Emily takes a walk down memory lane as Behind the Review celebrates 100 episodes of small business experience, talking about everything from review response to great customer service, to hiring and firing employees. It’s all in anticipation of Season Two of the podcast, launching in early April 2023.
On the Yelp Blog: Discover Behind the Review‘s most popular episodes plus Emily’s breakdown of the most important (and underrated) business advice she’s heard over the last two years.
EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Typically, I share a story featuring conversations with a business owner as well as someone who wrote them a Yelp review. We’ve done that 99 times since November of 2020, and today is episode 100 of Behind the Review. We’re celebrating the milestone by taking a look at some of the lessons we’ve learned from business owners and reviewers over the last two years.
Some fun facts and figures about these first 99 episodes. I’ve talked to the owners of 15 restaurants, 8 bakeries, 3 HVAC companies, 3 breweries, 3 tour companies, 3 pet stores, 1 candle maker and 1 tattoo shop. I’ve also heard from nail salons, jewelry stores, car dealerships, coffee houses, and a DJ, among many other small businesses.
The storytelling here on Behind the Review has expanded since episode one. We’ve added experts to the mix to talk about social media, technology, and reviews. We even did a little series on businesses in San Angelo, Texas.
While many of the details in running a small business change based on the kind of product or service provided, there are so many lessons that apply to ALL small businesses, and those are the ones we’ve focused on over the past two years.
One of the biggest lessons learned on the podcast is one that, on the surface, seems really uncomplicated—respond to all of your online reviews. Couldn’t be easier.
Except that it isn’t easy at all, as almost every single one of our business owners told us. It seems complicated, and daunting, and most owners dread responding to negative reviews. But let’s be honest, most business owners dread negative reviews, period.
They hurt. Small businesses are usually born of a passion each owner has for whatever their business sells, whether that’s a love of cooking or baking, or a genuine desire to help people and make their days better. I would say 100% of our business owners mentioned that sting of a critical review in our interviews.
But nearly all of those same business owners also said that not responding to reviews is more damaging than the review itself, and they’re absolutely right. I’ve always noticed that in my conversations with business owners, and now we have the data to back it up. Late last year Yelp commissioned a study on consumer behavior around reviews and we learned 56% of respondents said an owner replying to reviews makes them trust the business more, and 87% said they could look past the negative review if the business owner responded and addressed the issue.
Experts I’ve interviewed reiterated the benefit of negative reviews, and business owners concurred. If they take the time to understand and process what reviewers are saying, it can show them where changes might be needed. You can’t be everywhere all at once in your business, and a negative review can point out a weak spot in your business and allow you to make repairs. Many of our owners have pointed out ways a one-star review has helped to improve their business overall. And critical reviews create consumer trust! They make your business look more real in many ways.
Something every business owner, and all of our experts, agreed on—the tone of your responses to negative reviews must be professional and authentic. Snarky responses might feel good for a minute, but they will have a lasting negative impact on your business and your reputation.
And don’t forget the positive reviews—they need love and attention too. Almost all of the reviewers I’ve spoken to mentioned that when an owner responds to their five-star review, they feel valued and appreciated, and are more likely to become a repeat customer. Other review readers notice that too, and are therefore more likely to become first-time customers.
Research shows that 98% of people read online reviews for local businesses before they patronize the business. That’s just about everyone, really. Most of the time, consumers are looking for an accurate picture of the business before visiting—things like where to park, what to expect when ordering, what kind of food is served, as well as the quality of the service. No one likes surprises, and reading reviews alleviates that fear of the unknown.
A few months ago I was on a work trip in Lexington Kentucky for a retail conference. I came into town a few days early to do some ‘secret shopping’ with a long time friend and retail expert Nicole Leinbach. We spent 2 days exploring different neighborhoods and popping into restaurants, bakeries, retail stores, gift shops, and other local gems. We were assessing the businesses on a 5 point checklist that I’ll be sure to share in an episode sometime, but the whole process was about expectation setting online and then seeing how those expectations were met or missed in person.
