How Should You Ask for Online Reviews? The Pros and Cons of Each Approach

https://www.flickr.com/photos/29707865@N05/2780508266/

There are no “solutions” – only trade-offs.  Your task is to pick the trade-off – or the combination of them – that works best for you.  That applies to most areas of local SEO and marketing (and life), and it applies to your effort to get more good reviews from customers / clients / patients on Google Maps and on other “local” review sites.

You probably aren’t dialed-in on reviews yet.  You know there are many ways to encourage people to review your business online, but aren’t sure what the best way is.  All you can do is pick the best (or least-bad) trade-off for you.

Here are the pros and cons of each method of asking customers for reviews:

Asking in-person for a review later

Pros

  • You plant the seed of the idea. You don’t expect the customer to review you then and there, nor do you even need to provide instructions in-person.  Once determining he or she is happy, you just ask, “We’d love if you could write a review of us.  Is it OK if we email you some quick steps?”  You get the benefits of asking in a more-personal way, but without putting the customer in an awkward situation.
  • The email doesn’t come out of the blue, because the customer expects it.
  • You force yourself to listen to your customers and to think about whether you’ve earned a 5-star review.

Cons

  • None (that I’ve seen or can think of). Especially you’re shy about asking for reviews, it can be more of a “testing the waters” interaction.  If the customer doesn’t seem happy or seem the type who might review you, maybe you just don’t ask that person for a review.

Asking in-person for a mobile review on the spot

Pros

  • It’s hard for customers to ignore your request.
  • You can walk them through the process and answer any questions.
  • You can sniff out how happy the customer is, which can tell you whether you should follow up later (maybe in an email).

Cons

  • Some people will feel put on the spot, which may come back to bite you.
  • The reviews may be terse and seem dashed-off, forced, or fake. People have places to go and things to do.  They won’t go into detail – the kind of crunchy bits you want in reviews whenever possible.

Review station (a dedicated iPad or laptop in your office or store)

Pros

  • Same benefits as in the strategy of “Asking in-person for a mobile review on the spot” (above).

Cons

  • Same drawbacks as in the “Asking in-person for a mobile review on the spot” strategy.
  • The jury’s out on whether Google reviews are more likely to get filtered by Google, if they all come from the same IP.
  • Some customers may feel watched.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/traveloriented/34811387095/

Emailing one customer at a time

Pros

  • You can tailor each request to each person, based on what you know about him or her.
  • It’s a great opportunity to sniff out who’s happy and who’s not.

Cons

  • It takes time. You can’t be sloppy.  Get the customer’s name right.  Remove any boilerplate.  Maybe allude to the specific service he/she got.

Using an email service (MailChimp, Aweber, etc.) to send requests automatically

Pros

  • It’s quick. You write one email, and your email service sends it out without your personal involvement.
  • It can be a good way to ask customers slowly and steadily – rather than ask too many people at once, or fall off the wagon and not ask anyone
  • You can study the analytics: how many people opened the email, how many people clicked the links, etc.

Cons

  • It takes finesse not to email people who aren’t in a position to review you (like leads who haven’t become customers).
  • You can’t tailor the email to one specific customer.

Email blast (via MailChimp, Aweber, etc.)

Pros

  • If everything goes well you can get many reviews in short order.
  • It’s quicker than emailing one customer at a time.

Cons

  • If it doesn’t work you’ve burned through many customers and worn out your welcome to ask again.
  • If you didn’t vet the list of customers first you may end up with a bunch of bad reviews. Then what?
  • Even if it works well, your reviews are more likely to get filtered, to the extent people choose Google or Yelp.

Providing review handouts / instructions in-person

Pros

  • Good instructions make the review-writing process simpler and less daunting
  • The printout serves as a visual prop. That might make it easier for you to ask customers, and may make your request clearer to them.
  • It’s a physical reminder (“Oh yeah, I said I’d write a review”).

Cons

  • Some customers may feel put on the spot, so you might want to test the waters (“So, how did we do?”) before you hand them a printout.

Providing review handouts / instructions in an email (or attached)

Pros

  • Again, good instructions make the process simpler for customers.
  • You can provide the instructions but not rely on them; you’ve also got the email itself to make a friendly request that’s hard to say no to.
  • Customers are more likely to get your request at a time they can act on it.
  • Unless customers just delete your email, it’ll stick around in their inboxes, and in that way will serve as a little reminder for couple of days.

Cons

  • An email isn’t as personal as an in-person request or a phone call.
  • It’s easy to tune out an email.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/waffleboy/9695952341/

“Review us” page

Pros

  • It’s probably the easiest way to give customers a choice of review sites (maybe 2-5), so as to diversify where you’ve got reviews.
  • You can incorporate a review-encouragement tool like GetFiveStars or Grade.us, making it easy to set up the page.
  • You can easily send customers to the page in an in-person request or in an email (or both).

Cons

  • You add another step to the process, because you’ve got to direct customers to a page that in turn directs them to a review site of their choosing.
  • Probably some customers’ reviews won’t end up on the sites where you want reviews most. Maybe you have plenty of Facebook reviews, but want more Google reviews, and people keep picking Facebook.  You’ll have to tweak with the lineup of sites, and which ones you prioritize.

