Thursday 28 May 2020

ABC of Reviews: 8. Rewards and incentives, a minefield to be negotiated

First, the simple answer: never, ever, offer a reward to a customer for a review. At best your motives may be misconstrued, at worst you will be risking a breach of the law (the CMA regulations) and/or Google's terms of service (which expressly forbid incentivising customers). And this includes offering discounts on future purchases and offering vouchers.

The background and some more detail

When it was first proved that online reviews drove sales - of everything from books to holidays to financial and legal advice - businesses quickly began to 'invest' in acquiring reviews. It was the beginning of what we christened the 'Wild West' phase of reviews: there were no rules, so some businesses took shortcuts; here are just some of them...

  • they encouraged their management and staff write reviews (pretending to be bona fide customers)
  • they encouraged their staff to get friends and family to write reviews
  • they paid staff to write reviews
  • they paid customers to write reviews
  • they paid people who had never even heard of their business to write reviews*

* for many years it was as easy to buy a review as a book online. Advertisements such as these were familiar features on online auction sites and forums:

This is no exaggeration. Over the years we have kept a running file of such abuses - you would be surprised how naive some people - and businesses - can be, given that it is surprisingly easy to conduct a social media scrape and come up with evidence that would stand up in any court of law...
  • the estate agency that got each branch manager to write a review of each of their adjacent branches
  • the accountancy firm that rewarded clients with £50 of Marks & Spencer vouchers for each positive review
And how do we know about these? Often because other reviewers mention such tactics in their reviews. Here's an example...

Don't trust the web

If you search for advice on the web you will come across an endless stream of articles such as this...

And there's a very good reason the regulators forbid such incentives: they know - as does any business offering such an incentive - that the unwritten implication is 'write a positive review if you want whatever incentive we are offering'.

Think about it for a moment: what dissatisfied customer is going to be attracted by a 'free coffee for a review' or a 'future discount for a review'? So any such system is inherently biased in favour of the business, something that the law in the UK - in the shape of the CMA regulations - and Google's terms of service are expressly designed to prevent. 

Our advice to businesses

The first thing to do is to conduct a thorough audit of your current reviews. If there are any that were written - with the best of intentions, we're sure - by staff or their connections, get them deleted straight away (the individual who wrote the review will have to access their Google account to do this).

Next, explain to staff just how important it is to invite genuine reviews - from all your customers. This will beg the inevitable question: just how to do this effectively - minimising the risk of actively encouraging negative reviews - whilst at the same time complying with the law as well as Google's terms of service.

The law makes it quite clear - and it's basically the same for the UK, the EU and most states in the USA - that if you invite anyone to write a review you must allow everyone to do so. There are two ways of doing this:
  1. Email every single one of your customers inviting them to post a review to Google. If you leave any out, whatever the perceived logic, you will be breaking the law. You will also be leaving your business exposed to reviews by stakeholders other than those who have actually made a recorded purchase or other transaction: spouses/partners/business associates and so on.
  2. Embed the invitation - and your reviews - into your website: something like this...

The reasons this format works so well...
  • it allows your customers and potential customers to access all your reviews and write a review any time they wish
  • for that reason, it is fully compliant with UK and EU law - and demonstrates compliance to everyone: your potential customers and the regulators
  • the reviews are first posted to your own website - so they can be moderated, minimising the chances of an inaccurate, misleading or plain unfair review being posted (none of these benefit consumers). There's more on this vital function here
  • you will have reviews on your website for potential customers to reference - driving calls and clicks, just as they do on Google
  • anyone tempted to write a review direct to Google will have a viable alternative - there are few consumers that actively want to write a negative review straight to Google, it is invariably a last resort when all other avenues have been exhausted, so give them an avenue they will use in preference
  • you will have the moral upper hand if a customer does go elsewhere to write a review: they could have written the review there first, they only had to visit your site to do so, they didn't have to wait to be invited
  • last, but not least: it shows that your reviews have been independently verified* - and that sets them apart from testimonials. Readers can click on 'What is HelpHound?' for further reassurance

So: reward and/or incentivise your staff. Some businesses simply make it part of the job, some reward staff per review. And management? Lead by example: almost all our most successful clients do so.

