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.
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.
“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 Yelp.com,” 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 Forbes.com 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 TripAdisor.com, 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.
“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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