Phone call

Pros

  • Great time to gauge the customer’s happiness, and to sort out any issues that might stand in the way of a good review.
  • It’s tough for the customer to blow off.
  • It’s more personal.
  • It’s easy for you to walk the customer through the review-writing process.
  • Asking hat-in-hand looks good, as it does any time you ask a favor of someone.

Cons

  • Some customers will take a lot of hand-holding (though it’s time well-spent on your part).
  • It’s possible you won’t call at a good time.

ORM or “feedback funnel” software (e.g. GetFiveStars or Grade.us)

Pros

  • Having review-request emails sent out automatically can save you a ton of time
  • Most review-encouragement software makes it easy to offer customers several choices of review sites, helping you rack up reviews on a variety of sites.

Cons

  • You may be tempted to rely too much on the software to do all the work, without much or any oversight or fine-tuning on your part, in which case your software may become a meat grinder. Business owners (or their employees) never lack the time to ask customers for reviews.  They simply don’t know what to ask, how to ask, or when to ask.  You should ask in-person for a review, and have the email serve as a follow-up or reminder.
  • You’ll have to play around with the settings and probably send out some ignored requests before you find what works best.

Video walk-though

Pros

Cons

  • It takes a little effort to make a good, clear, brief video, and you’ll need to change it if the steps change at Google Maps or on another site.
  • You may not always have the video handy when you want to walk customers through the reviewing process. They need to be in front of a screen.

Text message (SMS)

Pros

  • It’s quick for you to set up, given that you’ll probably use a third-party tool to send the texts.
  • For some customers it’s very convenient.

Cons

  • For other customers the text shows up at the wrong time: they’re driving or walking, or otherwise indisposed.
  • Often it’s annoying to receive texts from people other than friends or family. It can come across as pushy.
  • You can’t include much in the way of instructions in a text.
  • Any reviews you get probably won’t be too detailed, may be riddled with typos, and may appear dashed-off. The chances are good they’ll be unhelpful or even look fake.
  • It may seem impersonal.

Snail-mail requests

Pros

  • It’s unusual, memorable, and a little harder to ignore. Most business owners – even the smart and proactive ones – do what’s easiest, quickest, and cheapest.
  • If you send the request with printed info your customer welcomes (your newsletter, a thank-you note, photos of the project, aftercare instructions, etc.) you’re catching him or her in a good mood.
  • You can get creative in how you ask.

Cons

  • Printing and postage costs. (But if you get a review, that’s a tiny price to pay.)
  • It’s not fashionable.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/d_schaefer/25862149923/

Links, buttons, or widgets on your site

Pros

  • You don’t have to stick your neck out to ask for reviews.

Cons

  • It’s easy for people to ignore your link / button / widget.
  • Most people who see the link / button / widget probably aren’t customers – just leads – and aren’t in a position to review you.

Yelp check-in offer

Pros

  • Yelp will ask customers on your behalf. As you know, Yelp doesn’t want you to ask for reviews in any way.  Inconsistent and absurd?

Cons

  • It’s for Yelp.
  • The reviewers are Yelpers.

Little cards with printed instructions

Pros

  • It’s easier to keep around and hand out cards than full-page review printouts.
  • You don’t have to think as much about what goes on the cards, because there’s not room for much. Just basic instructions, or “Please visit com/reviewus to write us a review.”

Cons

  • Customers who may need more guidance are out of luck.
  • The cards are easy to ignore, lose, or throw in the trash.

QR codes

Pro and con

  • You’ll try QR codes once and never try them again.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/cabreraluengocom/7022353187/

Passive strategies: letting reviews “happen”

Pros

  • In certain fields – like psychotherapy or financial-consulting – you’re so hamstrung that you can’t encourage reviews proactively. In that case a Daoist approach probably is all you can do.
  • It’s good to know what your “baseline” is: what kinds of reviews and how many reviews you get just by doing a good job for customers. You’ll probably end up concluding that’s not enough, but on the off-chance it is, more power to you.

Cons

  • Angry customers are more likely to write reviews spontaneously than happy customers are. Maybe you can’t encourage the happy people to speak up, but in that case you’d better have a way to identify the less-happy people and to smooth things over with them.
  • Slow progress is better than no progress. No matter how tough it is to get the happy people to review you, more of them will review if you take some steps to make that happen.
  • In putting together a review strategy, you learn a lot about your customers along the way. You may miss out on that if you just take it easy.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/milkyfactory/16795551505/

In my experience, here’s what works best most often (your mileage may vary):

  • Ask in-person for a review. Test the waters.  Provide instructions if possible.
  • Follow up with a personal email, sent to one customer at a time. Provide instructions again (with a review handout, a “review us” page, a video – anything).
  • Follow up with a reminder in a week or two, if necessary. Probably a second, differently phrased, shorter email, but a phone call (or piece of snail-mail) would also work.

Can you think of a common review-encouragement method I missed?

Any pros or cons I missed?

What’s worked well (or badly) for you, and why?

Leave a comment!

