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Getting active on Yelp — Restaurants address and respond to negative reviews

Are restaurateurs interested in taking advantage of Yelp? A standing-room-only session at NRA Show 2010 (where I was held at the door for the first 10 minutes due to fire code restrictions) answered that question quickly.

Luther Lowe, Yelp’s omnipresent manager of business outreach, spoke to a room full cof curious (and sometimes frustrated) restaurant owners and operators about how to navigate in a post-Yelp world. The online customer-review service, which is bigger than ever in the U.S. and now available in U.K., Canada, Ireland and France, has had a distinct affect on the restaurant industry.

Lowe provided those in attendance with five actionable tips for working on their Yelp presence.

1. Don’t ask for reviews. This was interesting to hear because it seems counterintuitive not to ask for recommendations, but Yelp’s Lowe brought up interesting points to counter this assumption. First, asking for reviews feels “spammy,” and getting new reviews from new users who have never commented might be pushed off your Yelp presence anyway.

2. Respond promptly and discreetly before you go “public.” Rather than immediately and publicly posting a rebuttal to a negative review, first approach the “Yelper” with a private message. Ask for more information, offer an apology or information. Often, Luther pointed out, the review is adjusted or updated — all “behind the scenes.” Too often, restaurant owners pounce on a negative review publicly, creating a war of words that does nothing to help a restaurant’s reputation.

3. Don’t (over)focus on any single review. Contrary to popular belief, more than 85% of the reviews on Yelp are positive. But many in the restaurant industry are perfectionists, focusing on that one or two negative reviews. Luther provided tips on how to address those negative reviews (see above), but stressed that a couple of bad reviews makes your presence more trustworthy. A restaurant with nothing but five-star ratings does not seem legitimate, so an occasional negative review not only shows you (and your restaurant) are human, but solidifies the trust of your potential customer.

4. Use your Yelp page to recommend other locations. If you work at a chain or have multiple locations, Yelp’s business tools (available at biz.yelp.com) allow you to “recommend” other businesses. This is the perfect place for you to give some visibility and Yelp-style support to some of your other units.

5. Be cautious with incentives. Luther warned restaurateurs of the dangers associated with offering diners a gift card or a free meal to “thank” them for a good review. On the flip side, there are similar dangers when offering incentives to a “Yelper” who posted a bad review. Both examples are contrary to the nature of Yelp. Lowe¬† explained this dynamic to the NRA Show audience as a situation where “market norms suddenly pollute social norms.” Instead, Lowe suggests, be authentic in your gratitude and explain where you may have fallen short.

The customer’s voice is louder than ever. It is true that Yelp has played a major part in broadcasting that voice, but it has also provided a platform for restaurateurs to engage with current and potential customers in ways never seen before.

Image credit: RBFried, via iStockphoto