*Independent verification:

A review is only a review if it fulfils the following criteria (otherwise it is simply a testimonial, and must, by law, be identified as such):
  • it is hosted on a platform that is independent of the business under review
  • it is 'unfiltered': there is no selection of reviews to be shown on the business's website

Saturday 23 May 2020

ABC of Reviews: 7. Can we do it for nothing?

The simple answer: Yes!

But before you rush off to your web designer let's first look at the whys and wherefores. 

Free review systems

The only reviews with complete coverage and credibility these days are Google reviews, so you need a system that gets reviews to both Google and to your own website. There are many suppliers of Google reviews plug-ins that will display your Google reviews on your website: here's the one provided by Wordpress.

This video will take you through the process from start to finish. But should you do it? What are the potential pitfalls?

The downside of adopting a Google review plug-in solution

1. You will have to accept that every single review posted about your business, good or bad, genuine or fake or even written by a competitor or disgruntled ex-member of staff, will be displayed not only on Google but on your own website as well. Here's a real-life example:

This may look like a Google review - because it is - and it has been showing front-and-centre of the business's own website, as well as on Google, for the last four months. 

Now, we make no comment on the veracity or otherwise of the customer's claims, but one thing we are certain of: this review will be stopping potential customers dead in their tracks. It is what is known as a killer review (negative reviews come in many shapes and sizes: killer reviews are those that are well-written and credible, the kind that potential customers - in this case tenants and landlords - take seriously).

There's one sure-fire way of proving that a review like this is harming business and that is to disable the Google review widget and track the increase in calls and clicks through the website, for increase there surely will be. 

2. You won't have moderation. Moderation is where the business and the writer of the review have an opportunity to correct errors of fact pre-publication. If having inaccurate or misleading reviews displayed on your own site and on Google doesn't matter, go right ahead (we accept that businesses such as those in hospitality don't necessarily need 'clean sheets', that they and their potential guests or customers will weather the occasional 'my pizza was undercooked' or 'my bed wasn't made on time' review, but detailed critiques such as the one above of service businesses will impact initial enquiries through the web in general and the business's website).

These two are usually significant enough to give businesses - especially complex services such as accountancy, financial services, medical and care services and the likes of estate agency - pause for thought before adopting one of the many Google widgets on the market.

The alternative? Review management...

Review management - the downsides

  • A quick definition: a review manager works for the business to mobilise its customers to maximise the effectiveness of its reviews across all platforms: Google, its own website and the multitude of review sites and social media. A good review manager will provide all the advice and training a business needs to stay up-to-date with all aspects of reviews, both initial and ongoing.

Review management, like any other professional business service, has one obvious downside: cost. But, just as with your other professional advisers - accountancy, legal and financial amongst others - we need to be able to consistently demonstrate that we are adding value. The fact that our client retention rate is very close to a hundred percent - over many years now - speaks volumes. Clients also have the added reassurance that Google reports every month, so if leads and calls rise or fall you will know in days. We suggest....

  1. Speak to us
  2. Get a firm quotation from us before we meet
  3. Speak to one of our clients
  4. Meet us
  5. Test our system - there's no lock-in or contract period - you will know in a matter of days if review management will work for you business
You might also want to read this article which explains why reviews are going to matter even more in the 'new normal'.

The only other downside we can think of is the investment in training your staff to understand the value of great reviews, but we will take care of as much of that as you need us to.

Further reading:

Wednesday 13 May 2020

Reviews - and why they will matter more post-lockdown than ever before

We have learned a lot by being locked down and forced to be away from our day-to-day jobs...
  • men don't need to change their razor blades nearly as often as they thought, not when the alternative is a twenty-minute queue outside Boots with people who might have Covid-19 and you can buy a RazorPit
  • baking bread is really easy - and really rewarding. Here's one recipe that works wonders - don't forget the 'water in the oven' trick 
  • reviews are really, really important
Needless to say, we'll leave you with the first two and concentrate on reviews.

