How to Avoid a Yelp Catastrophe

Does it feel like your business is at the mercy of the Internet? Take back the power by providing genuine customer service and following these 5 tips.
September 03, 2014

Have you heard about the The Union Street Guest House? It's a small hotel in Hudson, New York, that made headlines when its not-so-secret practice of charging wedding parties $500 per negative online review went viral.

It's a good lesson and reminder that all of our businesses are at the mercy of the Internet.

There is a massive power that rests with review sites, social media, blogs and media. Use these five tips to protect yourself from a public review-site catastrophe.

1. Watch Your Tone

I’ve combed through a random sampling of the negative reviews on Yelp for the Union Street Guest House, and it seems that most of the issues weren’t with the amenities, but rather with how they were treated during their stay. In fact, a few reviewers showed email correspondence from the ownership that sounded downright degrading.

If you’re going to run a successful hotel, you’ll have to bend over backward for your customers, or at the very least be cordial.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Gladwell highlights a study from 1997 where researchers listened to hundreds of conversations between doctors and patients. The doctors were broken down into two groups: They either had or hadn’t been sued. In these conversations between patients, the researchers found that even though the quality of information given to the patients was the same, there were clear differences in how doctors, who had never been sued before, treated their patients. As a whole, they listened to their patients longer, they communicated more clearly about what they were going to do during the visit, they were more likely to actively listen, and they were even more likely to laugh.

Communication is the biggest issue that most people had in reviews with the Union Street Guest House. It wasn’t what they shared, but how they shared it.

2. Own Your Story

The original wording on the wedding page, which has since been changed, read:

Please know that despite the fact that wedding couples love Hudson and our inn, your friends and families may not. This is due to the fact that your guests may not understand what we offer—therefore we expect you to explain that to them.

Don’t leave your company’s story at the mercy of a third party. Own it.

3. Ask for Forgiveness First

Did your company not meet a client’s expectations? Good companies try and make it right. Great companies go above and beyond to ensure satisfaction—a gift card for future purchases, a free meal, whatever it takes.

There are hidden upsides to this tactic, too. Human beings make decisions mostly on emotions, not facts. If you provide bad service and manage to win over an irate customer, you’ve taken their intense negative emotions and flipped them to intense positive emotions, which they’ll now associate with your brand.

Whatever you do, don’t threaten people who have a poor opinion of your business. Kill them with kindness instead.

4. Don’t Be a Bully

I shouldn't even have to explain this, but I’ll go ahead and state the obvious: Never bully your clientele, especially on social media.

5. Appeal to Happy Customers

My co-founder Brian told me an interesting story about a hotel he stayed at in Ireland. He chose the hotel for its excellent reviews on TripAdvisor, and his stay at the little hotel lived up to the hype. Upon checkout, the proprietor asked him if he enjoyed his stay. Brian replied that his stay was fantastic, and it lived up to the reviews he had seen online. The proprietor thanked him, and politely asked that if he truly enjoyed his stay, to please leave a kind word on TripAdvisor. The request wasn’t pushy, and was very respectful. Naturally, Brian left an excellent review.

Today the hotel has nearly 500 reviews on Trip Advisor, with a 97 percent approval rating.

The hotel owner, besides being a savvy business owner, used a technique that marketers have been using for ages: the norm of reciprocity. Humans are wired to return benefits when they’ve been helped, and will reply with hostility when they’ve been hurt. Brian was compelled to leave a positive review thanks to his excellent stay. 

6. What Goes Around ... 

If your customers loved your service, they’ll come back, and they'll tell their friends all about it. If they feel taken advantage of, they’ll leave a bad review, and they'll share that bad experience with whomever will listen. Sure, there will always be an irrational customer leaving a nasty review that will be outside of your control, but if you have a steady stream of positive feedback that comes from genuinely stellar customer service, you will hold the power, not them.

Read more articles on customer service.

Photo: iStockphoto