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GUEST COMMENT Seen and not heard? Why listening to your customers is not optional

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Ignore online reviews at your peril: research shows that a timely response builds customer engagement and wins new business.

How do you make your buying decisions as a consumer? Whether it’s a new fridge or a holiday that you’re looking for, the chances are that you’ll check out online reviews before making up your mind – three quarters of all British shoppers do, according to a recent survey from eBay and Deloitte.

In a psychological phenomenon called social proof, or social influence, human beings have been shown to look to others for behavioural cues – even when those others don’t have any particular expertise. In other words, there’s a bit of the sheep in all of us.

And with the proliferation of online review sites, price comparison websites and corporate social media, it’s easier than ever before for potential customers to try and follow the herd and find out just what others make of your product or service.

For many, this means heading for dedicated reviews sites. According to Nielsen, online consumer reviews are the second most trusted source of brand information after recommendations from friends and family – 70% of worldwide consumers say they trust them.

But online reviews don’t just bear witness to the quality of your product or service – they reveal the level of your customer service too. This fact is often neglected: time and again, you’ll see online customer complaints go unanswered, as if ignoring them will make them go away.

But research carried out by Harris has shown that responding to negative reviews pays dividends. When negative reviewers get a response, found the researchers, 33% turn round and post a positive review; 34% delete the original negative review. This can make an enormous difference to the overall perception of your company. Even better, 18% of those negative reviewers went on to make a subsequent purchase.

But it’s not just important to respond to poor reviews – retailers have to respond quickly. If they don’t, others will notice; and there’s a fair chance the complainant will keep up the pressure, maybe posting complaints on other sites as well. A free and simple way of seeing what people are saying about you is to set up a Google Alert for your company name, but plenty of more comprehensive monitoring services are available.

It’s essential to always treat the customer courteously – even if they’re completely wrong – and try to show empathy, whatever the circumstances. Tell them what you plan to do to answer their concerns, and check up afterwards to make sure they’re satisfied.

It’s sometimes claimed that with techniques like this, bad online reviews can actually be a good thing for a company – although this may be going a bit far. But, like it or not, customers will complain about you online, and the right response can minimise reputational damage. Whatever you do, though, don’t resort to writing (or paying for) positive reviews yourself.

An organisation that really wants to make the most of customer feedback goes further than simply responding to complaints. Creating a positive online buzz can be far more effective than any amount of traditional marketing. This means it’s a good idea to respond to positive reviews too; while you should resist the urge to upsell directly, you’ll be cementing your bond with the customer.

Responding to reviews also brings in new customers. According to TripAdvisor, hotels that do are 21% more likely to receive a booking enquiry than those that don’t. They also enjoy 17% higher levels of engagement with their customers and get significantly better review ratings.

Meanwhile, retailers can capitalise on the good online reviews they receive – they make marvellous testimonials for marketing materials, Facebook posts and ads.

All these points apply to social media too – no longer just a marketing tool, but rapidly being recognised as an efficient and friendly route for customer service. And you may not have much choice: for customers, turning to Twitter or Facebook when they need help is generally the easiest option. A survey last year from JD Power found that two thirds of consumers have used a company’s social media site for service and support.

Getting it right is vital, as, according to American Express researchers, it’s the customers that use social media for service issues that carry the most clout. Not only do they tell three times as many people about a bad experience as those using traditional communication channels, they tell four and a half times as many about a good one.

As with online reviews, it’s important to respond quickly – even more important, in fact, as 42% of people contacting companies this way apparently expect a reply within an hour, and 32% within half an hour. More than half expect a speedy response even in the middle of the night or at weekends.

Indeed, in one really bizarre finding, a Nielsen/McKinsey team has reported that more consumers would recommend a brand that provides a quick but ineffective response than one that provides a slow but effective solution. Speed really is of the essence.

This is one good reason for retailers to set up a dedicated social media channel for customer service, rather than allowing it to become entwined with their main profile – and to publicise it as much as possible, to make sure that actually happens. And there are other reasons too: this way, they can make sure that queries are answered directly by customer service staff, and more easily measure KPIs such as response time and response rate.

To sum up, organisations that ignore online reviews and comments are missing a huge opportunity. Not only can a timely response allow you to recapture a dissatisfied customer, it can win you new ones too.

Jan Vels Jensen is CMO of online review portal Trustpilot

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