Consumer reviews of businesses, products and service is having a growing influence over what other consumers choose to do than ever before. The importance of what your family and friends say about different restaurants, stores, movies and the like can be seen in the number of apps and online sites that encourage reviews by customers. Apps like Yelp, Foursquare, Around Us, and thousands more have been built around the idea that sharing our opinions with people is a part of the social engagement known as social media.

A 2013 study by BrightLocal (http://www.brightlocal.com/) found 85% of consumers say they read online reviews for local businesses, up from 76% in 2012. What’s also interesting is that the number of reviews consumers read before trusting the business has gone down. Before forming an opinion of a business, 67% of consumers read six or fewer reviews, up from 52% in 2012–which means those reviews are more powerful than ever.

In previous columns I’ve discussed the need to engage with people in the social media world whether you want to or not. But this evolution of online surveys and business ratings that are found everywhere by anyone has prompted the development of a new line of online services for small businesses.

It’s no longer enough to do your best in your business with your customers. It’s no longer even enough to ask your customers for a referral. Today, businesses need to be much more proactive when it comes to positioning themselves best for those soft marketing opportunities.

The first phase was to monitor your online brand. What were people saying about your agency on Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn? The next phase was to take it a bit further and be open about any negative comments, do whatever you could to resolve the issue and let people know; be transparent in the process as much as possible.

Now we’re in phase three, with companies developing products designed specifically to promote and generate a positive reputation. Two in particular come to mind: GetFiveStars.com and Reputation.com.

GetFiveStars

GetFiveStars is a software tool that “improves your relationship with your guests, ignites great word of mouth, and helps your business market itself,” according to the website. The tool prompts your customers to provide you with reviews and alerts you to any not-so-great review, which gives you an opportunity to respond and resolve their issues. That attention promotes strong customer loyalty and another positive review.

You can then publish the good reviews to your website and ask those customers to leave the comments on more public review sites. Negative experiences are more likely to find their way online than positive ones; it’s just human nature. So proactively encouraging happy customers to say something online can help raise those numbers.

The software comes with template emails you can customize to automatically send to customers requesting feedback, which links them to a simple rating question – “How likely are you to recommend our company to a friend or colleague?” on a scale of 1 to 10. With a comment field that asks, “How did you feel about your experience with us?” you get valuable qualifying information.

Get Five Stars is a simple package which makes it easy to implement and, for some business owners who find asking for feedback difficult, eliminates the fear of not knowing how to ask. The cost is less than $30 per month but they have a 15-day free trial period in which you can test it out fully.

Reputation.com

The Reputation.com overall philosophy is based on a belief that “individuals and businesses have the right to control how they look online.” For businesses, according to the online site, there is a seven-step process to building a strong reputation. 

1.     Presence: You need to be found online first in order to have something to control.

2.     Online reviews: Strong, positive, authentic and authoritative reviews online across a range of sites is an important way to powerfully signal to your potential customers that you are the right business for them.

3.     Social media: Facebook, Twitter and others provide an effective platform to show the human face of your agency. It’s also a great way to direct people to” aspects of your business that is important to them.”

4.     Surveying: Asking customers what they think shows them respect while allowing those dissatisfied to vent in a less than public forum.

5.     Analysis: Keeping on top of your evolving reputation allows you to manage to the current situation. Key features in the system allow you to track trends giving you the power to respond properly.

6.     Benchmarking and scoring: Everything is relative and seeing where you rank against your competition helps give you a more realistic understanding of how you’re doing.

7.     Location alignment: If your agency has multiple locations then recognizing that each will have it’s own reputation to manage and you must coordinate all locations for an overall brand quality.

In comparison, Reputation.com is a much more complex service that has packages for individuals, businesses and enterprises.

I’m a big believer in proactively asking for feedback and testimonials. I know from my personal experience, I’m more likely to say something to an individual person regarding their service or company, often complimenting them for great support, but less likely to post the same comments online. On the flip side, because no one likes confrontation, any negative comments may more easily find their way online rather than in a person conversation with a company representative.

One final comment: Be careful not to spike your online reputation or ratings with false or staff-written glowing ones. They are often easy to spot by the unconditional love they emanate, and the damage they can cause may never be reversed.