Reviews drive business

We have crunched an awful lot of numbers in the last seven weeks and all of them point to the same thing: a business with a score of 4.5* or more on its own website and on Google with a good flow of reviews will get, roughly speaking...
  • 20% more calls and
  • 30% more clicks/enquiries
Don't just take our word for it. In the six weeks after every business joins HelpHound it receives one of the most critical Google My Business reports it will ever get, certainly from the point-of-view of reviews. Here is one such...

As most readers will know, every business - at every location - receives the above report monthly from Google. If you have trouble locating yours, please don't hesitate to ask for our help.

...and it shows whatever impact any uplift in score and reviews has had by comparison with the previous period. In this instance the business in question - an estate agency - had done nothing at all different to impact those numbers, no big marketing push and no external factors like an interest rate cut; in fact quite the opposite, the numbers are for July, a notoriously - usually - quiet time for the property market.

One small favour...

We are going to ask you - our clients - to do one thing once your business is open again: watch your GMB reports like hawks. If at all possible we would ask you to send us a copy, in confidence of course. We confidently expect to see some really startling numbers in the first three months, tapering down and stabilising thereafter.

And one final piece of advice

With many businesses seeing an initial surge of pent-up demand in the first few weeks and months it will be very important to look 'fresh' when searchers see your reviews, so a special push to get some post-Covid reviews will pay dividends. On your own site (partly because it shows in search)...

Many people think the stars - and rating - showing in organic search, above are a Google rating; they are not: they are taken directly from the business's own reviews hosted on the business's own website.

...and on Google.

*If your business has fallen below the critical Google score of 4.5, you need to focus on getting as far above that as possible as quickly as possible.

Monday 11 May 2020

ABC of Reviews: 6. How are your competitors gaming the system?

We will begin this section with a challenge: find us a business outside the hospitality sector with more than a hundred reviews on Google that is not gaming the system (very, very few people will write a review of a service business without first being asked - we still come across reasonably large firms of financial advisers and medical practices that have no Google reviews).

Let us explain: 

Given that it is illegal to selectively invite customers to write a review or to control the timing of that review one would look for evidence that both of those requirements were being complied with. Here's the kind of thing...

This 'write a review' button you see just to the right of the star rating opens a box where anyone can write a review, whenever thy like. That does not stop the business asking, but it does mean that there is far less incentive for anyone with an axe to grind to go direct to Google to vent their spleen.  

Without a visible mechanism like this, there will always be the suspicion that the business is controlling the 'who' and the 'when'. We meet businesses who say...

  • 'but we email all our customers inviting them to post a review'
  • 'we have a link embedded in our email signature block that goes to a similar box'
But those two beg the questions...
  • define 'customer'? Is someone who came to a meeting but has not yet signed on the dotted line a 'customer'? No? But they are perfectly capable of writing a review. Is your customer's husband/wife/business colleague not just as much a customer, in spite of not appearing on your email database? Is someone who did business with you last year a 'customer'?
  • do all your customers, in the widest sense of the word, receive such emails? 
Reasoning like this comes under the heading of 'accidental gaming' where the business is doing their best, innocently breaching regulations or simply deflecting some stakeholders, for better or for worse, who want to write reviews. Deflecting them straight to Google (for a complete article on the acute dangers of such deflection read this).

Now we come on to those that are cynically and purposely exploiting reviews. Knowingly breaching one or more of the CMA regulations and/or Google's terms of service.

The 'selectors'

Businesses that intentionally cherry-pick (the CMA uses that term) happy customers and then only invite those to post a review. A refinement of this process is to choose a time when customers are at their most happy - when they have just bought a product (how do readers know that the shoes will wear a decent length of time?) or service (how can a client possibly be expected to judge their chosen financial adviser's abilities immediately post-investment?).