At one point I had a window of time to get my nails done, but I had to be fast. I’m not super high maintenance on decor or ambiance when I’m getting my nails done. As someone who lived in San Francisco for 4 years and came to love a hidden office building nail salon. Sitting in regular soft seating chairs with a bowl of hot water for your feet, I don’t always need frills. But I want a good manicure, and I want the staff to be friendly. Cleanliness is important for things like their tools, but I’m not worried about clutter or if the salon is instagram worthy. With that in mind, I did a search on Yelp. I was looking for proximity, a place that took walk-ins, and good, fast manicures. I found the perfect place. 0.2 miles away. 3.5 stars. Which to some may seem low BUT I did a little self evaluation of the importance of what critical reviews lead to that rating. When I clicked through to the listing (because of proximity and being marked a women owned business) I saw exactly what I needed to know. The 5 star reviews were about the great manicures, and the return customers who clearly felt a connection to the staff that they’ve come to know over time. The 1 and 2 star reviews seemed to be about things like “employee purses and bags just sitting everywhere”, or “older pedicure chairs that could use an upgrade”. Nothing that mattered to me in that moment, given the need I had. So I was off! Normally I’d call, just to ask if they have time for a walk-in, but this was honestly 2 minutes from where I was, so it didn’t feel risky to just pop over.
The staff greeted me warmly when I walked through the door, and didn’t make me feel silly for coming without an appointment—very important for what I needed, and backed up by what others had said online. There were 2 other customers getting their nails done and they said hi and even struck up conversation. The technician was fast and precise. The manicure looked great and I was out of there in less than 40 minutes. There were also employee bags and shoes and slippers all over the floor, and I could understand where some of those critical reviews were coming from. If I was booking a nail salon for a group of girlfriends before a wedding or for a special occasion, I wouldn’t pick this place. I would search for more glitzy or glammy spots, and be willing to take some of the price hikes that come with that. But it was exactly what I was looking for at the moment.
Another lesson that has come up time and time again and is pretty universal, and that’s about the culture of the business and how it improves (or doesn’t improve) the customer experience. It matters. In person and online, because a great customer experience translates to better social media coverage. And, of course, online reviews.
As I said, responding appropriately to reviews is one way to create a great customer experience online. But there are also ways to improve your consumer’s experience when they are in your store or restaurant. Obviously, having a great product, especially if you’re serving food or beverage, is paramount. All the great customer service in the world won’t mitigate a terrible donut or stale coffee.
At the same time, the best donut in the world can’t make up for a terrible overall experience if the customer isn’t equally thrilled by your service. Many times, the first face of your business isn’t you, it’s your employees. Almost every one of our business owners commented on the realities of hiring the right employees and firing the wrong ones. One business owner spoke of the adage “Hire slow, fire fast,” and that rings true for almost any business.
Great customer service begins with a passion for the product or service, and ideally employees should believe in and love your product as much as you do. Hiring people who are already fans of your product or service is the easiest way to build a great experience for your customers. For example, the owner of a craft beer taphouse hires bartenders and servers who genuinely love all kinds of craft beer, so they start with a thorough knowledge of the product.
If they don’t have that knowledge, it’s not a lost cause. You can always train them. One owner I interviewed gives each new employee four weeks of training so that they know and understand the products—in this case pet food, treats and toys—as much as he does.
And if after training, the employee still isn’t a good fit, it’s crucial to either move them into a new role that is more suitable to their skills, or fire them outright. It’s difficult and no one likes to do it, but according to many of the owners I interviewed, keeping an employee who isn’t working out can be detrimental to the other employees as well, lowering morale and job satisfaction among the whole crew. That leads to poor customer experiences, and well, you know where that leads… negative reviews.
In our conversations, I asked all of my business owners about how they got their start as an entrepreneur, and almost every one of them mentioned loving their product, and filling a gap in the business landscape. The product or service they loved was missing from their community, so they chose to fill it themselves.
That passion is what drives most small business owners to open their doors, but sometimes it can get lost in the business-y part of owning a business. Many of the owners I interviewed said when the business got stale, they put more of themselves into the business. And by that they didn’t mean working longer hours or being more physically present. That can lead to burnout.
Instead, they said making their businesses even more personal by showing who they were as a person in turn made the business more successful—whether that’s being noticeably LGBTQ friendly, or talking openly about issues like mental health, or connecting one-on-one with customers. That personal touch can create a community where there once was just a bakery or storefront.
It’s been fun taking a look back at episodes 1-99 today, and we’ve got a lot of great lessons learned in the process of creating this podcast. I hope that over the last two years, the experiences and strategies used by these business owners have helped your small business to grow and be the best that it can be.
We’ll continue talking to reviewers, business owners, and experts. Season two of Behind the Review is coming at the beginning of April! I can’t wait to introduce you to new business owners and reviewers, and learn new ways of building a successful business. Our next 100 episodes will bring critical reviews to the forefront and double down on what business owners can do in the face of criticism. We’ll talk with business owners at some of the top restaurants in the country, as noted by Yelp’s very own annual Top 100 List. And we’ll continue to bring you the deep insight and behind the curtain look at the strategies and tactics that make small businesses successful.