Nobody wants a negative review, but you should be happy when customers take the time to offer feedback of any sort: it gives staff the opportunity to correct problems and exceed expectations. It’s the unhappy customers who don’t complain who hurt any business the most. Because they’re going to tell somebody, and if they use Twitter, Facebook, or online review sites, you can quickly lose control of the discussion.

Damage control never controls all the damage because once bad reviews hit the Web, they take on a life of their own. Your hotel doesn’t have to make the “America’s Dirtiest Hotels” list or Yelp’s “Worst Restaurants in the US” list for bad online press to hurt the bottom line. Just a few negative reviews can overwhelm the positive ones because social media users trust online reviews. A 2010 Harris Poll found that “… almost half (46%) feel they can be brutally honest on the Internet.

You Won’t Know If You Don’t Ask

“Brutal honesty” doesn’t necessarily have to be negative, but human nature means that people are more likely to go online and complain rather than kvell. As eMarketer reported in 2009:

Users are more likely to feel able to meet new people or be empowered to do something they wanted to. But they were also more likely to “lash out” on the Web when they had something to say about a company or brand. One-fifth of Internet users, including almost one-quarter of men, had done so.

The key is to provide terrific service and exemplary customer experience in the first place, but don’t stop there. Actively encourage feedback during the customer’s visit and after. Do this both for internal evaluation and external marketing.

Internal efforts should include:

  • The Personal Ask: If managers aren’t talking with customers personally on a regular basis, they aren’t doing their jobs. There is absolutely no better way to get open, honest feedback about service.
  • Comment Cards: These are more impersonal, but do provide basic information about service, cleanliness, etc. They’re a good way to quickly spot problem areas.
  • Customer Surveys: If your customer has shared an email address, send him/her an after-stay survey. The benefit of even a basic online survey is that it’s more interactive: you can ask specific follow-up questions depending on the answers given to the basic questions. This allows you to drill down and get more specific details than is possible with the comment card.

Encourage Online Reviews In Real Time

There’s no better time to get a good recommendation than when a happy, satisfied customer is standing right in front of you. All you have to do is ask – and maybe even provide the technology to make it happen. Encourage desk clerks, waiters, or anyone else who has customer contact to always ask for an honest evaluation of the service and then ask for a recommendation. It can be as simple as this:

“We’re so glad you enjoyed your stay with us! Would you please recommend us to your friends and family? So much of our business depends on word of mouth and it really helps when you share your story on Twitter, Facebook, or an online review site.”

Some customers may reply that they don’t have computer access. Without being pushy, offer them the chance to use a nearby computer (smart phones are hard for some people to use) to write the review before they leave. People rushing to catch a plane or a movie probably won’t take you up on the offer, but it does impress upon them how important their feedback really is.

What you should never, ever do is post fake reviews about your own establishment or your competitors. Not. Ever. Besides the fact that it’s unethical, it can get you banned and called out by name as a fake reviewer on sites like TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Quora. In New York State, you’ll get more than public embarrassment: regulators recently cracked down on 19 “reputation management” companies for deceptive practices:

In some cases, the reputation shops bribed their clients’ customers to write more fake reviews, giving them $50 gift certificates for their trouble. They also went on review sites that criticized their own fake-review operations and wrote fake reviews denying they wrote fake reviews.

Once a review is posted, respond to it (if the site allows that). Knowing that you read reviews and take them seriously encourages others to post their own reviews. It builds your online presence and credibility.

Fortunately, at Cabins of the Smoky Mountains, we rarely have unhappy customers. But when a guest does have a problem, our entire staff knows that making it right is a priority. Before social media, customers were king. Now, they’re more like emperors who can truly make or break a small business.