A few weeks back I wrote a post on how to respond to negative comments on Yelp. When I shared the post on LinkedIn I got some great insights as to how negative online comments have affected certain businesses.
I got an interesting comment from Chris Bachman that led to a more in-depth conversation of the experience he had with assisting a company combat their bad Yelp reviews. I asked him if he would share his story for the MelissaLeiter blog.
Chris is a business consultant and Project Director at ProClassWebDesign.com as well as a self confessed serial entrepreneur. He is a regular writer on topics pertaining to marketing, SEO and business websites as well as an instructor and independent consultant.
Here is the true story of how negative online comments changed a business. First the setting, then our conversation...
The Desert Sage Resort (name has been changed) located in the southern part of California is within a few hours’ drive of most of the LA area. Situated in a desert environment surrounded by thousands of acres of open range, the resort itself is nestled in the pocket of a hillside which helps provide a year round water table and creates something of an oasis.
The Desert Sage Resort business model is to sell either residential lots in various stages of improvement, undivided interest in commercial parcels and/or memberships which provide access to the resort and amenities.
Begun over 25 years ago, the resort now enjoys over 5 million in annual sales with an owner base in the thousands.
The sales process begins with a dinner party in areas around southern California hosted by a sales rep. Those who express an interest are then invited to visit and enjoy the resort.
The sales crew runs about 10-15 strong and while they are a pleasant and professional bunch there had been a tendency over the years to gravitate towards an old school way of selling that at times left the client feeling a bit rankled. This combined with some dropping land values during the recession had created an environment ripe for complaints.
(Let it be noted that the project had let the Internet age pass it by and as a result had virtually no presence online.)
In early 2013, the client contacted me to learn what might be done to correct the complaint situation. Their initial focus being to “ get rid of the bad reviews." It was not long before it became clear that the problem was much more extensive and deep rooted than a few online reviews.
ML: What platform was your client receiving the reviews on?
CB: When first approached I conducted an evaluation to determine the extent of the online problem. At that point it was mostly limited to Yelp reviews.
What were some examples of the feedback?
The reviews ranged from people screaming about poor treatment by the reps, to complaints about real estate being a scam because the prices had dropped, to warnings to stay away from the project at all costs. There were reviews that were so vague to ones that detailed every possible slight one could conceivably come up with. The simpler terms, “Scam!” “Ripoff” and “Ponzi Scheme” were among the more common ones.
How were the reviews discovered?
The reviews were discovered in part because sales were dropping off at an increasing pace and, in speaking with some of the tour guides, the poor reviews were discovered to be a factor discouraging people from purchasing.
Who's attention were the reviews brought to? What was the initial reaction?
When I was brought in, the Sales Manager felt that no one was really looking at online reviews. The Owner of the project, on the other hand, thought they might indeed be a factor but his position was to commence suing everyone from the people posting the negative reviews to Yelp itself.
The Project Director, who had brought me aboard, felt the reviews were a problem but was having a difficult time convincing the Sales Manager and agreed with me that suing everyone was not a viable option.
Yikes! How were the reviews affecting business?
Sales were in a steady decline with a year to date drop rate of almost 50%. Clearly the project was facing some serious challenges.
The number of showings that resulted from the initial dinner party sale pitch had dropped dramatically and the net closing rate for those which did show was dismal at best.
What was done about the bad reviews? Did anyone respond? Was there a strategy put into place to encourage positive reviews?
Before I arrived on the scene there was no game plan to handle anything and frustration was mounting everywhere.
The first thing I did was to establish myself online as something of a resort “Mr. Friendly." I listed the reviews and determined a course of responding to them. The ones which were more than 12 months old I set aside as being too old to effectively deal with. The rest I divided into four stacks:
Reasonably GoodNeutral or Minor NegativeComplaints and Toxic
For the "Reasonably Good," I added a pleasant comment and thanked them for their comments. I finished that stack in about 10 minutes.
The "Neutral" stack I addressed by thanking them for their observations and asked them to look me up next time they were at the resort. This showed them we cared and extended a hand of friendship. Time here, perhaps 30 minutes.
The "Complaint" stack was the most work as I reached out to each one privately to try and assess the mood and what it would take to remedy their complaint.
(A YELP BEST PRACTICE SUGGESTION, FYI: Try reaching out to negative complaints privately before addressing publicly.)
I then posted publicly to their original review so that there was a positive twist on their complaint even if it was simply that we tried. This stack took about 14 days.
The "Toxic" pile was different. These had to be gauged as to whether they were real, justified, crazy or malicious. Opening up a conversation with any one of them could easily add to the fire. In the end I was able to get Yelp to remove several of these reviews due to carefully worded requests pointing out clear indicators of untruth, violations of Yelp policies or just by appealing to the humanity of the person at Yelp.
The remaining few "Toxic" ones were handled in one of two ways. I either challenged them directly and called them out if I sensed BS, which I would NOT advise anyone doing unless you are VERY sure about the outcome (I was on one and totally screwed up on the other one.) The adage about letting sleeping dogs lay is founded in experience and wisdom. Time spent on the "Toxic" pile was probably 2 days plus a run to the drugstore for Tums.
After all was said and done we had a much improved and cleaned up page of reviews and the overall tone set by the review page was a much improved one. Star rating had also improved, from 1.5 to 2.5.
How did the company use the reviews to improve their business model?
Unfortunately, the work with the reviews was just a bandage unless I could help change the core problem which was rooted in the sales thinking.
I had already expressed to management that the attitudes of some of the sales people were directly contributing to the problem and that it would not go away until those attitudes changed. The thinking was, "Southern California is a big area and if people complained to their friends, so what?"
After dealing with the reviews, I explained to management that the attitude of the sales reps had caused those who visited the resort to immediately post a negative online comment to let the world know about their bad experience. Still, the management couldn’t quite accept that this was happening.
I also suggested that immediately after their dinner parties the people who had agreed to come visit the resort and take a tour were checking these same reviews to see what they were getting into. Again, there was huge push back against this concept.
Clearly there was a lot of denial going on.
My solution to this was to suggest that a short survey be handed out to the dinner party participants for a week or two. The survey would ask them if they used online review sites, how much they believed them and which ones they favored.
Have you ever seen one of those movies where everything is dark and sinister and depressing and then suddenly, the clouds part, the sun shines down upon the land and music begins to play? Yup, it was something like that.
The results were met with reactions ranging from stunned disbelief (sales manager) to some rather smug self congratulations (me). Yes, as it turned out, roughly 90% of the dinner party attendees were checking review sites, were going to Yelp and were getting turned off to visiting the resort. Those who did show up were so guarded that there was little hope for the sales rep to make a successful pitch.
What were the results?
In layman’s terms, the sales manager had a revelation, the sales people experienced a purging, a new policy embracing professional, courteous behavior was implemented and those who didn’t “get it” were invited to leave.
Sales began to turn around. In fact, the sales people who were left seemed to feel relieved that the changes had happened and everyone noticed an upswing in morale.
The end result was that the sales turned around and finished the year back on track with where they should be. That represented a 100% improvement. This year we are expecting to see an additional 10% - 20% increase.
In the end, how do you think Yelp comments helped improve this business?
I have to say that although I have some mixed feelings about Yelp and their methods of doing business, I do feel that reviews in general can be helpful to a business if they are handled properly. They can be a mirror to view how others perceive you. They can shine the light, however uncomfortable it might be, on problem areas which are costing you money and provided you can avoid the pitfalls, they can increase business with a positive star rating.