Why Your Review-Encouragement Software Is a Meat Grinder

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It’s tempting to sign up for a “reputation-management” or “review-generation” product and let it pester all your customers for a review – so you don’t have to take the time (or forget) to do it personally.

Resist the temptation. At least until you’ve worked out more manually a review-encouragement strategy that works OK.  Otherwise all you’ll do is automate failure.

My advice might be different if review-encouragement software was a surefire way to get you 80% of the great reviews you could get with a more-hands-on method, but with only 20% of the time and effort.  But in my experience it doesn’t do that, at least right out of the box.  (If you’ve worked out a method that works well without the software, maybe you can get to that 80/20 payoff zone.)

A mediocre-to-OK review strategy is simple to execute: just “do a good job” and ask customers to review you if they’re happy, and contact you first if they’re not. Where it gets trickier is if you want more than just a trickle of reviews, and on sites that really matter.

Most automated review-encouragement programs clear only the lower bar.  They require only you to upload people’s email addresses, customize the email that goes out automatically, maybe tweak some settings, and keep a credit card on-file.  A great review strategy – one that gets the greatest number of happy customers to write the best reviews they can – takes a little more than that.

I don’t want to name specific products, if I can avoid it.  But maybe it’s better that way, because there are a million tools that claim to be your one-stop reviews solution.  It’s likely you’ve used or considered at least one such tool, or you probably wouldn’t be reading this.

Some are near-useless, in that most of the “reviews” are in fact testimonials that just molder on the software company’s site (e.g. Demandforce.com), rather than reviews on Google Maps or Yelp or Facebook or Angie’s List or other sites people notice and maybe care about.  I’m not even talking about that kind of service here.  Rather, I want to give cautionary advice about programs that actually try to encourage reviews on third-party review sites.  Seldom are they as effective as you and I would like.

“But Phil, the Big Ugly Corporation I just bought a new refrigerator from just sent me an auto-email to ask for a review, and they have hundreds of reviews from customers.  It seems to work fine for them!”

Maybe, but Big Ugly Corporation also has tens of thousands of customers more than you have – and many more opportunities to waste in asking for reviews ineffectively.  200 reviews?  That’s still an awful batting average.  If you want to do a little better than 1 for 20, you can’t simply rely on a program.

Why?  Here are the biggest problems with review-encouragement software:

  1. If your email or overall strategy isn’t battle-tested, you may burn through all your customers and have little to show for it. What if your review-management software sounds out all the emails – just as it should – and you don’t get any reviews? Maybe everyone ignores the email, or it goes out at a bad hour, or the links are broken, or there are customer-service issues to sort out first.  You can ask everyone another time, but after that you become a nuisance.  Don’t entrust software with the goodwill you’ve taken years to earn.  Put it through a few bird-strike tests first.

  1. You can’t personalize an automated request to a reviewer’s unique situation. Long-time customer? Super happy customer?  Did he have privacy concerns?  Is she an “Elite” Yelper?  A one-size-fits-all email won’t acknowledge specifics, and probably won’t accomplish all it could.
  1. The auto-email will seem cold if it’s the first or only time you ask for a review. The recipient will wonder, “Gee, I was just in your office – why didn’t you ask me then?” Ask in-person first, if possible.  At least plant the seed of the idea, get a sense of who’s happy (and who’s not), and maybe get a tacit “yes.”  That way, even an auto-email won’t seem to come out of the blue, and any follow-up is more likely to work.
  1. It’s harder to sniff out who’s unhappy. The auto-email will go to everyone, or to large groups of people at a time.
  1. Weak writing may undo you. Think of how you’d ask a customer, client, or patient face-to-face for a review. Is that how you’d write your automated email?  Probably not.  In-person you’d care about the timing, and be polite, but also get to the point.  In an email you’re more likely sound stuffy or generic, or to beat around the bush.  Most people are better writers when they speak than when they write.  Too many business owners use automated outreach tools precisely because they don’t want to ask for reviews in-person.  Often I find that’s because they haven’t figured out exactly what or how to ask.  First figure out how you’d articulate an in-person request, write the email like that, see how it performs, and then automate it if you must.  Not the other way around.

  1. Your auto-email won’t acknowledge people who already reviewed you. That will irk them, and you’ll miss the opportunity to ask, “We’re so crazy about the great review you left us on Review Site A that I’ve just got to ask: could you also review us on Review Site B?”
  1. Timing may be trickier. You have a sense of what are good times and bad times to ask customers/clients/patients for a review. Outreach software only gives you so much control over when the requests go out.
  1. Follow-up may be trickier. What if you want to send a follow-up email to some customers after a week, and to other customers after three weeks? Or if they contact you with customer-service issues to sort out, will your program still email them a second time – before you’ve worked out the issue?  Maybe you end up choosing not to use the program’s follow-up feature, but if you do use it, it’ll probably complicate your job.
  1. It’s harder to approach touchy situations. People with privacy concerns you might want to direct to anonymous review sites. Others may be willing to write you a great review, but would want to keep it vague.  Some people may not make ideal reviewers after all.  And so on.  You’re nimbler than the program is.
  1. You’ll probably treat it as a one-stop solution. The makers of the software market it as such. They’ll tell you that all you need to do is flick it on and watch the reviews whoosh in.  You hope that’s how it works out, so you give it a try and don’t bother to do the other things you need to do (e.g. ask customers in-person first).
  1. You’ll probably treat it as a “set it and forget it” solution. You chose the outreach tool because it’s easy. How likely are you to go in often and update the infernal thing?
  1. It’s a missed opportunity to learn more about your would-be reviewers. You have to think about, customize, write, and send 100 emails in a month? Yeah, that’s work.  But what a great way to interact with and get to know your customers.  What a missed opportunity if you don’t bother.
  1. You miss out on the satisfaction of asking for reviews and getting great ones – or of dodging bullets to your reputation

So review-encouragement software isn’t a surefire way to rack up 5-star reviews.  What do I suggest you do instead?