How can you spot them?

Cherry-picking is difficult to spot as an outside observer but very easy to identify for the regulators and Google; controlled timing is easier: multiple mentions of words such as 'I have just bought...', 'we have just instructed...' or 'our first experience of...' give the game away.

The 'filterers'

Also known as 'gating' - more here, filtering can be done in a variety of ways:
  • ask customers to complete a survey and incorporate a question asking them to rate the business/service/product from one to five stars. Then only invite those respondents that rate the business five stars to post a review [almost always to Google].
  • ask customers to post a review to one of the independent sites and then only ask those that have written a five-star review there to copy it to Google.
  • via an app.  You will have seen this one when you install some apps: you are asked to rate [the app] and if you score it less than five stars you will be directed to send a message as to why you did so to the business (you won't be asked to rate it publicly). Only those that give a five star rating will be asked to post a publicly visible review.

How can you spot them?

You cannot. Not unless you are part of the process - you have used the business in question and had your review filtered - or you know someone who is or has been (ex-members of staff are often a good source). Fortunately, this kind of activity invariably leaves an obvious and impossible to disguise paper-trail for the regulators to find.

The 'blitzers'

It's surprising just how many businesses do this, often in combination with one or both of the two actions described above. They accumulate email addresses over a period and then they make a single concerted effort. And that's fine unless that effort includes selection and/or filtering, which it invariably does.

How can you spot them? 

So easy: no - or few - reviews for a period then a slew, for no apparent reason.

Can an honest business hope to compete?

All of the above makes life extremely frustrating for honest businesses. But please don't succumb to 'if we can't beat them...' because you can, legally and legitimately and you won't have to wait until the regulators get round to sanctioning them. In these two ways...
  • the first thing to do is institute a planned review management strategy for your business - detailed advice on this will be covered in Chapter 10
  • next, take any competitor business where you have suspicions of malpractice and keep a very close eye on them. Speak to past members of their staff if and when you have the opportunity (it is astonishing how some businesses so easily forget staff mobility when encouraging law-breaking). Once you are sure they are in breach you can then at least explain to your customers why 'so and so' look so good when they ask.
Your medium to long term strategy should be to look as good as, if not better, than your competitors irrespective of whatever they may do. Like this:

Saturday 2 May 2020

ABC of Reviews: 5. How will our customers react when asked to write a review?

Everyone reckons, quite understandably, that they know their own customers and will have a pretty accurate handle on how they will react to a given set of circumstances. Reviews, for reasons that we will explain in this article, are often an exception. Why? Because when someone goes to write a review - as long as they are asked correctly - they generally behave in ways you may not at first expect, like this:
  • they write with the reader in mind: your potential customers
  • they understand that the review they write will be helpful for your business as well
  • they know that the review will be read and even responded to, so they won't exaggerate
  • they write the review as a 'thank-you' for the service* that they have received

*you will be aware by now that HelpHound works for businesses that provide a service; that service may involve selling products, but we are all about reviews of your business, not reviews of the products you sell. Think Waitrose: we would work to get reviews of their customer service, not the quality of their fresh vegetables (although, as you might imagine, there can be considerable overlap).

Here is a review, first posted on the business's own website and then reposted onto Google (this is the Google version, but they are identical in content):

Why is this review particularly interesting? When we first meet with businesses they commonly say things like 'We are sure it is easy to get people who have bought a pair of shoes to write a review, but we are pretty sure none/very few of our customers/clients/patients will do so'. And, to be absolutely honest, that was a big concern for us at HelpHound when we first ventured into the realm of what one might describe as 'sensitive' businesses. Who, when asked to write a review - publicly visible, for all the world to see - of their...
  • financial adviser
  • legal adviser
  • accountant
  • doctor
  • dentist
  • vet
  • physiotherapist
  • architect
  • estate agent
  • psychiatrist
...would be prepared to do so? Even we were about to leave 'psychiatrist' off the list...

