Yelp! reviews can make or break a small business

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Priscilla Lane-Rondeau of 900 Degrees, armed with her iPad and the urge to satisfy her customers.
Priscilla Lane-Rondeau of 900 Degrees, armed with her iPad and the urge to satisfy her customers.

MANCHESTER, NH – With just a few taps on her iPad, Priscilla Lane-Rondeau can pinpoint one of the biggest problems she has as a small restaurant owner.

“Here’s one,” she says, expanding a Yelp! review for her restaurant, 900 Degrees Neapolitan Pizzeria on Dow Street.

The dismal one-star review was posted January 8 by a return customer who had issues with the 40-minute wait. She also made a disparaging remark about the service,  and dissed the chicken wings.

On Jan. 9 Lane-Rondeau responded directly to the post – something she always does, whether it’s a good Yelp! or a bad Yelp! She asked a few follow-up questions of the reviewer, hoping to make things right.

But so far no response from “Lauren Z.”  – if that’s even the customer’s real name.

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 3.12.06 PM“Here’s what’s wrong with this,” says Lane-Rondeau, who takes it all to heart. “So we have one bad night. This Yelp! customer never spoke to a manager, who would absolutely have been able to do something, and add a personal touch.”

Lane-Rondeau said there is value to her as a business owner in a negative review – it gives her the opportunity to make corrections as needed, whether it’s an employee who needs a refresher on how to greet a customer – or advise of a wait times – or to double-check the quality of the chicken wings.

She maintains that while Yelp! and other social media rating sites that invite customers to post reviews and give star ratings are not bad in theory, they have created a disconnect – and a new dilemma for small restaurant owners in particular like her by usurping her ability to do what good restaurant owners and managers have always done when the steak is overcooked or the service is slow.

The chance for direct communication to comp a meal, offer a do-over or invite a customer to return with a discount coupon and a sincere apology.

What Rondeau-Lane has been grappling with is not isolated to her own experience.

“The Yelp Factor” has been discussed by Harvard Business School Professor Michael Luca, who concluded that Yelp!, which launched in 2004, may adversely affect a restaurant’s bottom line without some form of balance (as in Yelp! providing additional sources of information about a restaurant, aside from customer reviews).

Luca has actually published a study, “Reviews, Reputation, and Revenue: The Case of,” in which he questions whether “a bunch of amateur opinionators working for free” can really transform the restaurant industry, by becoming a substitute for more “traditional forms of reputation” such as experienced food critique reviews.

He goes deep, and sees both sides of the dilemma.

Furthering the controversy is this post, “Think Yelp! is Unbiased? Think Again,” in which contributor Jim Handy reveals the truth about the Yelp! filtering policy, after he questions why negative reviews rise to the top:

“I found yesterday that Yelp filters results according to certain arcane rules that are not even disclosed to the reviewers who donate their time and efforts to the website’s benefit. When a business patron writes a review it may or may not remain on the Yelp site according to these rules. There’s no real way of knowing what will stick and what won’t,” writes Handy.

Lane-Rondeau says she caught a recent episode of ABC’s  “The Chew,”  a food-centric daytime TV talk show, where social media restaurant review sites were the hot topic.

“I really appreciated that they were talking about it, and they were passionate about it. Basically, they were saying to negative reviewers, ‘how dare you,’ that this is someone’s small business and livelihood you’re critiquing. If there’s a problem, call someone over to the table and tell them,” Lane-Rondeau says. “Don’t try to ruin them with an anonymous review.”

Debbie Cousineau hears that.

She is a dedicated “Yelper” with 25 posted Yelp! reviews and 42 contributions on, for restaurants and lodging. Cousineau, who now lives in New Boston, said she used to own a private baking and catering company in Bow, and currently manages a campground.

“I’m now responsible for the campground’s online presence, including website and review sites. Those negative reviews never go away,” Cousineau says.

She is sympathetic to restaurant owners like Lane-Rondeau, and chalks up the angst they are experiencing to the scathing negativity made easy by Internet anonymity.

“People are more willing to bash something online, something that they may not otherwise do in person,” Cousineau says. “As a consumer, if you don’t like the food, it’s sometimes hard to express yourself to the waitstaff.  Particularly if you fear retribution – as in,  they’re going to spit in my food.”

But she makes use of Yelp! and other rating sites because, from a consumer standpoint, she feels it’s necessary, given her view that service within the service industry is on the decline.

