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Customers As Restaurant Critics

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Sites such as Yelp, Foursquare and Urbanspoon provide risks, opportunities
By Kevin Hardy October 2012 Technology

Hungry people shopping around for a place to eat don’t have to look far.

Websites and mobile apps such as Yelp, Foursquare and Urbanspoon customers find restaurants and sort them by location, price and cuisine type, as well as act as a sort of archive of user-submitted reviews.

For all the convenience they offer to consumers, these sites also present opportunities and risks for restaurants, whose reputations could be boosted or sunk by user reviews.

Such sites allow customers to view pictures, see the menu and hear how others rate the overall experience, potentially drawing in brand-new customers. But even the reputations of the best establishments could spoil from a few bad reviews — whether they’re true or not.

Either way, it’s almost certain that most restaurants are being talked about in some capacity. And most experts say operators should jump right in to that conversation, responding to negative criticism and even answering positive reviews. But some are going further, manipulating search engines or even composing fake reviews.

Whatever you do, it’s clear you’ve got to be active. That’s true for a brand’s entire online strategy, which should include official business websites, social media engagement and review sites.

“Whether restaurants believe that review sites like Yelp or Urbanspoon are good or bad is a moot point,” says Brooke Hovey, executive vice president, digital, at Cohn & Wolfe communication agency. “The size of those communities is growing. And the reach and the influence of that content is also spreading.”

Next: Plenty of ways to influence the dialogue

Plenty of ways to influence the dialogue

While the content of those sites may seem largely out of a restaurant’s control, Hovey says operators have plenty of ways to influence what’s being said. And the best way is to ensure the quality of the service and food during the dining experience, before customers ever write a word on the Web.

“At the most-basic level, restaurants do control in many cases the experience that guests have in their cafes and restaurants,” she says. “It all starts with the experience in the restaurant.”

To ensure a strong online reputation, it’s important to keep constant watch over who is saying what on a multitude of websites. That’s simple advice, but many operators don’t even make it this far, says Fred LeFranc, founding partner of Results thru Strategy, a restaurant consulting firm based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“I don’t think a lot of restaurants take it seriously enough,” he says. “The thing we tell our clients is there’s a conversation going on. You need to be a part of it.”

Larger operations and chains may hire a dedicated social media employee, who keeps track and responds to a host of online conversations. But LeFranc says the smaller companies have a tougher time keeping up, though they could stand to lose the most by sour comments.

Consumers have come to know what to expect from large chains, both full and limited service. But many people checking out independents and smaller chains for the first time don’t know what to expect, increasing the importance of sites like Yelp and Urbanspoon.

For the Magpie Café, a downtown restaurant in Sacramento, California, centered on local and in-season dishes, these sites are just another way of hearing what customers think of the experience.

‘We don’t discount any of it’

“We take any comment about our restaurant seriously. If it’s on Yelp, on Urbanspoon, a comment on Facebook, something said in the newspaper, if it’s a phone call,” owner Ed Roehr says. “We critically listen to everything that comes through. And we don’t discount any of it.”

Of course, there’s relativity to it all. Customers in-house have more credibility and weight when it comes to complaints.

“The relationship for us is in the restaurant. We can’t go chasing every comment that we see online,” Roehr says. “But if people are sitting in my restaurant and say there’s a fly in my soup or this steak if overcooked, we’re going to do what we can to fix it.”

Roehr says the evolving social media world is very important to some people, but very unimportant to others. And traditional media coverage and loyal customers are still the best way to boost business.

“I think local media and word of mouth are still by far more important than the social media thing,” he says.

Even so, that’s no reason to discount the powerful pull of the Web.

Bill Corbett Jr., president and CEO of Corbett Public Relations, says these sites give restaurateurs insight into what customers are thinking.

“Sometimes when you do get bad reviews, that’s the best advice somebody could ever give you,” he says.

Next: Changing online landscape opens opportunities

Changing online landscape opens opportunities

Corbett says the changing online landscape also opens up new opportunities.

Regular activity on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter can remind frequent customers about your business, and review and location-based sites such as Yelp and Urbanspoon can put your brand’s name in front of new customers.

“It just reminds people they exist,” he says. “You’ve got to do whatever you can to get into people’s consciousness.”

The anonymity of the Internet can hurt the credibility of some review sites. Many believe the anonymous nature opens the door for competitors to bad-mouth a rival business or owners to sing the praises of their own establishments.

“I think people do understand to some degree that you can’t trust everything 100 percent,” Corbett says.

It’s still unclear just how many consumers are duped by fake reviews.

Kent Campbell, managing director and chief strategist at Internet Reputation Management, says some are dead giveaways.

They’ll often look formulaic, use many exclamation marks or just seem overly glowing or too outrageously awful.

To have more control over online reviews, Campbell recommends taking a cue from the success of other restaurants and hotels, some of which have invited those customers who offer praise at the table or register to write a review on the web.

“They would actually vet people first. That way they can channel the reviews that we’re statistically probable to be positive. And they’re not paying someone to write fake reviews,” he says. “They’re being active but not aggressive.”

That’s a good strategy for tackling negative reviews, too. Instead of responding defensively, Campbell recommends operators offer a positive response.

