It seems the new four-letter word in the restaurant business is Yelp. The open-forum review site has empowered diners to share opinions online with a potentially unlimited audience.
While good reviews never hurt, negative comments—and some Yelp reviews are downright vindictive and of questionable authenticity—make operators wish the site never existed. That scenario, unfortunately, is played out on many sites, not just Yelp.
Of particular concern is how Yelp itself may be attracting extreme reviews from either really happy or ticked off customers and may be gaining financially by selling the ability to reorder the reviews to restaurant owners. Bad reviews always draws more readers and more paying restaurants than good ones, so in order to generate more traffic through its network, negative reviews appear to gain prominence.
Why? Because Yelp's goal is to bring eyeballs to the site through traffic generation. It aggregates reviews from multiple restaurants and displays them before a huge audience. That way it can say to its advertisers that tens of thousands of readers are seeing their ads; more eyeballs means greater ad exposure and, ultimately, more revenue for Yelp. Yelp is not in the game of saying, "Come to this particular restaurant," it's saying, "Come and use our network."
Thanks to highly advanced smartphone technology and the ability of fully integrated point-of-sale systems to collect real customer sales data, restaurant operators needn't rely on large networks like Yelp for their reputations. Rather they can create their own mini-networks. Doing so allows operators to retain a large measure of control over patrons' online reviews and reap valuable customer data larger networks typically maintain.
Since people naturally love to talk about their restaurant experiences, it's important to promote that tendency by encouraging customers to talk about your restaurants. This is best and most quickly accomplished by engaging customers directly through their smartphones, which, these days, they're never without.
By taking the initiative to connect with them, operators demonstrate interest in customers' opinions by implying they'd like feedback. Not only does that give a customer a chance to say, "This salad was fantastic" or "Your bathroom floor was dirty," it presents opportunities to thank and reward compliments and address negative remarks quickly.
The beauty of mobile technology is that this can even happen in real time and can even improve the restaurant experience if loyal customers announce their arrival using Checkin or Punchh. Instead of getting information after the fact, operators can ask in real time, "Tell me about your meal today." If there's a problem, they can address it immediately. Again, such control is only available to operators who possess their own networks.
Ultimately, engaging customers and asking for their opinions allows operators a measure of control over that feedback because they can select which remarks to publish on their Facebook page or website via an RSS feed. Say, for example, a customer replied to a manager's "How is your meal today?" question by saying, "My soup and sandwich are cold." The manager could reply, "I'm so sorry. Please come to the counter and we'll replace both at no charge," and publish that exchange online. Guests know every restaurant has problems now and again, but to find one that solves them quickly builds high credibility in public.
Addressing customers while they are in the restaurant also places their remarks in context: they're still experiencing, seeing, tasting, smelling and touching the restaurant and its products. Research shows that in such situations, customers present more balanced reviews because they view the situation objectively; it's as though they report in real time, but react after the fact.
Either way, when operators engage customers within a network they've created and in a manner through which they can respond quickly (written, online or follow-up surveys are simply inconvenient today), they will typically respond quickly and honestly. And you can hardly ask for more than that.
Jitendra Gupta is CEO of Punchh, the only mobile-centric marketing platform for restaurants that uses the power of mobile devices and social networks to drive and measure repeat visits, word of mouth, and referrals.