Industry Update
Opinion Article15 June 2017

How to deal with bad online reviews

By Paul Sarlas, Founder/CEO at Savvy IQ Hospitality Consultants

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The online component of owning a restaurant is the single biggest change in the restaurant industry over the past ten years. Websites that encourage guests to post reviews and feedback, like Yelp, Urban Spoon, and Open Table, have grown exponentially and are very influential for many potential guests. This is the case anywhere, but especially so in cities dominated by transient guests and out-of-towners, who are more likely to be swayed by online restaurant reviews.

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The frequency with which potential guests read online feedback about restaurants before making decisions means that it's essential to manage a business's online reputation. In fact, this trend has spawned a new parasitic sub-industry – online reputation management. Few restaurants have the time or inclination to pay someone to manage an online reputation. But bad online reviews can be costly, inaccurate, and influential. The collection of a few of them – especially when they repeat the same message – is a serious red flag to many guests.

Restaurant managers have to tackle bad reviews like they do most everything in this business – by getting out in front of the problem. A few tips for dealing with bad reviews online:

Pay Attention

It's worthwhile to make spending time on review websites a once-a-week routine. It's imperative to know what people are saying about you, whether it's good or bad. This is especially true in the restaurant business, governed as it is by subjective standards and emotional responses.

Google Alerts is a good option for any restaurant, because it will send reports on any online content covering your business. It's also worthwhile to maintain a Facebook page, which offers guests the chance to post feedback and reviews. Some bad reviews are essentially meaningless, such as a negative comment on the hostess's wardrobe or the ice content in the daiquiris. But some undermine a core product of a restaurant – like a critique of the steaks at a steakhouse. It's essential to know these exist, and to spend time learning how to find them.

Respond to Your Guests

Dialogue with guests about their experiences demonstrates that you care, and that you're responsive to feedback and criticisms. It shows that you don't hide from problems and you value input. Most people recognize these traits as the foundation of a good business owner, even when they're response to a bad online review.

Bad reviews don't have to be followed up with a treatise on good taste and decorum (as can be found on some review websites – it's worth a look). Instead, follow-ups should be succinct and fact-based. They should be the product of some background work into the specific problem and your work to resolve it. They're strictly positive, and grateful toward the guest (easier said than done, I know).

It's also worthwhile to thank guests for positive feedback, online and in personal correspondence. Email discounts or offers to people who give feedback is a great and simple way to win a lifelong customer.

Post Your Own Reviews

Is it ethical? Probably not. Does it save you a huge headache? Yes. Getting a known fan of your restaurant to post a review takes the spotlight away from mediocre reviews, especially when they're listed first on a review site. The internet culture reduces attention spans, making the top couple of reviews on most sites essential.

It's also important to leverage Facebook and Twitter in this way, perpetuating positive reviews, special events, and discounts. This is what online reputation management enterprises do.

The Online Game

It's important to remember that not all online reviews are bad. In fact, good reviews strung together on multiple websites offers the free advertising every business can use. Something about the restaurant industry motivates people to respond in writing. It's worth it to remember the value that paying attention to those responses carries.

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Paul Sarlas

Paul Sarlas was born in Sydney, Australia and was exposed to the hospitality industry from a young age, growing up in a family that owned and operated cafes and restaurants. Paul began his career in the family business, working in all aspects of the restaurant industry, whilst studying commercial cookery to become a qualified chef.

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