Do MANUAL email outreach, at least for a while.  One email at a time.  One person at a time.

Try a simple process that works for you, even if takes more time or effort than you’d like.  Tweak it as needed until it works pretty well.  Then try to make it easier if you want.

At that point, automated review-encouragement software might actually help.  You might try Whitespark’s Reputation Builder, or GetFiveStars, or Grade.us, for example.  Whatever you use, hold it to high standards.  Make sure it brings in almost as many good reviews as you can do with your finest hands-on outreach effort.  Continue to ask in-person first (if possible), and send some requests personally every now and then, and always try new things that you might work into the program you use.

What’s worked for you?  What hasn’t worked?  Leave a comment!

Local Search Wisdom from SearchLove Boston 2014

Darren’s talk yesterday on How to Prioritize Your Local Search Work was the most practical I’ve seen.  It was a peak among peaks at Distilled’s SearchLove conference.

Local SEO is filled with hocus pocus.  Even when people do work on important stuff, they often neglect some of the basics.  That’s because their priorities aren’t clear.

Problem solved:

Darren’s not one to read off the slide deck.  It’s packed with nuggets, but his talk itself covered even more.  Here are a few things that wouldn’t come through on the slides:

 1.  All the good advice that didn’t make the cut because it wasn’t must-do stuff.  Darren wanted to talk even more about reviews – which he cited as the highest-payoff part of local SEO (and I agree with that).

2.  How highly he recommends GetFiveStars and Moz Local.

3.  Darren gave a nice shout-out to Yext – in the context of it being handy for enterprise-level SEO.

4.  The handy cheat-sheet – which is easy to miss (on slide 90 of 99).

5.  How many questions Darren got during the Q&A and during breaks.  Local search is a pain-point for so many business owners, marketers, and SEOs.

What did you take away from the slides?

What are your local SEO “priorities”?

Questions?

Leave a comment!

GetFiveStars Review-Encouragement Tool Goes from Good to Great

I’m impressed by how far GetFiveStars.com has come in the last 6 months.  It’s gone from a promising way to encourage reviews to a tool that’s been sharpened by the real-world needs of business owners (and review geeks like me).

In case you haven’t seen it – or read my fairly recent interview with Don Campbell – GetFiveStars is an email-based system for asking your customers / clients / patients for reviews.

But it doesn’t take a spray-n’-pray approach to asking for reviews: it first asks customers how happy they are with their experiences with you.  If they’re basically happy, it encourages them to leave a review on a site of their choice, and provides them with the links and some basic instructions.  If they’re not so happy, it encourages them to contact you so you can fix things.

The best thing about the tool is it’s always improving.  Don Campbell and Mike Blumenthal – the smart guys who developed the tool – have seen to that.

For example, one issue that Darren Shaw and I noticed recently was that customers sometimes weren’t sure exactly where to write feedback.  The screen that asks customers how happy they are also asked them to write a tiny blurb on their experiences.  But some customers thought that was the only feedback they were being asked to write – and didn’t realize the business owner also wanted a review on Google+, or Yahoo, or wherever.  Don and Mike streamlined the process by not asking for that little blurb up-front.

It also didn’t used to include instructions on the page that contains the buttons / links to the review sites.

But now there are quick pointers, right next to the buttons.  GetFiveStars is doing an increasingly good job of applying what I call the “zigzag” technique of asking for reviews – that is, not pushing people toward any one review site, but directing them based on what’s easiest for them (and you).

Anyway, I think you’ll like the results if you use GetFiveStars for your business or for a client’s.  And if you have ideas for how to improve it, I’m sure Don and Mike would love your feedback.

If you have any interest whatsoever in getting more reviews – and getting to know your customers a little better – I suggest checking out the free trial of GetFiveStars.

Don Campbell on the GetFiveStars Tool for Getting Customer Reviews and Feedback

Don Campbell is a smart guy – and busy.  For at least as long as I’ve been in “local,” his company – Expand2Web – has been hooking up small-to-medium business owners with affordable, solidly built, professional WordPress sites.  He knows his local SEO, and has contributed to the Local Search Ranking Factors study five times.

Don is also as much of a customer-reviews nut as as I am (well, almost :)).  He’s built an excellent tool called GetFiveStars, which can help you get reviews from your customers – and save you a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in the process.

We had a great pow-wow about reviews a couple of months ago, and will both be speaking on BrightLocal’s upcoming webinar on – you guessed it – customer reviews.  This interview is part of that ongoing conversation.

