The Obsession With Online Reviews and Why It's Hurting Your Restaurant

By Donald Burns, Foodable Industry Expert

Online review sites. We love them when they are kind, and we loathe them when they say less-than-flattering things about our restaurant. Research at Harvard has shown that reviews can have an impact on your sales. Get another star and boom, sales can increase 5 to 9 percent. It's easy to see why we crave positive online reviews. The problem comes when we become obsessed with them. 

Now obsession is a double-edged sword that can truly cut both ways. When you are driven and obsessed with improving every single day, that’s what the Japanese call “kaizen.” It's a business philosophy of constant and never-ending improvement that can set your restaurant up for long-term success. In fact, in today's market, you need to have a little kaizen in your core values and mission. If you are not improving, then you are basically standing still. It's not a good thing to stand still while your competitors are innovating, improving, and creating strategic plans to take your market share. Being obsessed is good when it pushes you to want to do more and be more. This is internal obsession. You want more of this. 

Now, the other side of the obsession sword is when we too focused on what others are doing and what they have. This obsession stems from primal emotions of greed, envy, and jealousy. These emotions pull your attention away from your own restaurant and what you can control to others and what they are doing. Of course, you want to be aware of what is going on in your market. Contrary to popular belief, ignorance is not bliss if you run a restaurant. Ignorance is just ignorance. Obsession takes an ugly turn when it consumes our focus and energy. This is external obsession. You do not want this. 

To help control the external obsession monster from taking you over, here are a couple things you need to consider:

1. Twenty percent of online reviews are fake. 

A problem started when Harvard put out that report stating that a one-star increase was good for a 9 percent increase in sales. It started an online "gold rush" of less-than-reputable restaurant owners flooding online review sites with fake reviews, both good and bad. 

They pumped up their brand with good reviews and went around bashing their competition with negative reviews. These type of people are the ones who really bring a discredit to our industry. Their marketing campaigns (if you could even call them that) is more like one you would see running for President of the United States...it just turns in a negativity media storm. That is a storm you want to avoid. 

2. Of course you are going to get some bad reviews.

You cannot make everyone happy and when you get a bad review (and it will happen), you need to stop and ask yourself a question: Is it true? 

If you can say with 100-percent assurance that it is not true, then take it for what it is...a personal opinion. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. That is what makes this country great. 

Now, if there is some truth behind it, then you have you be honest with yourself that all might not be perfect in your restaurant. That requires getting a big glass of water and swallowing three pills called ego, pride, and denial. One or all of those three are usually the reason that keeps restaurant owners and operators stuck. Choke them down and you are on your way to the restaurant you know it can become. 

Taking accountability is freeing and necessary for your brand to grow and survive. Here are some questions to ask if you do find yourself faced with a bad review that could be true:

  • Did you have clear standards that are set in stone like it was carved in a tablet as a commandment? 
  • Do you have a written list of core values that lead the team with their actions? Do you talk about your core values every day to your team? 
  • Are you committed to training every single day? Do you train, teach, and develop your team daily? 

If you are honest, then you might see some opportunities that you need to work on. Even if you answered "yes" to all of those questions, then ask yourself: "Could you take it to the next level? Could you do more and become even better?" If you said "no" to those questions, please go back to getting that glass of water and swallowing the three pills mentioned before. 

Now, if you do get a bad review, there are some steps to take:

A. Apologize for not meeting expectations. This is a great way to declare that you are compassionate to the guest. Say something along the lines of: "I am truly sorry we did not meet your expectations and that is not the experience we work towards."

B. Ask for a chance to earn their business back. Most people will give you another chance if you ask for it. However, the request must be within 24 hours of the bad review. Remember that people go online to complain because they felt the situation was not resolved while at the restaurant. 

The longer time you take to respond (notice the word respond, not react), the harder it will be to rebuild trust. See, that is what happens in a bad review...there is a breakdown of trust between the guest and your brand. When you break a brand promise, you'll find it hard to recover — especially if you just avoid it. Ask Chipotle about the damage breaking trust with the guests can have. 

Say something like: "I would like the opportunity to earn your business again and show you the true [INSERT RESTAURANT HERE] experience. My name is [YOUR NAME HERE] and please ask for me when you come in so I can personally come by and say thank you for the chance to make this right."

C. Avoid excuses. The last thing you want to do is start throwing out excuses as to why you dropped the ball. Remember that the purpose of responding to bad online reviews is to rebuild trust and get the guest to come back — not throwing out excuses or arguing with the guest on an online format. "Well, we were short-staffed and did the best we could,” "You ate over half of the steak before you complained about it!," or — here’s a favorite one I have seen, "No one on our staff even has the hair color of the one you found in your food" are not the ways to go. Yipes!

D. Always write a draft in another app and have another person read it. This extra step or two can save you from lashing out in a reactive state and not responding in a professional manner. Just look at those you hear about that sent out a tweet and then delete it, however, not before others have screenshots of it, before becoming a meme floating around the internet. Becoming a meme is not a really good idea.

Remember that word of mouth has become "world of mouth" with a click of a button. Have you heard of Amy's Baking Company in Scottsdale, Ariz.? They appeared a few years back on an episode of “Kitchen Nightmares” with Chef Gordon Ramsay and it was the first time that the chef actually had to walk away. The couple who owned the restaurant were infamous for arguing with guests online and letting it escalate to some crazy levels. The business is now closed. 

3. Where focus goes, energy flows.

This is a great maxim to write down and place it where it can be a constant reminder to you. Where focus goes, energy flows. Meaning where you place your focus is where you will see results. It’s not rocket science. What you pay attention to will get better, if you put in some action behind it. The problem with external obsession is that you are taking your focus away from your business. Now, being aware of your market is important. When your time, energy, and focus becomes obsessed on what “they” are doing, how many cars are in “their” parking lot, and all the like “they” get on Facebook…then you have a problem. Being informed is great. Being obsessed is not.

Internal obsession is the key to maximizing your resources. You need to tap into your strengths and those of your team to become outstanding in a crowded market. Now, if become outstanding was easy, we would not have the epidemic of average restaurants that we do.

Sadly, average is the new standard in the restaurant industry. Average is a failing formula for long-term success. Most restaurants that seek out a business coach are at either in a place of desperation or inspiration. Desperate restaurants are struggling and they are looking for someone to get them back on track quickly. The inspired restaurants are doing great and have a internal drive with which they can do even more with and expand their brand.

The restaurants in the middle that are average never reach out to become better because they are comfortable. Being comfortable is really just complacency and being complacent is slow death to a restaurant. It's like they are floating down the river happy and carefree. Then, they notice up ahead is Niagara Falls and their brand is about to go over the edge. Very few can change direction and paddle fast enough to avoid going over the falls. Having a coach or mentor helps you look ahead and create a strategic plan for long-term success. They also can help you break free from unhealthy obsessions that are hurting your business. Online reviews are one obsession that can hurt your restaurant when that obsession turns and consumes your focus. Start by rechanneling that by asking yourself better questions like:

  • What can you do to improve your menu?
  • What can you do to make your service stand out in the market?
  • What can you do to become a better leader?
  • What can you do to make your team better?

These questions are the ones you want to put your time, energy, and focus into. These are the questions that build better restaurants. Control your obsessions or they will control you.