More than likely, people are critiquing and rating your store and sharing their opinions with countless consumers on the Internet. Here are ways to make those conversations work for you
BY LIN GRENSING-POPHAL
In a world where mobile devices, social networking sites and other means of connecting with the masses are now commonplace, how can mattress retailers make the most of online reviews? The impact word-of-mouth has on businesses is immense. No longer are opinions about products and services shared over backyard fences or around water coolers. Today’s consumers have wide-reaching vehicles through which to share their opinions. With the tap of a button, consumers can tell the world what they liked—and didn’t like—about their interactions with you and what they think of your products.
That’s powerful stuff, and it can work both for and against you.
A search on Yelp, a popular consumer rating site, retrieves more than 1,000 results for a search on “mattresses” with reviews ranging from five stars (based on 56 reviews) to two stars (based on three reviews). One reviewer had this to say: “Giving this store one star is generous! … Avoid at all cost!”
Of course, Yelp isn’t the only online source for consumer reviews. In addition to general consumer review sites, there are niche sites, including those focused on the mattress industry such as GoodBed.com. There also are social media networks like Facebook and Twitter where consumers share both their positive and their negative experiences.
And guess which one they share most often?
It’s a negative world
According to a recent study by Conversocial.com, a platform for social customer service, customer expectations are at an all-time high. In fact, 23% of customers will use social media to vent frustration if their first attempt to contact a company doesn’t yield the results they had hoped for, while 55% use social media to make product recommendations.
These comments don’t fall on deaf ears or languish in cyberspace. Consumers are paying attention—not only to what other consumers are saying, but also to what retailers are saying, or not saying. This study also shows that 78% of customers are less likely to make a purchase decision if they see unanswered customer complaints on social media.
“Consumers still overwhelmingly research online, especially for higher priced goods,” says Karma Martell, president and founder of KarmaCom Inc., a New York-based marketing consultancy concentrating on interactive marketing strategy. “This means that online reviews and social reputation are not just window dressing—they are downright critical to a merchant’s success.” She points to a 2014 Channel Advisor study that indicates 49% of shoppers will make a purchase based on social media referrals.
Of course, the real driver of much of the online commentary isn’t cyber-related at all, but tied to the actual experiences consumers have.
The ‘real world’
Transparency matters in sales whether online or offline, says Hayley Silver, vice president of Los Angeles-based Bizrate Insights, a division of retail marketing solutions firm Connexity (formerly Shopzilla). “Our core focus is on online buyers,” she says, noting it’s an area of growth, with recent numbers from Forrester Research indicating that 9% of all retail purchases are made online. “Absolutely, we are seeing growth year over year,” she says.
“Authenticity is really important,” Silver says. That means providing quality products that are delivered with exceptional service. It also means removing any barriers that make the purchase process cumbersome or unappealing.
According to Silver, the most common comments at both ends of the spectrum—whether glowing or grumpy—tend to be service-related. “Any time you interact with a retailer and they don’t have a customer-service orientation—in their tone, their words, their policies—it’s very frustrating. What we typically see is that the positive comments are all about great service—‘They were so helpful,’ ‘It was so easy to buy,’ ‘It was so convenient’—and the negative comments are along the lines of ‘You made this so hard,’ ‘The customer-service rep was so rude’.”
The key takeaway for retailers, she says: Remove as many barriers and elements of risk from the process as possible.
The product, of course, also is important.
“The two biggest categories of complaints that we see are body impressions and warranty claims,” says Michael Magnuson, founder of GoodBed.com, an independent research and shopping website for mattresses that focuses heavily on reviews. When consumers attempt to address these problems with the retailer—or manufacturer—and aren’t satisfied, “those are the kinds of people who are mad enough to take the time to write a review,” he says.
The flip side is when the product delights them—when it solves their issues related to sleeping poorly, sore muscles, etc. “You get a bed that solves the problems that you’ve been having and, yes, you’re absolutely delighted,” he says.
The problem, of course, is that those who are maddened are far more likely to take their frustration online than those who are delighted.
The 5 Rs of online reviews
Online reviews cannot be ignored or avoided. In an environment of open—and rampant—online communication, retailers need to understand how to effectively leverage the power of online reviews while avoiding potential negative repercussions. There are five key areas they should focus on.
RECOGNIZE. Retailers must recognize that online reviews exist—with or without them. The “head-in-the-sand approach” won’t work here. You may be blissfully oblivious to what is being said about you, but that doesn’t negate the fact that it’s being said. You need to be engaged and aware.
“From time to time, we do encounter people who seem to take a philosophy of ‘No, no, we’re not interested in reviews’,” Magnuson says. “I laugh at that because reviews are not something that you can opt out of. They’re going to happen whether you’re aware of it or not, whether you want it or not and whether you’re participating or not.” The real question, he says, is, “What are you going to do about it?”
Cara Lynn Garvock, a social marketing strategist, social media coach and the owner of Nova Scotia-based Blue Boat Social Marketing, agrees. “Retailers need to be aware that these conversations are going on, even if they’re not a part of them,” she says. “They really do need to Google the name of their company and the name of the top staff members to see what shows up.” In addition, she suggests, retailers should Google the brand names of the products they sell, ideally on a biweekly basis.
Alerts can be set up automatically, Garvock notes, through online sites such as Talkwalker, Mention and Google Alerts. GoodBed.com also provides an option for retailers to claim their profile at no cost. With all of these, if the store is mentioned, an alert will be sent giving retailers an opportunity to see and, ideally, respond to comments—both good and bad.