If you have any interest in getting more in-touch with your customers, getting more and better customer reviews, developing a product, or just building your business, read on.

Phil:  What would be your “elevator pitch” for GetFiveStars, to someone who might be pretty new to reviews in general?

Don:  Here’s our short version of what GetFiveStars does:

GetFiveStars.com is designed to let a small business or an agency working on their behalf easily implement a customer feedback/review management process based on tried and true best practices.

The product automatically solicits and tracks feedback, prevents bad reviews, pushes testimonials out to the business website and encourages happy customers to leave reviews across the Internet.

 

Phil:  And how would you describe it to a “reviews geek” like me, an SEO / marketer, or someone else who digs all the technical details?

Don:  In the industry we all know how important online reviews are in terms of both ranking and conversions. The trouble sometimes, is getting busy small business owners to be proactive about them. Most of the time it’s because they don’t understand how reviews work and don’t have a process in place to follow up with their customers.

What we’ve tried to do with GFS is to automate this as much as possible, making it easy for the business owner to collect feedback and engage with their customers. The result is more positive online reviews, less negative reviews, and happier customers who are referring you to their family and friends.

We also built the system so that it can be white-labeled by agencies that manage many businesses and want to provide their clients with a feedback and review management system.

Some SMBs are fearful of engaging in the review process. Our system frees them from worry and provides a process that allows them to interact with every customer without worrying about whether they will leave a good review or not.

We use an intelligent process that adapts to the customer’s feedback. For example, customers that are less-than happy will be directed to a page that thanks them for their feedback, and sends an alert for the business owner to follow up and resolve the situation.

Customers that leave very positive feedback are taken to a page that thanks them, and encourages them to leave a review on one of the popular online review sites. The business owner gets to define which sites show up here and in what order they are displayed.

We are using a sophisticated email delivery system on the back end to ensure no spamming goes on, and we get the highest delivery rates.

The software is built, maintained and updated by experienced Silicon Valley software veterans, and employs the latest web frameworks – such as Twitter Bootstrap – to ensure we have an elegant, responsive interface that works on all devices, including iPhones, iPads, Android devices, etc.

This means that a business owner could add a new customer and send the feedback request right from their iPhone. Or they could approve a testimonial to go live instantly on their website right from their tablet.

The Testimonials Widget allows businesses to automatically feature testimonials from their customers right on their website. It employs a “graceful degradation” approach so that it can work on any website, whether you are using WordPress, PHP, or just plain old HTML. These testimonials are marked up using the Schema.org review format that Google crawls and understands (more info from Google here), which results in SEO benefits for the business’ website.

We also have some pretty cool internal apps for monitoring the system and allowing us to tweak the product in real-time as necessary. Our product development process allows us to turn things around very very quickly.

Finally, we take customer support very seriously. We use HelpScout to track all support requests coming in to support@GetFiveStars.com. This ensures we follow up with every customer request quickly without stepping on each other’s toes 🙂

We are a very customer-centric company. Our role models are companies that place customer service at the top of their priority list – like Amazon.com and Zappos.

Phil:  There are at least a couple of other good tools for getting reviews.  Grade.us and ReviewBiz come to mind.  What would you say to a business owner who has trouble deciding which tool(s) to try – besides “test several and see what works best”?

Don:  Yes, there are a lot of different reputation management tools out there. Many of them are very good.

My advice is to look for a tool that focuses on helping you deliver great customer service by proactively engaging customers and building word of mouth referrals vs just building review counts.

Our approach has been to create something specific to the small business owner who wants to truly listen to their customers and build their word-of-mouth referrals.

We’ve created a unique method of helping the business connect with their customers and ask them for feedback. We don’t just help them monitor or get online reviews. We are helping businesses build better relationships with their customers.

By the way, I’m not comparing us to the other solutions you mentioned, just trying to share our approach and philosophy on this.

Phil:  What types of businesses is it best-suited for – or not so good for?

Don:  GetFiveStars works best for any type of service oriented business – one where you have customer visits and want to build a relationship with them to encourage repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals.

It is not as good for product review sites, or websites with many products to review (like Amazon.com, for example) since the feedback requests are more geared for customer experiences or visits than products.

Phil:  How does GetFiveStars fit in with what you’re doing over at Expand2Web?

Don:  Expand2Web provides tools and training to help businesses succeed online. We help businesses make the transition to an effective web presence that delivers new customers.

GetFiveStars fits very well within that vision, and automates a process that we’ve implemented manually with many clients to help them follow up with their customers and build word of mouth referrals.

My background is as a software product manager. Working at companies like Interwoven and Microsoft, I’ve had the opportunity to work on some very exciting products. So this is a very special project for me because I can really see that value and results for the businesses we are working with. We’re having a blast working with customers, seeing how they use the software, and continuously improving it.

Phil: What kind of demand, or requests, or questions did you get from Expand2Web customers or clients that made you conclude, “This is how we should build GetFiveStars”?

Don:  We received a lot of really good feedback from our early customers that helped us shape the usability of the tool, and new ideas on reporting too.

