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Restaurant Resource Center

Navigating the World of Online Restaurant Reviews

Navigating the World of Online Restaurant Reviews

When it comes to dining out, everyone’s a critic these days.

With the explosion of crowd-sourcing review sites like Yelp, Urban Spoon, Open Table and more, every Tom, Dick and armchair Gordon Ramsay is free to opine on the quality of service at their local gastropub, the tastiness of the special sauce at the new burger joint, and the freshness of the fish at the gourmet restaurant that requires a reservation three months in advance.

How can you turn bad reviews into positive experiences, avoid viral meltdowns and know when to respond to the social media peanut gallery? Try these tips.

How to Monitor Online Reviews

With all the different review sites out there, it can feel like a full-time job to keep track of the feedback your establishment is getting. To stay on top of your online rep without spreading yourself too thin, Leslie Hobbs of the San Francisco, CA-based suggests hiring an external vendor. “It used to be that companies could effectively manage their online presence,” she says. “That's not the case anymore—the sheer amount of data that comes in through social media and online review spaces makes that impossible.”

Of course, when you’re an entrepreneur running a small establishment, you might not have the budget to outsource. But self-monitoring reviews does have its advantages. Erik Lars Myers of Mystery Brewing in Hillsborough, NC, favors the more lo-fi approach, preferring to interact with online reviews the same way a typical customer might. “The best way to monitor online reviews is to become a member of the site and just watch your own page as well as others on a regular basis. I prefer looking at it as a user to see how other users are consuming the information and how your reviews look in comparison to other businesses of your type.”

When to Respond to Online Reviews

Hopefully most of the people logging on to dish about their recent experience at your restaurant will have nothing to share but praise, but that’s not always the case. It’s important to know how to handle the feedback—positive and negative—that your business receives.

If you have the time, Hobbs thinks you should respond to most reviews, even if only to acknowledge them with a thank you. For a busy business owner, though, that might be prohibitive.

Jerry Nevins, CEO at Snow & Co. Artful Frozen Cocktails in Kansas City, MO, says, “I make sure to address reviews that are super-positive, super-negative, regard service/quality or have wrong information.” Incorrect reviews can be tough, but a well-handled correction can provide you with a platform to set the record straight. “If someone says your restaurant does not have a happy hour, that's an opportunity for you to kindly note that you do, in fact, have a happy hour, and to provide the hours along with a few enticing tidbits on what patrons can expect.”

How to Respond to Negative Online Reviews

Nevins employs the golden rule and treats reviewers how he’d like to be treated. “Like Patrick Swayze says in Road House, ‘Be nice,’” says Nevins. “Just because someone may treat you poorly online, it doesn't give you an excuse to take that same tone. A bad response hurts you way more than a bad review.”

Myers agrees, but asserts that there are different types of angry reviews. He won’t respond to comments he feels are “chock full of crazy” because engaging may make it worse.

If your quick and thoughtful response doesn’t placate the reviewer, Hobbs suggests avoiding a back-and-forth in the public eye. “Try to move the conversation offline to explore the issue further and provide a resolution,” she counsels. “A drawn-out conversation online invites more judgment and is not ideal for customer privacy.”

How to Use Online Reviews to Improve Operations

Every online review is an opportunity to grow your business—even the angry ones. “Angry reviews are often helpful,” Hobbs says. “They can indicate problems that need to be addressed, so in that sense, these reviews are actually doing you a favor. They also represent the opportunity to turn a disappointed consumer into a happy one.”

Use legitimate complaints as teachable moments for yourself and your staff. For instance, if there are persistent comments about slow service during busy Sunday brunch, consider adding an additional runner or bar back. If there are recurring issues with food or beverage quality, plan a quick refresher on the appropriate way to prepare those dishes and drinks. If patrons frequently complain about loud music or poor lighting, consider turning down the tunes or turning up the wattage. This also creates an opportunity to go back to the review site and announce what you’ve done to address these issues.

How to Get More Good Online Reviews

While good reviews are a great way to build positive word of mouth, don’t get desperate. “Don't incentivize [patrons] by providing a free app, meal, discount, etc.,” advises Hobbs. “Never pay for reviews and, of course, never write your own.”

Giving things away is ultimately not good for the bottom line, says Nevins. “We're in the business of making money, right?” But it’s also a matter of authenticity and transparency, which fuel the reputable review sites and build trust in your brand. If people find out you’re buying good reviews—and they will—you lose credibility and can get in trouble with site administrators. That’s not going to be good for business.

Everyone may be a critic these days, but if you handle those criticisms well, you’ll get more positive reviews—and might just gain yourself some new customers. “Focus on having a great environment, good staff, good training and good products, and the good reviews will come,” Myers says.

Michael S. Julianelle is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY, with his wife and young son.