13 tips Wine Country hospitality businesses can use to guard their online reputations

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Shana Bull is a Santa Rosa-based marketing educator and digital storyteller, working with wine, food, hospitality businesses, teaching classes on marketing, and freelance writing. Reach her with your questions about digital marketing at shana@shanabull.com, @sharayray on Instagram or at shanabull.com.

Do you own or work with a hospitality business in the North Bay? If so, then I’m guessing you have a love-hate relationship with customer review websites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Google reviews, and even Facebook reviews.

If you operate a local business like a restaurant, hotel, or winery, then customer reviews should be a cornerstone of your digital marketing efforts. Maybe you have ignored this advice because you’ve received a couple negative reviews from an online troll, or from a customer who left a review without ever having stepped foot in your location, or from a former employee who left on negative terms.

Or perhaps you’ve received a seemingly endless amount of sales calls from one of these sites. However, these customer review websites make employers roll their eyes, it’s important to remember that these sites are a vital part of obtaining customer feedback.

Feedback from real customers is valuable to any marketer. It allows you to make honest evaluations of the positive aspects of your business, as well as some things that you may need to change.

Review sites like Yelp are also great for SEO (search engine optimization). These websites often come up first when Googling your business. Even more importantly, Google reviews come up first when someone is doing a general search for something like “Russian River Valley Wineries.”

I talked to a few people who work in hospitality in Wine Country and came up with a list of 13 things your hospitality business should focus on when it comes to review websites:

Create a frequently asked questions (FAQ) document that can be shared with your team to make it easier to respond to comments. Add the document to Dropbox or a shared Google Drive folder and make sure to have at least 10 answers to the questions your team hears most frequently online, over the phone, or in person.

Make sure to not share the same canned comment every time. “Customers can tell when your response appears to seem like a script or template. Respond in a sincere, honest way,” says Aphrodite Caserta, marketing and communications director at Safari West. When responding to a question, take the answer and write out a personalized response based on the commenter’s experience.

Answer almost every negative review. “If the comment is negative, wait until you are not upset to respond, and remember – even if the customer is wrong, they are right because it is their experience. Approach the response with that in mind, apologize, and offer to make it right,” says Sarah Giometti, founder and head strategist at Provaro Marketing in Rohnert Park, who handles online review sites for many of her customers.

Respond through proper channels. I did say “almost,” because I know that not everybody plays nice sometimes. If you find yourself with a review is mean-spirited, factually wrong, or from a former employee/online troll, try to go through the proper channels to get rid of the comment.

If you cannot get rid of it, however, remember to answer with a clear head. You could do more damage if you respond harshly.

If the customer is mean-spirited or simply wrong about something, you don’t have to apologize, but it still wouldn’t be in your best interest to call them out or try to make them feel bad. Say you will look into the matter and ask them to connect with you personally.

Shana Bull is a Santa Rosa-based marketing educator and digital storyteller, working with wine, food, hospitality businesses, teaching classes on marketing, and freelance writing. Reach her with your questions about digital marketing at shana@shanabull.com, @sharayray on Instagram or at shanabull.com.

Don’t ignore the positive comments. According to Sarah, “customers like seeing that the business responds to reviews (and cares) about their customers and their experience. So responding to every review is a good idea…even if you are just saying ‘Thank you’ for a positive review.” You can also thank them for sharing images or respond to something they said in the positive review.

Dedicate someone (or two people) to check on reviews. Don’t assume someone will do it when they have some extra free time. Make it a part of their job.

Set a calendar reminder for checking review sites, so you can regularly monitor your feedback. The frequency will vary depending on your business and how many reviews you get, but checking on a weekly basis is a good starting point.

Recognize that what customers say is valuable information that can help your business – both the negative and positive comments alike. Before online review sites were around, businesses didn’t have the same access to information from customers. Feedback from real customers is invaluable to any business; learn from it, and make changes when it makes sense.

Remember that these sites provide great SEO (search engine optimization) for your business. Fill out your profile completely, including your hours, URL, location, menu, and images that represent your brand. Update as needed, like if your hours change, you alter your menu, or you have new photos to share.

Add at least five to 10 photos to your profile. In addition to customer scores, imagery plays a big role for many customers when choosing one business over another. Yelp has noted that business pages with up to five reviews and 10 photos get 200 percent more views than those with no photos.

Have a document, along with the FAQ document, with all of the review websites’ usernames and passwords in case someone else on the team needs access.

Do not focus on one customer review website. For hospitality brands, Google your business and see what comes up first in terms of review sites. Make sure to verify your business so you can respond as the brand. The big ones around Sonoma and Napa County are Yelp, Google reviews, TripAdvisor, and Facebook.

Don’t set your profile and forget it. You can even outsource help from local digital marketing agencies like Provaro Marketing or a social media consultant who will make sure to keep on top of your profile, responding to comments, and even working with your team on optimal practices for acquiring feedback from customers.

We live in a world where everyone’s a critic. And while the internet provides a lot of misinformation, it can also be a benefit to your business. Customers are more likely to turn to reviews from other diners than from professional critics.

By spending a little bit of time focusing your marketing efforts on online review websites and customer feedback, you can ensure that your business is constantly engaging with and improving for your clientele.

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