One example of something that came from a customer request was the ability to automatically send out feedback request emails to customers rather than doing it manually.

This customer had an existing email list of customers and uploaded it to GetFiveStars. He was looking for guidance on things like “how many requests should I send? How often should I send them? What should they say?”

We automated all of these steps so that the business owner doesn’t need to worry about them. The business owner just get email alerts once feedback has been left for them so they can review it and respond if necessary. Of course they can still do it manually, but this is a feature that almost all of our customers take advantage of now.

Phil:  I know Professor Maps is another big brain that’s been involved in GetFiveStars.  When he and I talked recently, he said it really fits in with his vision for how business owners should go about getting reviews.  Where has Mike’s influence really come into play so far?

Don:  Mike became involved very early on. Much of the product is based on his vision. He’s a thought leader in local search and online reviews, and puts a lot of research into how these processes work best to help businesses succeed online.

With GFS we’ve tried to implement best practices that really work with our customers, and Mike’s philosophy and vision on what the best practices are. He is very involved in the product direction and partnerships that we make as well.  I feel very fortunate to have Mike involved in this project – he brings a ton of credibility and intelligence to the tool.

We both share a similar philosophy on how to help customers – it’s not just about getting as many reviews as you can or taking shortcuts.  We’re out to help businesses build long-term relationships with their customers and build thriving businesses with happy customers and word of mouth referrals.

Phil:  What’s been (or was) the hardest part of developing the tool?

Don:  Getting the design and user experience right. We’ve set a very high bar for the user experience in the product. And it’s hard to get right. Small Business owners are typically very busy and responsible for many jobs at once. So this tool needs to be very easy to use and efficient – it needs to create a lot of value or else the business owner will not use it.

We were fortunate enough to work with an amazing designer with a background in UX to help us. And we are constantly refining the user experience with the goal of making it super easy for the end business user, or agency, to use.

I’d say that has been the hardest part. That and coming up with the pricing 😉

Phil:  What was the biggest course-correction you made while developing GetFiveStars?  Any ideas you ended up scrapping – maybe even ones you’d like to revisit later?

Don:  Early on Mike urged us to develop an agency dashboard that would allow agencies, or anyone managing multiple business locations to see how all of their businesses are doing at a glance.

That required us to go back and rework how we thought about things. It was pretty challenging to do it right. It also complicated our messaging – we’ve had a really hard time figuring out how to describe the product and what it does to both SMBs and agencies at the same time.

I’m so glad we did that though, and think we have a much stronger product now because of it. Many of our customers are multi-location businesses and agencies that manage multiple businesses.

Phil:  What is the best piece of criticism you’ve received on GetFiveStars – one that really made you stop and scratch your head?

Don:  When some of our first customers got ahold of GetFiveStars, the first thing they wanted to do was import all of their Google and Yelp reviews into the tool.

They were really mad when we told them they couldn’t do this! But the problem is, if Google sees duplicate review content on your website, it may remove the review from the business’s Google+ page, which is not good of course.

It really highlighted for us the value of education in this domain. As you know, it’s very confusing for business owners how online reviews work, what the best approaches are, etc.

Phil:  People who create stuff tend to be their own harshest critics.  How would you critique GetFiveStars?

Don:  I feel like we have a great product. I can honestly say I’m happy with the functionality and the user experience.

But the marketing and website are not what I would like it to be. I don’t think it reflects the enthusiasm we have – and our early customers have – about the product.

We are a small company with limited resources and have been so focused on the software that we haven’t done a good enough job describing what it does.

[Note from Phil: they have some helpful videos on the site.]

Now it’s time for us to focus on telling our story, and helping business owners and agencies understand what we can do to make their lives better.

We also have to do a better job about getting educational content up on our website. I like companies who do a good job of providing free, valuable tips and info to customers. Everybody wins – people get valuable information to help them, and it builds trust and credibility in your brand. That worked very well for us with the SmallBiz theme, and now we need to do a better job of that with GetFiveStars in the form of tutorials and videos about customer feedback and reviews best practices, commonly asked questions, etc.

Phil:  What’s a “pro tip” about how best to use GetFiveStars?

Don:  I love the “pro tips” idea. I am always looking for “pro tips” whenever I take on something new, like learning photography, or using a new iPhone app or even playing a new game or sport.

Ok, here are a few “pro tips” for getting the most out of GetFiveStars:

  • Use the “automatic” mode for sending out feedback requests. We added a feature based on customer feedback that automatically sends out feedback requests to your customers on a daily basis. This makes their life easier, and ensures that they get a nice and steady flow of customer feedback and online reviews over time.

  • Customize your feedback request emails. We provide some nice templates, but there is no substitute for personalizing the emails that go out to your customers. You know your customers best. Making the emails personalized and friendly will result in more responses and ultimately better engagement and reviews.

  • Immediately follow up on less-than-positive feedback. One of our early customers told me she didn’t want to upload her email list and send out feedback requests to everyone. When I asked her why, she said “what if I get some bad feedback?” I told her, “that’s exactly why you want to send them out!” If you have a customer issue, don’t you want to know about it? If you know about it you can respond, and resolve the situation. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen an unhappy customer turn into one of the business’ biggest champions because they took the time to listen to them and address their concerns.

