For the California restaurateur Andrew Gruel, poor online reviews demand rapid responses.
One of his new Slapfish restaurants, serving sustainable seafood, was hit this year with dozens of bad reviews that complained about its prices (too high) and portions (too small).
So Gruel pulled out all the stops. He sent emails to customers begging them to come back. And he rejiggered menu prices, increased portion size and even introduced combo meal deals. Quickly, those one-star reviews shifted into five stars.
"You can get buried by bad reviews," said Gruel, whose fast-casual restaurants serve food like fish tacos and lobster burgers. "So it's a race to stop the bleeding."
The payoff, he added, can be tremendous. Turning around one-star reviews creates lifetime customers — and better reviews draw more customers.
Gruel's extreme approach to bad reviews may sound like overkill. But studies show that consumers overwhelmingly choose businesses based mainly on star ratings. Even a decline of one star, on a scale from one to five, can hurt revenue and send a business into a slide.
"Star ratings persist forever," said Daniel Lemin, author of "ManipuRated: How Business Owners Can Fight Fraudulent Online Ratings and Reviews." "Meanwhile, actual reviews can fall off the first pages of review sites. And consumers rarely read reviews older than three months." After problems are addressed and solved, he added, there's a high chance that disgruntled customers can become avid advocates.
So small businesses have nothing to lose by engaging their critics, Lemin said. The recipe is simply apologizing and asking for another chance. The criticism may hurt, he adds, but the way a business responds matters.
Gruel, a trained chef who started his business in a food truck, prefers to respond to reviews himself. He fears using "canned responses that aren't personal." If he cannot respond quickly, he asks an employee to do it for him."The minute you see a bad review, look for a shard of truth," she said. "Is this something you can improve? Look for what you can fix." But don't fight fire with fire by getting into an argument with a reviewer, she added.