Restaurant learns online reviews can make or break

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PHOENIX — It was the customer service disaster heard around the Internet.

An Arizona restaurateur, fed up after years of negative online reviews and an embarrassing appearance on a reality television show, posted a social media rant laced with salty language and angry, uppercase letters that quickly went viral last week, to the delight of people who love a good Internet meltdown.

“I AM NOT STUPID ALL OF YOU ARE,” read the posting on the Facebook wall of Amy’s Baking Co. in suburban Phoenix. “YOU JUST DO NOT KNOW GOOD FOOD.”

“That’s probably the worst thing that can happen,” said Sujan Patel, founder and CEO of Single Grain, a digital marketing agency in San Francisco.

In the evolving world of online marketing, where the power of word of mouth has been wildly amplified by the whims and first impressions of anonymous reviewers posting on dozens of social media websites, online comments, both good and bad, and the reactions they trigger from managers, can make all the difference between higher revenues and empty storefronts.

Hotels, restaurants and other businesses that depend on good customer service reviews have all grappled in recent years with how to respond to online feedback on sites such as Twitter, Foursquare, Yelp, Facebook and Instagram, where comments can often be more vitriol than in-person reviews because of the anonymous shield many social media websites provide.

“In the past, people just sent bad soup back. Well, now they are getting on social media and telling all their friends and friends of friends how bad the soup was and why they should find other places to get soup in the future, so it takes the customer experience to another level,” said Tom Garrity of the Garrity Group, a public relations firm in New Mexico.

While many corporations hire communications experts to respond to every tweet, Facebook message and online review, the wave of digital feedback can be especially challenging for small businesses with small staffs, digital consultants said.

For one thing, there is so much online content to wade through. Roughly 60 percent of all adults get information about local businesses from search engines and entertainment websites such as Yelp or TripAdvisor, according to a 2011 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

“Customer service is a spectator sport now,” said Jay Baer, president of Convince & Convert, a social media marketing consultancy in Indiana. “It’s not about making that customer happy on Yelp. That’s the big misunderstanding of Yelp. It’s about the hundreds of thousands of people who are looking on to see how you handle it. It’s those ripples that make social media so important.”

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