Phil:  What are some features you’d really like to add?

Don:  I’d like to add more and better reporting. I want to keep raising the bar on usability, and I want to do a great job of balancing new feature requests with maintaining simplicity in the product.

For example, I used to work at Microsoft, and one of their popular products was Microsoft Project. The product was updated an evolved over years and many features were added. At some point the product became too complex, it had hundreds of features that nobody used and the product became very hard to use.

Then along came a company called 37 Signals, who developed a lightweight, online project management tool called BaseCamp. They had a very interesting approach – they built a very simple, elegant and truly useful tool by tightly managing the feature set of the product. It was a pleasure to use, and they were very successful with this approach.

I like that philosophy – great products are simple to use and implement the key features that provide the most value really well. That’s the approach we’ve tried to take with GetFiveStars.

Here’s an example of a new feature I want to add soon – I admire the way tools like Trello and HelpScout have notifications inside the tool that introduce you to new features as they become available. It helps users discover new product features as they are using the tool and also demonstrates that the software developer is committed to improving the software regularly. I’d like to do something like that inside of GetFiveStars.

Phil:  GetFiveStars relies a lot on being able to contact your customers by email to ask for feedback / reviews.  What are some best-practices for emailing that you’d really want a GetFiveStars user to know and apply?

Don:  Personalize your email subject lines and the body of the email as well. Personalized, relevant emails get opened and acted on. We provide some nice defaults within the tool, so it doesn’t take long to tweak and customize them for your specific industry or types of customers.

Another tip I have is this – don’t be afraid to ask your customers for feedback. Many businesses I talk to are afraid to ask at first. But you will be surprised – customers want to be listened to. And even if they are not happy – especially if they are not happy – you want to hear from them. You can really turn an upset customer into a super happy customer by listening to them and addressing their concerns!

The big idea here is to engage with your customers and build lifelong relationships, so they will be happy and tell their family and friends about you. This becomes your best marketing, instead of running expensive ad campaigns.

Phil:  Some business owners only try to get reviews in fits and starts, and don’t really take the slow-and-steady approach.  They might be reluctant to pay even a small amount monthly, even for a tool that helps quite a bit.  What advice would you have for those people?

Don:  I know it is tempting to try to get a lot of reviews all at once, but the reality is that Google uses very sophisticated algorithms to determine ranking, placement, and review authenticity.

They are looking for a natural review profile that is built up over time from diverse sources. If they detect a surge in reviews or a lot of reviews from one source they may suspect that someone is trying to “game the system”. This results in filtering of some reviews, and poor results in the search rankings.

It’s similar to the panda and penguin updates where some people were stuffing their sites with thin content or buying backlinks. Sometimes they got a temporary boost but then got hammered when Google updated their algorithms to detect this behavior.

That’s why we recommend building a steady flow of feedback and reviews over time for the best, and most long-lasting results.

Phil:  There are a lot of mistakes a business owner can make when asking customers for reviews.  To what extent do you think business owners need to “educate” themselves about the dos and don’ts before (and while) using GetFiveStars?

Don:  It’s true – there are some “best practices” that businesses should consider when asking their clients for reviews.

In fact, we recommend asking for feedback first, and then depending on that feedback, take action to resolve any unhappy customers, or asking for online reviews from your happy customers. This shows your customer you aren’t just out for the review. You are in it to make them happy and satisfied customers. Then the great reviews come naturally.

This basic sequence will work wonders. And you don’t need a tool for this – you can even do it manually:

1.  Ask your customers for feedback

2.  Ask your happy customers for online reviews

3.  Follow up with unhappy or neutral customers to understand and address their concerns

I also suggest that businesses monitor the major online review sites so they know what is being said about their business online. Major review sites like Google and Yelp even allow the business owner to leave comments on the customer reviews. You can leave comments on positive and negative reviews, and leaving these comments shows that you are engaged with your customers and care about them.

Phil:  Obviously, a business owner can use GetFiveStars right “out of the box” to start asking for reviews.  But – as with anything else that’s worth doing – getting reviews is something where it’ll take you a little time to go from good to great.  What’s the learning curve for business owners who use GetFiveStars?  What do they need to get better at or discover over time, in order to use the tool to the max?

Don:  Recently we added a 3-step setup process to help businesses get up to speed quickly. It involves adding links to your online review profiles, customizing the feedback request email, and importing your customer email list.

Once those steps are done, GetFiveStars will automatically start sending out feedback requests to your customers (this automation is optional, by the way.)

Here are a few things I think business owners should do regardless of GetFiveStars:

  • Tell your customers how important reviews are for you, and make it easy for them to leave you a review (i.e. provide them with a direct link to your review profile.)
  • Make your website more personal. Add a picture of yourself, or of your smiling receptionist or office manager. People buy from other people, not anonymous websites.
  • Be transparent about reviews – put testimonials and reviews on your website with links to your online profiles. This shows customers that you aren’t hiding anything.

I’ve seen these tips lead to much more effective websites for many different businesses.

Phil:  Some business owners say that because there are so many fake reviews floating around the web, and because some reviews can get lost or filtered, it’s not worth putting much effort into getting reviews.  How would you reply to that?