If someone complains that the fries were cold, offer a free order on the next visit. If someone says the service was awful, say you’ll look into it and try to make it right.

“You almost want to guilt them into thinking, ‘Wow, I wrote an awful review,’ ” he says. “You want to convert that negative into a positive.”

That’s what leaders at The Melting Pot fondue restaurants do with anything negative they come across online.

They investigate all claims, giving the benefit of the doubt to the customer, and find ways to make it right.

“We think it’s very important to lead the conversation. But we also think it’s important to respond to our customers online. We take guest feedback very seriously,” saysAlisha dos Santos, communications manager for Front Burner Brands, which has 140 Melting Pot locations in North America, along with three Burger 21 locations and six GrillSmith locations in the Tampa Bay area.

Already interested in a social experience, fondue customers seem drawn to the online world, where they can check in at restaurants, post pictures dining with friends and family or check out new menu offerings or promotions.

“I think being where your customers are is important. And your customers are on social media,” dos Santos says. “They’re talking about you.”

All that chatter doesn’t go unnoticed. Dos Santos says the company jumps right in, responding to those who mention them on Twitter, asking about their visits or just thanking them for coming in.

That's even proved effective in recruiting new customers. Customers who mention an upcoming visit get a welcoming response or mention.

Next: ‘You can build engagement and loyalty’

‘You can build engagement and loyalty’

“You can build engagement and loyalty before they even come into the restaurant,” dos Santos says.

That online engagement can be a powerful draw acting as a sort of free advertising. And while traditional print, online or broadcast advertising relies on repeated messaging, an online review site could convince a customer after just one visit.

“If I’m more interested in a particular type of food in a particular location, and the restaurant happens to be on that list, I can be one click away from looking at a restaurant’s site and menu. And I can get there immediately,” says Jeffrey Morosoff, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University School of Communication.

Because these sites often link directly to a restaurant’s own website, it’s important to keep a website up to date, with an easy-to-read menu that doesn’t hide prices.

“Where the investment has to be is on the website,” Morosoff says.

As with any PR, online sites can only get you so far. The best social media strategy can’t compensate for core problems with your business.

“All public relations and all promotion is only as good as the organization that’s doing the promotion,” he says.

But if you’re finding yourself with an overload of negative reviews, there may be another recourse that doesn’t involve penning fake reviews.

Tips for Restaurants

  • Find out what’s being said about your business.
  • Respond to negative reviews. Try to make the customer’s experience right.
  • Look for trends in what people are saying.
  • Take serious reviews seriously. Shy customers are often more willing to open up online.
  • Consider the severity of bad reviews — a complaint about cold soup probably doesn’t warrant the same response as a complaint about cockroaches.
  • Stay calm — defensiveness could lead to an endless cyber war.
  • Don’t become obsessed. The majority of your influence is still during the dining experience, not on the web.
  • Thank customers for positive comments.
  • Set online Google or site-specific alerts to get automatic updates when sites mention your restaurant.
  • Make sure your address, phone number and menu are current on review sites.

Next: Some companies can manipulate search engines

Some companies can manipulate search engines

Some companies say they offer services that can manipulate search engines, burying sites with negative comments and moving up desirable websites.

Cliff Stein, CEO of one such company, Reputation Changer, says restaurants looking to rid of online criticism have made up about half of his clientele over the last year.

“What we’ve found is that many reviews that are showing up on these sites are not accurate reviews, and quite frankly, many of them are libelous,” he says.

Reputation Changer will build entirely new review websites for restaurants. These sites are effective, Stein says, because most customers come to sites like Yelp and Urbanspoon by using search engines first. While he wouldn’t share any of his clients, Stein says his company can ensure these custom sites get a high placement on Google searches.

With these sites that mimic other review sites, restaurateurs can approve all comments before they’re posted. Still, he says he doesn’t recommend restaurants toss out all the negative reviews — only those that are entirely untrue and libelous.

“Today’s consumer is not stupid,” he says. “If they see all five-star glowing reviews, they’re going to know something’s up and not kosher.”

Stein says restaurants and other businesses need to come to terms with the power of the Web and start to take control of some of its vast content.

“The answer is to really just give yourself control, because you never know when or where a libelous review that will be really damaging to your business will pop up on a site,” he says. “For better or for worse, we do live in a digital age. People are gathering most of their information and making consumer decisions by the information they gather on the Internet.

Just how much the web controls overall perception is still up for debate. Many agree that bad experiences are more likely to get reviewed online, and it’s possible customers recognize that fact.

“You’re going to write about that rare occasion when you have had a bad experience,” says Randy Schoch, founder and CEO of Scottsdale-based Desert Island Restaurants, which operates 15 restaurants, including Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, Thaifoon Taste of Asia, and Ling and Louie’s Asian Bar and Grill, in the Western United States.

Schoch says he isn’t sure how credible some of the review sites are. And so far, he hasn’t heard of customers coming in or not coming into one of his restaurants because of what’s on the Web.

He acknowledges it’s an area his company is still navigating. While they don’t have the resources to commit a full-time employee to online engagement, Schoch says his restaurants focus on the things they can control.

“I can’t control what they write about me,” he says. “The only thing I can control is making sure they have a really great experience. I can control the experience within the four walls of my restaurant.”