer is on this platform and it’s essentially a search platform. They’re putting in their parameters: What am I looking for? I’m looking for yard maintenance near me. Is your profile claimed? Have you filled it out completely? Hours of operation, services offered, service areas, all the information that might help a customer find you easily. I know this is simple, but I can’t tell you how many businesses get this wrong. I found a really cool looking restaurant on Yelp, and I looked at the menu and saw two items. I’m like, “I’m going to have a tough time choosing between these two things.” When I got to the restaurant, they had a new menu. They don’t have either of those things on there, so immediately I’m disappointed. I don’t care about the new menu, I came in for two things and you don’t have either, I’m walking back out.

First things first, make sure your profile is up to date, make sure it’s accurate. Make it easy for people to find you when they’re looking for you. 

Second, you have to provide a great experience. There’s no way around it. If you don’t provide a great experience, why are they going to give you a good review? So, focus on the experience and the reviews will come. I think that’s really important. There’s a coffee shop near my home, it’s called Simple Coffee House. They’re never going to out Starbucks, but they’ve looked at their reviews and what makes them special. They’re an amazing place to meet people. Now, this is a little difficult right now and they’re surviving, but pre-pandemic and in the very near future, this is where you go when you want to meet a friend, because there’s always a table available, or you go and you want to get work done because there’s a million outlets. You always have a place to plug in. How do I know this? Not just because I’m a customer, but the reviews consistently mention these elements, so you have to deliver this experience to give people something to write about.

The last thing is, we have talked about this a lot, but let’s say it again, respond to every review. That tells customers you care about them. You care about their feedback and you take it seriously. 

I want to give you one bonus item: don’t ask people for reviews. I’m going to explain from a consumer perspective a little bit of why you shouldn’t do that. As a customer, we tend to remember two things about our experiences: One is whatever aspect of the experience was most different, most unusual, and stood out more than anything else. It’s the peak of the experience, what was the most different? The other thing we remember is the last impression.

A couple years ago, I hired a company to replace my front lawn, and they did a fantastic job. I’m standing with the owner, and we’re talking about “Wow, you did such a great job and I appreciate it, and it looks beautiful. Instead of saying thank you and maybe “Hey, I’ll follow up with you in a couple weeks to see how it’s looking and share some yard care tips, he said this, “I’d sure appreciate it if you leave a Yelp review for me.” What was my last impression now? It wasn’t my  fantastic lawn, it was “Can you please help me out?” So, I want you to think about that as a business owner, that when you ask for reviews, whether it’s online or asking them to fill out a survey, you’re making that the last impression—asking them for a favor. I don’t recommend that. Let them bask in the glow of a great experience. If you’ve done all those other things, those reviews would come, because guess what? I was planning until that moment to write a review, but then I didn’t.

Ali: Customers want to feel like you gave an excellent experience and delivered a service or a product because that is just what and who you are as a business, as opposed to just delivering that because you secretly wanted something instead. A reference I can draw is a friend that calls you out of the blue and you’re waiting for them, you’re like, “What does this person want?” And you’re just waiting, waiting, and they get to know you, and they’re like, “How are you doing during the pandemic?” Then after there is some rapport that’s restored, they ask for something, for a favor, and it’s like “Oh, that’s why they called me.” You don’t want customers to think “That’s why they gave me great customer service, that’s why he took care of my lawn so well. It is because he didn’t care about me, or all I am is a review to them.” So, you really want to take that business owner hat off and put that consumer hat on, making sure how you are making your customers feel.

Jeff, I love what you were saying about specifically folks are going to remember pretty much the peak of the experience as well the last impression that they had. I can’t stress that enough. There is so much research done on the idea of reciprocity. When you’re going above and beyond, or even just delivering what you say you’re going to deliver. “Oh, it’ll be shipped to you within X amount of time, you’re only going to have to wait for X amount of time.” Setting expectations and then delivering, and/or going even above the expectation. That person is then inclined to give something back because they feel like they’ve received something so great. There is that idea of reciprocity that customers want to do something. Like you said, you were going to write a review for that business then they asked, and it just made everything feel a little bit different and not in a good way.

At Yelp, we say leave a trail of breadcrumbs. What we mean by that are activating, like Jeff was saying, all the free tools. We have a suite of free tools, whether that’s information on your page, photos, using Yelp as your digital storefront, and then doing things like a check-in offer, which allows customers to hit check in. We don’t want you to ask for reviews, so Yelp as a software is doing that for you, meaning if I search for a hair salon and I click map directions to that business, in about a day or later that day, Yelp is going to send me a notification and say, “Hey, we noticed that you mapped directions to this business. Did you go to this business? What did you think? Leave a review.” And I’m going to get notified. So, Yelp as a platform is pushing consumers. We want people to write reviews and know that that creates a healthy cycle of content on our site and makes it helpful for business owners, for the consumers that use it.

So, it’s better to not ask for reviews. It’s counterintuitive because they’re so helpful. We know that they’re important, that’s what we’ve uncovered in the last 50 plus minutes. They’re important, so you would think let’s ask for them, but that’s not necessarily the best thing to do.

Responding to old reviews

Ali: With just shy of seven minutes left, I wanted to transition over to live Q&A only. We have a ton sitting here. We had two questions come in talking about the same thing. Jeff, they know that responding to reviews is so important. What do you do if this is the first time you’re hearing that, or you didn’t realize that, or you’re just now paying attention to it. What do you do about reviews that were three months ago, or three years ago that were on your Yelp page or elsewhere, or even maybe in a sense where you took over a business a few months ago and they have reviews that were never addressed? So, how to address some older stagnant reviews that you still want to engage with?

