Alison Lane, business advisor with the Maine Small Business Development Center (MSBDC), has a confession: “Up until a year ago, we only had a couple reviews on the MSBDC Bangor Office Google page because you forget about it.” Fortunately for Lane and small business owners, recruiting online reviews and responding to them is one of the easier tasks of online marketing.

Online reviews are a way for customers to connect with a wider community about their experiences with a product or service they have experienced. Online reviews are different from testimonials. A testimonial is more likely to be found on a website or in a social media post and they’re nearly always flattering. For example, a maple syrup producer may place a glowing customer testimonial with a photo of that customer on their website. An online review, on the other hand, appears on a Google business page or other social media platform. It may be a positive or a negative message.

The three most popular sites where users post reviews are Google, Facebook and Yelp, according to Lane. Others include Amazon, TripAdvisor, YellowPages and Manta. “There’s a zillion places you can go and get reviews. You absolutely do not need to be on all of these sites or even a fraction of them,” Lane said. She recommended starting with one or two, focusing on sites that customers are already using.

According to Lane, reviews add credibility to a business. “You can talk about yourself and how great you are, but seeing your customers talk about you is much more powerful,” Lane said. Reviews are also a great opportunity to interact with customers and get feedback about the business. Reviews can help increase search engine optimization and star rankings too.

It’s okay (and often necessary) to ask customers to provide online reviews; the ideal time is shortly after the customer purchases a product or service. Lane suggested using email to ask for reviews, and it’s important to make the process as easy as possible for the potential reviewer. “Making it easy often means sending them a link that’s going to direct them right to where you want them to be to leave the review. Don’t make them search for it,” she said. She also recommended asking for no more than two reviews from one customer.

In retail spaces, signs or business cards can be used to encourage reviews, but according to Lane, these methods aren’t as effective. Google also has some free tools and graphics that business owners can use to encourage reviews.

Put online reviews into play

Alison Lane

Lane stressed that bribing for reviews, such as promising a gift card in exchange for a good review, is neither legal nor ethical. She also said to stay away from fake reviews. “The last thing you want to do is to be kicked off a review site for violating their terms of service. There are policies in place. They’ll find you if you’re getting a bunch of fake reviews or leaving a ton of reviews for yourself,” Lane said.

Once the reviews start rolling in, the next step is to respond to each one, ideally within a few days of its posting date. Both positive and negative reviews should be responded to, and in Lane’s opinion, the reply should never be longer than the review. Responding to negative reviews is also important because it’s virtually impossible to remove them from the internet.

When responding to positive reviews, Lane suggested keeping the response short, sweet and genuine. The goal is to thank the person, make the response personal and to invite them back. Reviews, generally speaking, are not a time to market to the customer but an opportunity to express gratitude to the reviewer.

When responding to a negative review, Lane said not to respond right away. “It can be really tempting because you’re angry and the juices start flowing and you want to respond, but cool yourself down, so it’ll be easier to be professional,” she said.

In crafting a response to a negative review, Lane said to apologize only once and to try to validate and empathize with the reviewer so they know they’ve been heard. If there’s something that can be done to fix the problem, the business owner should take action to make that fix happen. She also suggested that signing a name to the response can humanize the interaction.

A negative review should only warrant one or two public responses from the business owner. “It should not become a conversation if that person replies again,” Lane said. If the negative reviewer leaves a second message, the business owner should post that all future dialogue will be private.

Responding to inaccurate reviews and comments is also important. Customers may have two businesses confused. For example, a maple syrup producer gets a review about some off-flavored maple candies, but they don’t even make maple candies. This is an opportunity to connect with the reviewer and politely and succinctly explain the situation. In the case of true spam reviews, Lane said that each platform has a different policy for removing those fake reviews.

Responding to reviews – positive or negative – is as simple as setting a time each week to complete the task. Lane reiterated, “Reviews are powerful, but sometimes we have to ask for them. You should respond to most if not all of your reviews. Be professional but also be genuine.”

by Sonja Heyck-Merlin