Online review sites can give small businesses a real boost. But they can also be used to damage a firm’s reputation, whether justified or not. Peter Crush explores how to cope with negative publicity.
Few hearts could not have been warmed by the plight of Robert Sansom, owner of Hampshire-based Petersfield Bookshop.
After despondently tweeting he hadn’t sold a single book all day in January, follower (and sci-fi author) Neil Gaiman was so touched he re-tweeted it to his 2.8 million followers. Cue something of an online sensation. Within 24 hours, not only was Mr Sansom’s inbox stuffed with 300 new messages, but he had also gained 1,100 new Twitter followers and, perhaps more importantly, £1,000 of orders (an uplift that has kept going).
This is the internet working at its best, and it led to an outpouring of goodwill in support of the antiquarian bookshop.
“So happy to have discovered you,” said one on Twitter.
“A treasure trove,” added another. “This is one of the most interesting and unique bookshops in the world,” wrote one more. “The perfect bookshop,” writes one on review site TripAdvisor.
But for all the reasons online sites can be an SME’s saviour, the flipside is that they can just as easily destroy reputations – thanks to review sites in particular. Sometimes, these sites are a repository for the unfair, the unjustified and downright malicious.
While the odd negative review might sound insignificant, the reality is that 92 per cent of consumers now read online reviews (up from 88 per cent in 2014) according to online marketing platform provider BrightLocal, with two-thirds saying positive reviews make them trust that business more.
In fact, nearly half of customers form a buying decision after reading just one to three reviews, meaning a negative one near the top can stop a sale. Consumers are likely to spend 31 per cent more on products and services from businesses that have excellent reviews, the research found.
However, growing numbers of small businesses are becoming worried about review sites, simply because of the sheer influence now yielded by the likes of TripAdvisor, Yelp and newcomer Feefo. According to digital solutions provider Vendasta, just one negative review can cost a company 30 customers – and while the stakes have got higher, many are worried that SMEs aren’t getting the protection they deserve.
“No one expects businesses to have perfect reviews,” argues Neil Warwick, FSB's policy chair for EU and international affairs. “Having slightly less than five stars is no bad thing. But we’re hearing from SMEs who are suffering from fake reviews – often by competitors – and malicious reviews by people who have not even purchased anything from them.”
Indeed, FSB research for its recent Destination Digital report found that 21per cent of SMEs have suffered from malicious or fake reviews. “SMEs tell us they’re reliant on digital platforms for exposure, search engine rankings, even better postal rates, such as through Amazon,” says Mr Warwick. “But there is huge variance in ability to contest or have complaints removed.”
It’s an issue Josh James, COO at last-minute holiday booking site Snaptrip – which receives an average of five to 10 reviews per day – knows only too well: “While we’ve avoided having real vexatious reviewers, there have been times when we’ve hit a brick wall,” he says. “We’ve had cases where so-called ‘reviewers’ aren’t even customers. The sites say they remove all slanderous reviews, but some have stayed up, and we can’t get them taken down.”
Few argue that genuine negative reviews don’t have their place. “SMEs with the same sort of poor feedback – such as on item quality, or durability – should see it as a wake-up call,” says Seb Ellis, who advises SMEs, including pawnbroker chain Prestige Pawn (of Channel 4’s Posh Pawn), about managing their online reputations.
“In the absence of redress from sites, it’s vital SMEs take control of their digital footprint themselves.”
The good news, Mr Ellis argues, is that the public can generally spot obviously vexatious and angry keyboard warriors a mile off. The key, he says, is engaging with other bad reviewers. “Don’t be general, respond to their specific queries, and do it calmly,” he says. “What you’re doing – even if you don’t agree with the comment – is showing to other readers that you care, and are open and transparent. This creates advocacy.”
Christopher Lamotte, founder of Real Marketing and SME reputation advisor, says: “Responding well is all about creating trust. Comments may be unjust – one client in hospitality got a one-star review because the diner got drunk and wanted to have a rant – but the key is to take the emotion out of it. It may mean apologising – even if not in the wrong. The point is, other readers will then see it’s the reviewer that was being unreasonable. Classic manners go a long way.”
Sometimes a review can be so fantastical that the only response is to play the complainant at their own game. “We recently had a negative review about our Babasac baby sleeping bag,” says Keira O’Mara, director of Mama Designs.
“It was ridiculous, saying the fabric was so loud it rustled, keeping the baby awake. We re-posted the comment on our Instagram, and got so much support we decided to carry out some actual noise tests – which we again put on Instagram.
“We replied to the reviewer, saying: ‘I’m so sorry to hear that you thought the fabric rustled and was horrible. We were so concerned about this that we carried out some noise tests and posted them on our Instagram. Unfortunately babies do have a bad habit of waking up in the night, so maybe there was a different reason for him waking. I hope you are getting some sleep now’.” Not surprisingly, this was the last time they heard from that reviewer.
Pick your sites
Some review sites are more SME-friendly than others. New entrant Feefo ‘invites’ customers to post reviews [it typically gets a 12-14 per cent response rate], but verifies them using that firm’s own sales data, ensuring reviews only come from real customers.
“Our reviews are moderated, but they will go up unedited,” says Managing Director Matt West. “What we suggest is using the feature of being able to enter into a dialogue on the system. Our view is that SMEs must reply to comments, because if customers don’t have a platform to enter into a conversation, they’ll simply shout elsewhere.”
It’s because most review sites do allow dialogue that others argue there are other online destinations SMEs should worry about more. “We actually find social media sites are much more likely to feature vexatious reviews, precisely because it’s easier to fire off an immediate outburst,” says Jez Ashbury, director of Shooting Star, which advises clients about digital strategies. “While we also say engage, our advice is actually to take disputes offline altogether by inviting people to call you. Otherwise, you’re leaving too much of a discussion online.”
For those firms still suffering unjust, unfair or vexatious reviews, help could soon be on its way. An EU regulation on platform-to-business relations (P2B regulation), aiming to create ‘fair, transparent and predictable business environments’ for SMEs, came into force last summer. It intends to offer redress to businesses, should they feel it’s necessary, and Mr Warwick says FSB is lobbying to ensure it is brought into domestic law. “We’re also pushing for SMEs to have an independent regulator – like an ombudsman – that they can appeal to,” he says.
“Online platforms offer a great gateway into new markets, and allow SMEs to grow their markets,” he concludes.
“That’s the benefit of them. But it’s all about balance. It’s time these sites were also looked at from the SMEs’ perspective, and not just that of the consumers.”