But the answer, unlikely as it may at first seem, is 'about half'. That's half of all the people who are invited. Let's mine down into the psychology of this. To arrive at that fifty percent there is another fifty percent who won't write a review. They include the following...
  • those who don't have access to a computer (not a lot, but still some...)
  • those who have access to a computer but are convinced that leaving any information on the web will somehow result in their bank account being instantly cleared out (more...)
  • those that think signing up to Google will be difficult (it takes about a minute...)
  • those that think they will be exposing themselves to ridicule by friends and family (?...)
  • those that think 'It's not my job to do the business's marketing' (we all know one of those...)
  • those that are simply 'too busy' (it takes two minutes to write the average review...)
  • the 'not another b....y request for a review' objection (we have some sympathy...)

And there's absolutely no point in trying to change their minds; we have watched businesses try and the results are simply not worth the effort (it can even backfire, as we are sure you can imagine).

But that still leaves the fifty percent who think...
  • they worked hard for me, it's the least I can do - we call these 'the grateful'
  • what I write may help their future customers decide if the business is right for them - the 'community-spirited'
And it would be neglectful of us to leave off the most motivated group of all...
  • the dissatisfied customer (more - much more - about them later in this article)
And here's the crucial issue. Businesses need to plan the way they go about asking for a review very carefully. We know what works - and we definitely know what doesn't work (how many times have we fielded that call: 'You told me we would get a great response and no-one has written a review.'?). And we now know there are laws to be obeyed.

What doesn't work?
  • sending out an email and keeping your fingers crossed
  • hoping the customer will make the effort to find your Google listing without any help
  • apologising for asking
What does work?
  • mentioning that you will be asking for a review when face-to-face with your customer
  • explaining just why the review is so important to your business
  • explaining just how easy it is to write a review
  • explaining that you will help them if they cannot manage
  • reinforcing all those messages along the customer journey
  • including a direct link in the email asking for the review - so your customer is not left searching the web (we've seen examples of customers reviewing the wrong business when left to their own devices)
  • following up the email with a phone call, within an hour of sending the email: 'remember I mentioned how important reviews are for us, now's the time!'

How will your dissatisfied customers behave?

This is the aspect of review management that most concerns businesses when we first meet. To understand the answer to this important - vital - question one must understand how consumer behaviour on the web has evolved since Google entered the reviews market. 

Before Google: businesses - with the possible exception of hospitality where consumers knew that TripAdvisor would accept a review that would be seen by thousands - would often take the risk that their disgruntled customers would either do nothing or write of their experience on a website that few of their future customers would find. 

Google changed all that: it gives consumers a platform where their review will be seen by almost every customer of the business in question...

  • if they are looking for the business's website
  • if they are looking for their phone number
  • if they are looking for directions fact, if they search for that business for any reason at all. 

So denying your customers the opportunity to write a review on your own website or on Google will not prevent them from doing so, and when they do so it will be seen and read and it will impact your business. In fact, they are more likely to write what we call a 'killer review'*; if you give them no option but to go direct to Google.

Welcome reviews and this kind of customer is much more likely to engage in a private dialogue with your business.

*a killer review: one that has the power, all on its own, to stop the phones ringing. Usually detailed and written with authority.


Back in 2014, we predicated our business model on a response rate of + 2 percent. In simple terms, if a business asked a thousand people to write a review then we reckoned twenty would. What we found, in practice, was that businesses adopting the 'email, sit back and hope' strategy got a response rate of between half and one percent but businesses that accepted our advice often approached 50% (some even exceeded - and continue to exceed - this). They invited ten and got five. And this 'rule' applies equally to the reviews on the business's own site and to Google.

There is one more great thing about these results: that they can be achieved from day one. No waiting, no bedding in - you will see the reviews appearing straight away.

In summary...

If you follow these guidelines:
  • your customers - or at least half of them - will willingly write a review

If on top of this, you employ a review manager that incorporates a moderation system into their service you will be defended against the overwhelming majority of inaccurate and malicious reviews.