By Ashley Davis
New York--Word of mouth is as important as ever for businesses, but now it’s moved largely online.

The internet’s wide access to information has made consumers more educated and they’re vetting businesses online before shopping with them by reading customer reviews on sites like Google, Yelp, The Knot and Facebook.

Positive online reviews will convince customers to shop at a given store, while keeping them away from the ones that have been reviewed negatively.

Here’s what marketing and public relations experts had to say about developing an online review strategy ahead of this holiday retail season.

1. Ask Without Asking
The first step to getting a good online review from a customer who is happy with the service they’ve received is to be proactive and make sure they are reminded to leave one.

There are ways to put leaving a review at the top of someone’s mind without being pushy.

“Focus on customer service, not soliciting a review,” said Jennifer Lee Magas, vice president of public relations firm Magas Media Consultants LLC, and clinical associate professor of public relations at Pace University.

The point is to earn the review through the experience you’ve provided, and let customers know how they can leave a review if they feel compelled.

Magas said having signs in a store, printing where to leave a review on receipts and circling it with a pen, or having a link on an e-commerce site are all ways to ask customers indirectly.

2. Be Sincere
Sometimes, it is appropriate to mention reviews more directly.

“You should by no means be asking for positive reviews,” said Magas, “but just say with a smile to a customer that if they enjoyed their service, this is where they can rate your store.

“Don’t try to schmooze--being sincere is everything.”

Focus on the especially positive interactions you’ve had, when customers are satisfied and you’ve made a connection. Closing a bridal or anniversary sale, for example, or helping someone choose a great gift, are opportunities to ask for a review sincerely.

3. Make It Easy
Paul Ormerod, the managing director of Nisbets, an Australian catering company that sells thousands of products online, said that his tried-and-true method for obtaining reviews is to keep the process quick and easy.

“Making it as easy as possible for customers to submit feedback is the best way to optimize positive reviews,” he explained. “No one wants to spend more than 5 minutes writing a review unless they’re angry. Emailing a link or including a clear call-to-action on your website is a good place to start.”

4. Acknowledge the Reviews You Get
When customers do leave a review, it’s important to recognize the effort they made to acknowledge your brand by leaving a comment.

“If a customer takes the time to leave a review, they are an active stakeholder in your company,” said Danny Gavin, vice president, director of marketing for Brian Gavin Diamonds.

“Being responsive and sharing an appreciation for the time a customer has taken out of their day to acknowledge you will elevate the experience and add a human touch to your brand.”

5. And Acknowledge Them Quickly
Timing is everything, so respond to reviews quickly.

“Facebook has a feature that actually shows on your business’s page detailing your history as a responder,” said Magas. “Do you reply to messages within the hour, within 24 hours, or within the week? Try to answer any questions or gripes your customers may have as soon as possible. It shows you are attentive and listening,”

Yelp has a similar feature, showing how quickly a business is likely to respond to an inquiry on average. A fast response to a customer’s issue or question could prevent a negative review, and a proven track record of fast communication will inspire consumer confidence.

Alayna Frankenberry, manager of inbound marketing for BlueSky ETO, said that Google Alerts provide one method of keeping up with reviews.

“Users have plenty of outlets for posting their reviews, and it can be hard to keep track of them all,” she said. “Setting up Google Alerts for your business and brand name can help. These alerts can email you as soon as these terms appear online. This way, you can respond quickly to customer concerns before they escalate.”

6. Don’t Be a Robot
Even when customers are contacting a store digitally, it’s important that they feel they are speaking with a human.

Gavin said that companies should vary their online responses.

“Don't be afraid to get personal and avoid using canned responses for each customer,” he advised.

7. Address Negativity
Don’t just respond to the good reviews, respond to the negative ones too.

Customers are typically more compelled to leave negative reviews than they are positive ones, and this can leave business owners feeling powerless, but everyone has a voice online, and that should be used to a company’s advantage.

“Be transparent,” said Gavin. “Open communication will help mitigate a bad situation and will show that the company is not only responsive to criticism or concerns but also adaptive and willing to grow.”

Every online interaction a company has will make an impact for customers who are deciding if they should visit a business. Responding politely to a negative review and trying to rectify the situation will prove a business’s integrity to the public.

8. Don’t Get Defensive
Don’t try to “win” an online issue with by proving that you were right and the negative reviewer was wrong.

Magas explained: “Getting defensive will reflect immaturely, so be sure to always answer with something level-headed and helpful.”

Angry customers want to feel validated online, Ormerod said, so it’s important to let them know you’re listening and concerned about their negative experience.

“A constructive response to a negative review will speak volumes to future customers, and might even inspire the reviewer to change their stance,” he said.

9. Move It to a Different Forum
Frankenberry advised reaching out to negative reviewers directly, after addressing them online initially.

“Try to take the conversation offline as soon as possible by connecting the user with your customer service team, help desk, or even you personally,” she said.

“This will help you resolve the root of the issue more quickly, and will also help prevent additional negative feedback from being published online where the public can see it.”

10. Make the Customer Happy
Beyond listening to and acknowledging negative reviews to the reviewer, actually fix the problem.

Magas advised: “Customers like to know that their complaints are being heard, but they like it even more when you can help to fix their issue.”

Replace whatever might need to be replaced, or offer a service for free. Don’t ask for an updated review online, but know that consumers are typically motivated to leave an updated response when they feel their issue has been taken care of in a respectful and competent way.

“The way in which you respond can easily make the best of a bad review,” said Ormerod.

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