Don:  It’s true there is a lot of this going on. But it doesn’t make it any less important to be proactive about your online reviews.

Google, Yelp and other services are getting very good at detecting false online reviews, and they have whole teams working on this. Don’t waste your time trying to game the system.

In the end, what does it matter if you have 100 five star reviews that are faked? What you are after is happy customers that are telling their friends about you. Fake reviews do not help with that. Engaging with your customers does. I know many businesses who don’t even need marketing campaigns because their word of mouth referrals provide so many new customers. You don’t get there by buying fake reviews.

The reason that we support so many forward facing review sites is to give a business’s customer a choice that they are familiar with and that they are used to. If they have used that particular review site before, the review that they leave for the business is more likely to “stick”.

Phil:  Let’s say someone makes a knock-off version of GetFiveStars that has the same features (but that maybe isn’t put together as nicely).  Would GetFiveStars evolve in any way to stay ahead of the curve, or is there a unique benefit you already bring to the table that you’d want to remind your users of?

Don:  My philosophy is that everything is a commodity today. We live in a truly global economy, and someone can always do it cheaper. The way to differentiate is by the experience you deliver to your customers. So that is our focus. We will keep raising the bar on the usability and effectiveness of the tool. We will keep raising the bar on the support we provide, and the knowledge and best practices that go into the product and process.

This opportunity is large enough – 26M small businesses in the US alone, 10s of millions more internationally. If we do our job of building a tool that truly provides value, and treating our customers like kings and queens then we will have plenty of customers and traction in the market.

Phil:  What changes brewing at Google, Yelp, or in the reviews space in general do you think might change the way GetFiveStars works?

Don:  That’s a very good question. It was interesting to watch how Google tried to change from the 5 stars model to the 30 point Zagat inspired scale for all businesses. Now they are changing back.

I think the core premise of the product – engaging with your customers to get their feedback and act on it – will not change based on any variations that Google, Yelp, or any other services makes.

Phil:  Is there a “core” feature of GetFiveStars that you just don’t see yourself ever changing (significantly)?

Don:  The ability to get feedback from customers and act on it. There are a lot of exciting directions I can see this product going, but one thing that I don’t think will ever change is the focus on interacting with customers and making it easy to get feedback from them and see how that is affecting your business.

Phil:  Right now, GetFiveStars is a one-offering brand.  Do you see it turning into a brand with other offerings?

Don:  I do feel like there are a lot of directions we can go with GetFiveStars. I want to keep the tool focused and effective, instead of cramming it with a ton of features and complexity. It should always be a pleasure to use, and take the minimum time and effort on the part of the business owner.

As we work with our customers, we can add new capabilities that add value. Birthday reminders, loyalty programs, and other customer interactions are certainly things we can imagine in GetFiveStars in the future.

Phil:  What are your current “listening stations” for getting feedback about GetFiveStars?

Don:  As you might imagine, we are using GetFiveStars to collect feedback from our customers. We are engaged one-on-one with them as they use the product to get their feedback and ideas. We are actively trying to solve their most pressing problems.

We also connect in with the Local Search community (look at the contributors to the Local Search Ranking Factors report) to keep on top of best practices and changes in the industry.

We’re also using a tool called Mention.com (based on a customer recommendation) to monitor certain topics on the web.

Phil:  What’s the best way for a user of GetFiveStars to contact you with technical questions or to offer feedback?

Don:  We provide personalized email support at support@GetFiveStars.com. We also have a user guide with video tutorials, FAQs and full documentation. Our developers respond to every email too.

Phil:  Putting GetFiveStars aside, what advice do you have for business owners who need more reviews?  (Like advice you gave people before you built GetFiveStars.)

Don:  Here are a few things I always recommend that a business should do:

1.  Monitor your online reviews so you know where people are leaving reviews for you, and respond to them.

2.  Put a simple and effective process in place for your office staff to ask your best customers for online reviews. This can be as simple as a clipboard with a list of names and email addresses. Collect those emails throughout the week, and then send a nice email at the end of the week to the people who visited, with a direct link to your Google+ page so they can leave you a review.

3.  Cultivate your online profiles for Google+, Yelp, and any industry specific site, and your website.

Phil:  Unrelated question: What’s a handful of books that helped you grow Expand2Web – and that you think would help anyone trying to grow a business?

Don:  I love this question. I consider reading great books an essential part of my business and life. Here are a few of my favorites:

The Referral Engine – by John Jantsch

Made to Stick – by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Decisive – by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs – by Carmine Gallo

Delivering Happiness – by Tony Hsieh

Predictably Irrational – by Dan Ariely

Seth Godin – Tribes, Purple Cow, others…

How We Decide – Jonah Lehrer

Presentation Zen – by Garr Reynolds

Resonate – by Nancy Duarte

If you want to know about a book for something – just ask me. I’ve probably read it!

Huge thanks to Don for the great insights.

If you’re serious about customer reviews, I highly recommend giving GetFiveStars a try.

(I also suggest checking out Expand2Web and following Don on Twitter.)

Any questions for Don or for me?  Leave a comment!