Red Arrow Diner gets some thumbs up AND down for being Adam Sandler's former hometown haunt.
Red Arrow Diner gets some thumbs up AND down for being Adam Sandler’s former hometown haunt.

“Most waitstaff don’t truly care about your satisfaction, just the size of your tip.  They can come off as entitled and doing you a favor.  This attitude may not be reflected by the ownership, but it is increasingly hard to find good help,” Cousineau says.

She also applauds Lane-Rondeau’s level of caring by taking the time to respond to the reviews, whether negative or positive.

“Keeping an eye on any social media is so important to current businesses,” she says.  “If I’m looking at a review online, I’m more apt to read it fully if the business has responded. And how they respond makes a big difference.  If the owner is rude or argues with the customer, that’s not a good sign.  If they are open to the comments, polite and leave an open door of communication, that says a lot about the business,” Cousineau says.

 Zinging a business with a negative review is one way of getting back at a person or business that a consumer wants to exact revenge on – even if not truly warranted, Cousineau says.

“Personally, if I don’t have a good experience, I may mention something, or not.  Sometimes I just don’t want to bother the manager, as there may be nothing that can be done to make it right at that moment.  Sometimes, it’s just a matter of personal taste and preference,” says Cousineau. “It’s different if I say “I don’t want onions” and they give me onions.”

Cousineau also notes that online review sites –  because there are no  real checks and balances – can create another monster: business-on-business sabotage.

“There is also another theory in marketing.  If I own a competing restaurant, I can have all my friends bash a neighboring restaurant while praising mine.  I increase my positive reviews and hurt the competition,” Cousineau says.

Her personal bottom line is that negative reviews are fair game, but only after visiting an establishment more than once (“anyone can have an off day”) after establishing that the bad experience wasn’t a fluke.

A quick scroll through local restaurants reviewed on Yelp! underscores the point that one man’s “best burger in town” is another man’s “greasy spoon.”

Take for example the following two Yelp! reviews for the same Manchester restaurant:

Negative review:The food here is god awful so I went with a simple side of fries assuming they couldn’t mess it up. At the end of the night, the ballsy waitress had the nerve to hand me my check as she said “you’re not really breaking the bank tonight huh?” to which I responded I would be happy to eat there, were they ever able to cook anything right. This is the worst food I’ve had anywhere in the Manchester area and the god awful and rude staff care more about their tips than the food quality or customer happiness.”

Positive review: “We decided to split the BBQ Nachos to start and what a good choice!  These were absolutely delicious!!  The chips were crispy and were topped with melt in your mouth pulled pork topped with a sweet BBQ sauce.  We really loved these and the portion was enormous!  We also tried the chili which was perfectly spiced and very good.”

And these two dueling reviews for another high-profile local eatery:

Positive review: “The atmosphere is luxurious yet warm and cozy. And the food was delicious, we had the crusted meatballs, which were very soft and delicious.”

Negative review: “Very disappointed – as far as dinner went – price and quality do not make it worth the real estate.”

Lane-Rondeau will continue to carry the weight of the online reviewer with her everywhere she goes, armed with her iPad and the urge to keep her customers happy.

“Yes, you can flag a comment that you suspect might be coming from a disgruntled employee, or another less than legitimate source. But it’s hard to get a hold of Yelp – unless they’re calling to sell me something,” she says.

“I do want that feedback. I welcome it, as long as it’s legitimate. But if something’s not to your liking, Id’ rather that you call me or email me,” she says. “Talk to the manager. I’d say 95 percent of the time we can solve a customer’s problem before they leave.”

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About Carol Robidoux 5595 Articles

Journalist and editor of, a hyperlocal news and information site for Manchester, NH.

  • Christine Murphy

    I do use Yelp, both as a reviewer and to decide if a place is worth my time and money. But as someone who used to work in the restaurant business, I can usually tell the difference between a place having an “off night” and just plain bad service. For example, if I can see that they are very busy and understaffed (maybe someone called in sick at the last minute and they could not get a replacement), I will cut them some slack and give the place a second chance. But when I see servers standing around chit-chatting, while customers’ drink glasses are empty and they are waiting a long time for their food/the check/whatever, that to me is fair game for a negative review and I would not go back. I’ve found that in the latter case, the managers don’t even care much. If they did, they’d respond to my review, right?