Jeff: It’s a great question, because I can’t tell you that I know the answer with 100% certainty, so I want to be clear about that. I think better late than never on this one. I would like to go back and respond to all of those reviews, probably the freshest and most relevant ones first if I have a huge backlog. Maybe not do it all at once, but the more I can respond to all reviews, even if it’s three years ago, that just signals to the customer, “Okay, you’re paying attention now.” So, I’m of the mind that it’s better late than never, but I don’t know, what do you think?

Ali: I 1,000% agree, better late than never. It’s honestly a great way to even get business. Let’s say it’s a 5-star review from three years ago and someone mentions a certain service, and I would just address the mini elephant in the room of the fact that it’s been a while, and I think when you do that and you address it in your response, something like “Hey, we know that it’s been X amount of time since you were our customer or since you left this piece of feedback. First and foremost, thank you for leaving this piece of feedback, we appreciate X, Y, Z. We hope you come back and try said service that they’re either saying was below average or said service that they’re saying they loved.” Informing them of new things, new menu changes, new services. So, using it as an opportunity. That person as a consumer gets a notification that you responded, and even though it’s five years later, 10 years later, I totally agree, better late than never. 

Mistakes around approaching reviews

Ali: We have a couple questions asking about incentivizing. I think I know what your answer is going to be, but I want to ask it anyway because we have so many folks wondering. What are your thoughts around incentivizing people to write reviews, whether that’s giving them a free appetizer, giving them a gift card to a service, discounting their second time service, or any type of solicitation when it comes to reviews?

Jeff: Don’t do it. There’s a term for this, it’s called survey begging. You’re begging for a survey, you’re giving an incentive in exchange for something. This is a clear signal to the customer you don’t really care about the feedback, you just want them to give you a good score. So, it is a huge problem. Most platforms expressly forbid this, even with internal surveys, don’t do it. I think we’ve all been victimized by it as customers. There’s lots of ways to manipulate people into giving good survey scores and good reviews. We will not talk about those today, but don’t do it. We want reviews to be authentic. We want reviews to be meaningful to the customers, and it’s pretty easy to spot those situations where there’s an incentive of some kind. It really destroys that relationship in many cases, so avoid it at all costs.

Ali: Yelp’s thoughts, stance, and policy on it is don’t do it, don’t ask for reviews, and that’s the exact reason we have our recommendation software to sift through it and make sure that these reviews are trusted and are authentic. At the end of the day, if every business offers something in return for writing a review, the business isn’t offering that to the folks that are angry. If someone storms out of your business, maybe one of those crazy customers on their way out, you’re not going to say, “Hey, can I offer you something for free so you can review me?” There’s just no way that businesses are going to do that, and we’re not expecting you to, but that in turn leads to a very biased opinion on your page because you’re only offering it to people that feel happy about their service.

That’s part one, and part two is even if you said, “Well, okay, I’ll offer it to everyone.” You still shouldn’t do it. It doesn’t leave the customer feeling good about it. Again, we have systems and algorithms in place to actually catch reviews of that nature, because we want consumers to deliver content that they feel they want to deliver. They didn’t deliver because someone asked them for it. When someone’s receiving or someone was asked to, it just puts a poor taste in the customer’s mouth.

Closing advice for business success

Ali: With less than two minutes left on the clock, Jeff, I first and foremost want to say thank you so much, and I would love for you to talk to the folks on the call, one, about your book. Talk to us about your upcoming book, and leave us with some advice. Where do you start when you’re really trying to think about overall customer experience and reviews? What’s the advice there?

Jeff: I really appreciate it, and thank you again Ali and everybody at Yelp. This has been a lot of fun. The book really explains step by step how to guarantee your customers will have a great experience. A guarantee is simply a promise intended to provide assurance. There’s three elements to this experience guarantee. One is a meaningful promise. “We’re going to do this for you; your hair is going to look great; your lawn is going to look fabulous; you’ll have an authentic home-cooked meal,” whatever it is that your business offers. Two, you have to take action to keep your promise. Keeping your promise is what builds trust, it keeps customers coming back, and gets them to write those positive reviews. Three, we have a process to recover if something goes wrong. Recover is not just saying I’m sorry—it’s restoring trust and letting people know you can count on us in the future.

You asked what’s that one thing we need to get started? I think you need to look at your reviews and try to understand what I call your customer’s “I need to” statement. What problem is your customer trying to solve? I’ll give you a real quick example. Armstrong Garden Centers, which is my go-to nursery when I’m gardening, located in Southern California predominantly. They are known for helpful, very knowledgeable service. Their brand promise is gardening without guesswork. And guess what? 70% of their Yelp reviews mention the helpfulness and knowledge that employees provide to help people like me suddenly have a green thumb, which I certainly didn’t before. So, figure out what problem your customers are trying to solve, look at your reviews, and you will probably figure out where you can be awesome to your customers. If you can do that consistently, they’ll keep coming back.

Ali: That’s wonderful. We will leave folks on that note. Jeff, thank you again so much. I put it in the chat, but we will send a follow-up email with tons of resources and information on Jeff’s book and how to contact the Yelp team if you had some Yelp centric questions that didn’t get answered. But Jeff, thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it, and we’ll talk to you very soon.

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