Why Your Review-Encouragement Software Is a Meat Grinder

https://www.flickr.com/photos/andy_bernay-roman/3583900762/

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!

The Ridiculous Hidden Power of Local Reviews: Umpteen Ways to Use Them to Get More Business

Even the obvious benefits of great customer reviews are almost too many to count.  To wit:

  • They take a little pressure off your site to “convert,” because visitors arrive largely pre-sold.
  • They can help you eat up more of page one of Google.
  • They help you cultivate non-Google Maps or non-Google sources of visibility.
  • They take some of the pressure off your local SEO and other online-marketing efforts, because they build your reputation online and offline.
  • You’ll be a little more attuned to customer-service if you know you’ll ask for a review eventually.
  • Even if your rankings stink, they help you land more word-of-mouth referrals. (Those people probably Google you, too.)
  • Whoever sees your reviews in the local search results is more likely to pick up the phone.

Those are just the beginning, though.  You can squeeze many other benefits from customers’ reviews and from the process of earning and encouraging them.  As AJ Kohn said about commenting on blog posts, the hidden power of reviews is ridiculous.

Here are some of the less-obvious ways you can use your reviews to help your local SEO and marketing even more.

1. Use them to research keywords. You might not call your services what your customers call them, and you might not search for them in the way they search for them.  Where appropriate, try to incorporate those phrases into relevant pages of your site, or create separate pages on them.

2. Mine your reviews to learn exactly what kinds of customers have reviewed you, and why. Use those insights to determine who are the other customers most likely to review you (and ask them), and to make your services better.

3. Study your competitors’ reviews. Ask the same questions as in points #1-2.

4. Use a freshly-written review as an excuse to contact the customer who wrote it. Say thanks.  Ask how he or she is doing, or just say you’d like any further feedback.  That’s good to do on principle, and sometimes you’ll get repeat business out of the deal.

 

5. Use a new review as an occasion ask for an additional review, on a different site, if the customer is willing.

6. Write owner-responses in a way that makes you look great to anyone reading your reviews.

7. Copy and paste the reviews onto your site. (Google doesn’t seem to mind, and neither does Yelp, and other sites surely don’t care.)  I suppose this isn’t such a hidden benefit of reviews, but I have to mention it because it’s so important.  Your customers’ reviews are copywriting rebar.  Your selling points are stronger if you’re not the only one touting them.   Also, if you cite the city the reviewer is from, they’re semi-“local” content you don’t have to write.  They’re particularly useful on city pages.

8. Put them on a “Reviews” or “Reviews & Testimonials” page on your site. It might even rank for keyword + reviews local search terms.

9. Use them on a “Why Choose Us?” page.

10. Add reviews badges or widgets to your site to showcase the reviews. The badges serve as third-party “trust” symbols, if you use the badge(s) provided by the site where you’ve got the reviews.

11. Create your own badge, if none is available on the site where you’ve got a pile of good reviews.

12. Allude to your reviews in your AdWords ads.

13. Include them (or excerpt or link to them) in your email signature, possibly along with a link to your “Review Us” page.

14. Use them as seeds for blog post topics. You can expand on certain selling points (or other points) a reviewer brought up.

15. Use them to reduce surprises and customer-service issues, by encouraging visitors to read your reviews before they call you. Even if that means they have to open up another browser tab and take their eyes off your site for a minute.  Say something like, “We want you to know how we made other customers happy, and we want you to be our latest happy customer, so please take a minute to read our reviews.”  When they come back, they’ll be more likely to call you, and less likely to eat up your time with questions your past customers already answered.

Any non-obvious powers of reviews I didn’t mention?

How do you leverage your reviews (the good and even the bad)?

Any great real-life examples of one of the points I mentioned?

Leave a comment!

How to Execute the Perfect Local Reviews Strategy

Step 1.  Commit – or don’t.

What do you want?  What disaster are you trying to keep away from your reputation?

You’ll need to be patient and have a little fire in your belly – no matter what you’re trying to accomplish or avoid.

And you’ll need to learn from your reviews to make your business better.  Or else your reputation will own you, and not the other way around.

 

Step 2.  Get listed on the big review sites and on at least a few industry-specific sites.

Remove duplicate and incorrect listings along the way.

These sites are the only places you can get online reviews – at least the kind that can really help your local visibility and rankings.  If you don’t have listings on these sites, nothing else matters and you will get zero reviews.  Testimonials – AKA bits of “fan mail” that you post on your site – don’t count.

 

Step 3.  Respond to any negative reviews you find.  (Read this and this.)