RESPOND. Complaints can be a gift for those retailers that respond appropriately. “Follow up with those consumers who have expressed unhappiness and do right by them,” Silver says. “It’s a terrific opportunity to turn that frown upside down. It sounds ‘kindergartenesque,’ but it’s quite true.”
As Conversocial’s research suggests, “a social customer will tell an average of 42 people about a good experience they had with a company, and 53 about a bad experience.”
While responding is important, retailers should seek to move the conversation offline as quickly as possible. Keep in mind that others are watching, even if they’re not posting comments. No response signals a lack of interest or worse. Instead, a response like “We’re sorry to hear about this experience. Please contact us at …” demonstrates concern and a willingness to work with the customer to find a solution.
“When you respond, you need to be respectful, obviously,” Magnuson says. Most consumers simply want satisfaction. They’re not attempting to cause problems. “Most people are reasonable people who just expect to be treated reasonably,” he says.
Those who respond effectively can successfully turn a bad situation into a positive opportunity.
BE RESPONSIVE. In the case of the one-star review mentioned previously, the good news is that the store did respond. “Hi X, we are sorry to hear about your situation and would like to help resolve this issue …” The bad news is that the response came 20 days after the original comment was posted. (A response to a positive review for the same store had an even longer delay—about 10 months.)
Yes, respond, and respond promptly!
REACH OUT. Retailers should reach out to ensure that when consumers turn online to look for sleep products, their store will appear not only prominently, but also positively.
“People will buy a product with bad reviews before they will buy a product with no reviews,” Magnuson says. It’s important, therefore, for retailers to be proactive in generating the kind of leads that will drive people to their stores. And, despite an increase in online shopping, brick-and-mortar stores still matter.
Garvock recently has begun focusing on a market that may, initially, seem somewhat unusual given the
Internet’s wide-reaching potential—the local market. It’s a market, she says, that should be foremost in retailers’ minds. “The wonderful thing about the Internet is that you can reach everyone around the world, but the folks who need people to come to their doors have a little bit of a different challenge. They have to compete at the local level, not the international level.”
That means being optimized for local searches and listed in the places that the local market may likely browse. Two sites Garvock recommends where retailers can claim a presence are Yelp and Google My
Business. “Any store or retail outlet can have a presence on Yelp,” she
Retailers should go to both sites and claim their business listing and then correct any errors that might exist, such as their hours or parking. “There’s a lot of detail there,” she
To get the full benefit of review sites, make sure your own website is optimized, Garvock points out. In the 21st century, if a business doesn’t have a Web presence, for all practical purposes, it doesn’t exist. “If you don’t show up on the first page, let alone the first three to four listings, people can’t even consider you,” she says. “Once they find you on search, then they will read the reviews about you, but if they don’t even find you, they can’t get to your review.”
Magnuson also suggests encouraging customers to write reviews. Particularly in the mattress category, he says, reviews are not likely to occur organically “unless they are absolutely blown away and love it, or they hate it—so you get a lot of one- and five-star reviews that trickle in when you leave it up to people’s own volition.” And, not surprisingly, he adds: “You’ll get a lot more of those one stars than five stars.” Based on his experience, when stores don’t take proactive steps to generate reviews, the average rating will be around 2.1 stars—not a very stellar showing.
“It isn’t really an accurate reflection of your customer experience, because if it was, you’d probably be out of business,” he says.
REPURPOSE. Finally, retailers should consider how they can leverage their reviews in meaningful and positive ways. Online comments about your store can, and should, be used to your advantage in multiple ways, such as linking to them from your website; including them in ads, e-letters, newsletters, brochures and other materials; reaching out to create testimonials; and retweeting and sharing the comments yourself via your own social media channels.
Still, despite the power of online comments, consumers are becoming increasingly savvy and skeptical about much of what they read online.
All that glitters isn’t gold
There’s a lot of psychology behind how consumers respond to reviews—both online and offline—and there have been many studies conducted to determine exactly how they are influenced. One interesting study showed, as might be expected, that negative reviews had a stronger impact on sales than positive reviews. But, the study also indicated that the number of reviews, regardless of their content, had a positive effect on sales. Of most interest, perhaps, was the impact of reviews that were too stellar. If consumers see nothing but five-star reviews, they become suspicious.
“As a customer myself, I rely on online reviews to a certain degree, but as someone on the inside, I know that they also can be padded,” Garvock says. For instance, “As a retailer I can ask my friends to put rave reviews out there, which will skew the actual experience. On the other hand, there also can be trolls or competitors who will go do the opposite.”
As reviews evolve, she says, consumers are likely to “become a little savvier to the fact that they should probably ignore the top three or four overly positive reviews and the overly negative reviews and then weigh the average sentiment.” Unfortunately, she says, “not everyone is a savvy consumer yet.”
In the final analysis, word-of-mouth will continue to play a major role in consumers’ purchasing decisions.
“The first thing they do is ask their friends,” Garvock says. “Sometimes they ask on Facebook or sometimes they ask in person.”
While retailers can’t be privy to those in-person conversations, they can—and should—sure that they’re listening to these conversations online. Whether you’re currently engaged or not, chances are your customers are. What you don’t know could hurt you.
Lin Grensing-Pophal is a business journalist with 16 years of experience in organizational communication. She specializes in human resources/employee relations and marketing communication topics and is the author of “Human Resource Essentials” and “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Strategic Planning.” She can be reached at 715-723-2395.