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These days, people don't buy anything without reading reviews first. Amazon.com is the world's favorite shopping mall. Visitors look for an item that is both heavily reviewed and has a mostly positive rating. There is suspicion of items that have no reviews, as that means to most folks that the business is probably new and the item they're looking at is of questionable quality. Positive customer reviews weigh in big time within the consumer psyche and the convenience at which reviews can be posted means that every interaction with a customer is a potential opportunity to make or break many future sales. These ideas began with the retail industry, and they've spread like wildfire to restaurants. So, should you ask for reviews or not? Let's review the pros and cons: PROS Incentivizing is a great motivator for everything in the world. If you want reviews from your customers, offer them something of value. Asking for reviews isn't bad as long as you're not flatout paying for them. Put something fun together: drop review submitters' names into a monthly raffle for a free lunch, pick a top reviewer and send them to an exotic themed vacation (think Olive Garden sending families to Italy), have your top chef prepare dinner for a certain special patron. There are tons of ideas that involve a thematic approach to incentivized rewards versus just handing out cash. Get your patrons involved and excited and reap the benefits of a truly passionate reviewer! If you choose to nudge patrons in the right direction, make it easy for them. Offering them a comment card is one way to go, and you can put that review up on your website, but how can you get the word out on UrbanSpoon or Yelp, two of the most popular restaurant review sites? You've got to tell customers where to submit their feedback. "Search for us on UrbanSpoon!" is a quick, easy and non-pushy way to let people know you're active on that site. Make sure to develop a way to track your review-submitting patrons so that you can reward them. You'll generally receive an email notification when a review is submitted to either one of those sites. Posting restaurant reviews can be fun! Think about the power of mobile Smartphone applications: a patron can take a picture of your menu (or their meal plate) on their phone and post it online instantly, even while they're still eating their Southwest Quesadilla Special. They can then immediately "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" your business based on their experience. This is incredibly helpful to other customers. PRO TIP: Consider taking clear pictures of your menu and your location and uploading them to review sites before someone else does. Doing so helps potential new customers decide if they want to eat at your establishment by taking the guesswork out of what you've got to offer. The more information that's readily available about your business,


the better. CONS The first question you need to ask yourself honestly is this: "Is my restaurant ready to be reviewed?" Many restaurant owners get antsy and jump the gun, so to speak, in taking steps to force reviews. They may have had a slow grand opening and think that getting "good press" on sites like UrbanSpoon and Yelp is the only way to stay operative. These sites are dynamite for influencing potential customers, but hard selling reviews is not the way to go. If your restaurant isn't 100% where you want it to be at, incentivizing reviews could also mean reminding people that they can post negative reviews, too. As many small business owners have learned, one negative review that's boosted to the front page of Google can spell doom for their business. Just like a positive review can encourage new folks to try an unfamiliar restaurant, a negative review can drive just as many away. Lesson: don't force reviews if you're not ready for them. Positive reviews from non-incentivized customers will almost always feel more "real." So although it may take longer to get a review, it may be worth your wait. Have you ever read a restaurant review and just known that it was the owner writing it, or one of the company's employees? How did that make you feel? Most consumers who feel like they've experienced a fake review will immediately go elsewhere, with a permanent sense of distrust in that business. Some review databases (like Yelp) frown on incentivized/paid reviews. They'll go as far to delete over-zealous, fake sounding reviews in order to keep their site "honest." In this case, it may not be worth the investment to reward a reviewer. If your restaurant is outstanding on both service and menu fronts, you may not have to encourage review submittal at all. A new patron should be so floored after having left your establishment that they want to share their experience with the world. Have you ever been to a restaurant where the server was "on it," the food was excellent, the wait was nonexistent, and the atmosphere was just fun? I bet you wanted to tell people about it. This same theory applies to restaurant reviews: provide an entirely excellent experience at every point of contact and expect to be rewarded for your hard work. The answer is up to you. If you can solicit reviews in a fun, creative way, that plan might work out well for your business. Beware of over-incentivizing; remember you want honest reviews, not a bunch of fluff. No doubt, reviews are a superb way to generate new business. You might even say they've become essential in today's world of infinite information. Keep in mind that consistently great service will be rewarded with words of praise, so keep your bar set high, your plates clean, drinks full, food hot, and staff friendly. You'll eventually get to the point where you don't need to solicit reviews anymore, they'll just come naturally. Š 2011 Lorraine Wolfe

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