    The one time I did hear from a manager, it didn’t end very well. This was a high end place, down in Connecticut, that we’d been to before, and this was the first time we went back after it was taken over by a new management company. I made reservations there for my husband’s birthday dinner. We got there on time and were seated and given menus, but that was it. After about 30 minutes of trying to get someone’s attention and failing, we decided to leave. Servers were standing around chit-chatting, and apparently none of them were assigned to our table, or so they claimed. They’d send someone right over, they said. Never happened. My husband is a type 2 diabetic and if he had to go too much longer without eating, he risks having a sugar crash. He had injected his insulin at the hotel right before we went to the restaurant, and we were expecting to at least get drinks, maybe some bread or an appetizer in a timely manner. There was no time to ask for the manager, we had to get someplace where he could get some food right away.

    I wrote a short review on Yelp about the lack of service, and the manager emailed me privately, asking me to take it down. I refused, because what I wrote is what really happened. I did go into the problem with a bit more detail, including mentioning the diabetes thing as why we had to leave. Surely he did not want it to be necessary to call 911 and have paramedics in the middle of his dining room on a Saturday night. I also mentioned that his servers were just standing around chatting, and I had no idea which one of them was supposed to be servicing our table.

    He responded by apologizing and inviting us to return for dinner on the house, the next time we were in the area. But he blew it by adding that he had spoken to his servers, and one of them told him that we had walked out AFTER she took our drink orders, and he believed her. We never ordered any drinks, because nobody bothered to come over to take a drink order. I told him to forget it, that I resented being accused of being a liar, and we were NEVER going to give the place another try, even if he paid us.

    Apparently, other Yelpers have had the same complaint about the place with the slow service. Apparently, the food is decent if you ever get any, but I did not review the food, only the lack of service.

    When I am reading other people’s reviews to decide if a place is worth my time and money, I tend to scroll to the negative ones first. I do the same thing with reviews on Amazon. Sometimes the negative reviews are so ridiculous; one guy gave a bar a bad review because he wanted to drink alcohol and the server asked to see his I.D., and then refused to serve him when he would not show it. This was just a case of a server doing her job. The guy probably WAS underage. So I never go by the number of one or two star reviews, at least not without reading them first. There were several negative reviews complaining about being asked to show I.D. to be served, and a few made disparaging comments about the server’s appearance. They probably all came from the first guy’s friends.

    But if I see a lot of negative reviews about issues that are real problems, and I don’t see any responses from a manager, I’m likely to skip the place. That shows me that the management does not care.

  • amyinnh

    The person who had a bad experience is no less relevant than the other patrons. And if it were truly one off, then the other prior positive reviews will be an indication it was a one off. The onus is on the owner, not the customer. And many businesses are opting for the cheapest help, not the best. And much of their behavior impacts customer interaction, often with little or no training and often a big chip on their shoulder from having had their head bit off by their boss.
    As for how many see reviews and who it impacts, I don’t think it’s small business impact only. TripAdvisor sends statistics. One hotel review of mine has been read by 4,000 people. And it wasn’t a positive review.
    Negative reviews are not about revenge any more than positive reviews are about promoting the business. It’s about information sharing.

  • bj03064

    Bad Yelp reviews are no worse than bad newspaper reviews or bad Facebook reviews. The problem is that more people access Yelp than buy a newspaper or look for a restaurant on Facebook. It’s just part of today’s online and connnected society. Learn to live with it.

    And, by “learn to live with it”, I mean that you need to tailor your service to ensure customer satisfaction. Let’s revisit some of the Yelp complaints in the article, and provide a bit of positive feedback, ok?

    Managers should always make sure that employees are paying attention to customers and NOT their cell phones. Unless the call is an emergency, it can and should wait until break or end of shift. Servers very often get better tips when they provide better service – even if the food isn’t perfect.

    If it’s going to take more than a few minutes to get the food to the customer, regardless of the reason, make sure the servers KEEP THE CUSTOMER INFORMED. How would YOU feel if YOU were sitting at a table without knowing if your order had even been started in the kitchen? “I just checked, and your food is being prepared right now. They’ve been really swamped tonight, but I’ll keep on their tails until you get served. Ok?” (You’d be surprised how well that would work, even with angry customers.)

    If you’re out of something, don’t shout it from the rooftops and tell every customer as soon as they walk in the door: they may walk right out. Wait until they sit down and place an order – and offer a substitute item as part of taking the order (“We’ve run out of the bean salad, but we have a great cole slaw – would that do?”). You don’t have to “comp” – and you may even get the customer to buy something more expensive as a replacement.

    If you’re going to run a restaurant – no matter its size – remember that “word of mouth” can make or break you. And if you remember that “customer is king” and treat the customer accordingly, your Yelp reviews will reflect it.