Whether you like it or not, online reviews aren’t going anywhere, in fact, the number of platforms that encourage customers to post about their experiences are growing. Zomato, Google, Facebook, Yelp and TripAdvisor are just some of the many websites that rank and rate venues according to consumer opinions.
Online platforms give operators an inside look at what diners really think about their food, service and hospitality — which is no doubt valuable information. But these platforms almost discourage patrons from raising issues on the spot as they can easily type their experience from behind their phone rather than speak about it.
It begs a number of questions — what are the real intentions of people who post negative reviews? Are they interested in helping the venue improve, receiving a comped meal or permanently damaging a venue’s image?
The reality is, the majority of online reviewers are not equipped to make such judgements on venues — food journalism used to be a sacred institution, but thanks to online platforms, it’s a free for all.
Online reviews have the power to make or break a venue, so it’s wise to monitor online feedback, take the time to address complaints and compliments and most importantly, keep your cool when crafting responses; after all, the customer is still king and you’re in the business of hospitality.
THE ONLINE EFFECT
Michael Luca from Harvard Business School conducted a case study called Reviews, Reputation, and Revenue: The Case of Yelp.com on the impact of Yelp reviews on restaurant demand. Luca combined reviews from Yelp and restaurant data from the Washington State Department of Revenue and found a one-star increase in a Yelp rating leads to a 5–9 per cent increase in revenue in independent restaurants.
There’s no denying high ratings are a drawcard for customers. Most people jump online to check out a restaurant’s star rating before they commit to a booking. However, a few negative reviews can drastically reduce a venue’s rating and ultimately render them as a no-go.
Restaurateur Sally Galletto from Lucio’s in Paddington has worked in the industry for over 35 years and has seen a number of changes when it comes to dealing with customers. Galletto actively keeps track of reviews, especially on TripAdvisor and Dimmi.
“We take reviews very seriously,” she says. “It’s great because it’s immediate feedback — especially if the customer doesn’t say anything on the night. But a lot people don’t understand the type of restaurant they’re going to. If they come in expecting a heavy lasagne with lashings of sauce, they’re not going to find it here. People write negative reviews immediately; they’re even doing it on their phones as they walk out the door — it’s extraordinary!”
Shayne McCallum from Melbourne’s 8bit used to be an avid review reader, but has now made a conscious decision to avoid them all together. “I used to read every single one religiously, but I’ve stopped,” he says. “I used to judge everyone and everything based on a lot of those reviews. If there was a good or bad one, I would bring it up with staff and post it on our Deputy system for everyone to read.
“But I think a lot of reviewers don’t give constructive criticism and are inexperienced to make a comment. They will complain about a flavour or ingredient that’s not even in the dish. A place could be awesome, but sometimes people just don’t want to have a good time or are pissed off they missed out on a milkshake.”
One of the most common frustrations among operators is the focus on the negative, rather than the positive. If a patron regularly frequents a restaurant, chances are they’re not going to write about it each time they dine. Galletto has witnessed a number of repeat diners at Lucio’s who will not post a review until the venue fails to meet their expectations.
“One of the most annoying things is when people say, ‘I’ve been going to this venue for years, but last night was terrible’,” she says. “They’ve never once written a good review but will write a negative one straight away.”
When McCallum expanded 8bit to Sydney in April, customers didn’t hesitate to vent their frustrations, with the venue receiving complaints on their launch day. “We opened and had an email from a guy who had to wait a long time for his food,” says McCallum. “He sent a 12-paragraph email about how disappointed he was, which sucks — you don’t want someone to have a shit time at your venue. But come on, man, it was our first day.”
Time spent indulging in negativity is incredibly unproductive and can be a kick to the ego for staff —especially if it’s unwarranted. “It’s another thing we shouldn’t have to worry about,” says McCallum. “We should just worry about good food and good customer service. Who wants to get bogged down in other people’s opinions? I miss the old days where an actual food journalist would write a review, but now everyone’s a critic.”
RESPONDING TO REVIEWS
No matter how frustrating it is to read bad reviews, it’s important to try and keep a level head, even if it means sleeping on it for a few days or discussing a response with staff. Most of the time, customers won’t continue the dialogue about their experience, but it’s beneficial for potential patrons to see an acknowledgement of the comment.
“I don’t pick and choose, I respond to everyone on Dimmi and TripAdvisor except the anonymous ones,” says Galletto. “The most important thing in reacting to and responding to any negative reviews is to put yourself in their shoes and try to understand it from their side. Generic responses such as, ‘We take your feedback on board’, doesn’t really cut it and is somewhat dismissive.”
Lucio’s received a recent review that tested Galletto due to its insulting nature and inaccuracy. “A woman came in and said the restaurant was three-quarters empty on a Saturday night and it was just the ‘old owner and his son on the floor’,” says Galletto. “The restaurant was packed and we had seven staff on the floor. I’ve spoken to TripAdvisor about taking it down but they say she’s within guidelines. I just posted a response pointing out her inaccuracies.”
If McCallum receives a direct email regarding a negative customer experience, he will respond, but doesn’t engage with reviews written on online platforms. “I just don’t bother and I’d probably say something I’d regret,” he says. “I’d rather them contact us so we can fix it instead of putting it on a public form. If it’s something we’ve done wrong, I’ll reimburse them and send them a voucher for more than what their meal cost. But it has to be just — I can’t throw in free burgers everywhere.”
In an ideal world, people would write balanced reviews or perhaps not write them at all. At the end of the day, everyone has different tastes, expectations and opinions, and a negative experience could easily be regarded as a positive by a different customer. Keep a watchful eye on reviews, but pay just as much attention to the good ones as the bad.
This story originally appeared in Hospitality‘s June issue. Subscribe here.