Mend bridges with those customers.  Work on the underlying issue(s) they complained about, if humanly possible.

 

Step 4.  Make it easy to leave spontaneous reviews.

Link to a couple of your listings in your email signature.

Put a gentle nudge on your invoices or receipts.

Link to some of your listings from your site – preferably with noticeable “buttons.”

You can make these yourself, or you can use tools like ReviewBiz or Grade.us.

 

Step 5.  Start asking all your new customers – and preferably old and existing customers – for their email addresses.

Find a way to make it worth their while.  This will be important for later.

 

Step 6.  Pick about 5 customers and ask them to review you somewhere.

It could be on Google+, or on an easier site that accepts Facebook usernames.  Whatever you do, don’t push them toward Yelp; you need a different strategy there.

Try to ask them in-person and to provide simple printed instructions, if possible (example).

 

Step 7.  Check back a week or two later to see who posted a review, and follow up.

Thank any customers who did.  Reconnect with the ones who didn’t.  Ask if there’s any way you can help them in general, and mention again that you’d really appreciate a review.

 

Step 8.  Set up whatever system you want to use for contacting customers by email

Consider using a tool like GetFiveStars.  It makes it easy to follow up with customers by email (remember step #5?), and it lets you track your reviews.

Or you can use an email service like Aweber or MailChimp.

Email a handful of your customers to ask if they’ll review you.  These can be people you already asked in-person and are just reminding, or they can be another batch of customers you’re asking for the first time.

Don’t ask all your customers at once: You don’t want to wear out your welcome while you’re just trying to figure out what timing and language seems to work best, and how email should fit in.

 

Step 9.  Apply whatever you learned from the previous batch of reviewers.  Not only in terms of how to make your requests easier to say “yes” to, but also in terms of what they might have said in their reviews.  What were their gripes, and what can you do about them?

(By the way, if it seems like you’ve done this step before, you’re right.  And you’ll do it again and again.  If you don’t learn from your reviews, they’re just dots on the screen.)

 

Step 10.  Respond  to any reviews you can.  Tell the less-happy people what you’ve done to improve (see Step 9).  Say thanks to the happier customers, where appropriate.

 

Step 11.  Continue asking small groups of customers – like 2-10 – every week for reviews.

It doesn’t need to be the exact-same number every week.  But don’t ask zero customers one month and then 40 the next month.  Be somewhat consistent.

Ask everyone twice: ideally you ask in-person first, and then by email.  Don’t be a pest.  Just give a friendly reminder.  Space these out by 5-10 days.

 

Step 12.  Experiment.  Try something different every few “batches.”

Ask customers to go to different sites – not the same one each time.  (Make new instructions for new sites if needed.)  Try sending printed follow-ups by snail-mail.   If you usually ask customers on Tuesdays and Thursdays, try asking on a Friday.  Mix it up.  See what seems to work.

 

Step 13.  Keep repeating steps 9-12 to infinity.  Tweak your processes as much as you feel you need to, but never stop asking, refining, and acting.

Enjoy the great reviews and happy customers.

What steps have you done in your review strategy so far?

How do they compare to the one I suggest?

Any questions or advice for me?  Leave a comment!

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!

Local Citations You Do NOT Want

Citations help your local rankings and overall visibility to customers.  The more you can rack up, the better – right?

Wrong.  There are some sites you simply don’t want your business to be listed on.

If I had to categorize them, I’d call them consumer-protection / complaint-board sites.

How would you like to be the proud owner of juicy citations like these?

 

 

 

Didn’t think you’d want a piece of that action.

(Please note: I picked the above listings at random.  For all I know, the businesses listed there do a great job.)

Here are some sites I’ve found where a citation = bad local visibility:

BBB.org (if you have a bad rating there)

CompanyNameSucks.com

Complaints.com

ComplaintsBoard.com

ComplaintsList.com

PissedConsumer.com

PlanetFeedback.com

RipoffReport.com

Scam.com

ScamBook.com

TheSqueakyWheel.com (charges $5)

My guess is Google will not put a wet towel on your rankings if you’re mentioned on any of the above sites.  (But who knows…maybe.)

It doesn’t really matter, though: The goal is to attract customers.  If any of the above sites shows up in the search results when someone types in the name of your business, you’re repelling customers.

If you’re in the unenviable position of being listed on one of these sites, at least respond to the complaint.  Many sites give you (the business owner) some way to address the beef – as a way of making things right or of telling your side of the story.  Whatever you do, be wary of companies that claim to be able to remove complaints.

If angry customers are doing your citation-building for you, you’re in trouble.  But things will never get out of hand as long as you care and try to do a good job: