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Using Online Review Sites for Small Business Marketing

Customer review sites such as, and Google Maps are a terrific way to market your small business by allowing prospective customers to see how well you treat your current and past customers. But what if you get an unfair negative review or one that looks to be written by your competitor? What's the best way to capitalize on the exposure these sites can give your local business and how do you encourage happy customers to post positive reviews? We discuss this and more on the Small Business Podcast

Small Business Podcast: Hello everybody. Welcome back to Small Business Podcast. As usual, the idea and the purpose behind all of these interviews is to give you small business owners and entrepreneurs out there something to think about and maybe apply to your own business. One of the things that I've really wanted to discuss with business owners over the past few months is how they're using some of these local sites that do reviews of certain businesses everything from florists to dry cleaners. And today, we're going to talk to an owner of Bed and Breakfast about how he uses TripAdvisor to kind of manage and get business basically from these sites, but there are some things to be cautious about too with these sites, because of course, people can evaluate and review your business in ways that you may not agree with and the question becomes then is how do you use that to try and have a conversation and not have to hurt business. So today, we're going to talk about with Barry Werner, he is the owner of Scarborough Fair Bed and Breakfast in Baltimore, Maryland and he uses TripAdvisor. And I thought this would be a great start for our discussion about this. Over the next few weeks, we're going to be interviewing several business owners about how they use this; one of them being Google maps, TripAdvisor, and some of the others you may be familiar with. So Barry thanks very much for joining us on the show today.

Barry Werner: It's my pleasure.

Small Business Podcast: Well, so let's talk about you as a business owner. Background first. When did you get into the Bed and Breakfast business?

Barry Werner: We started about a year and a half ago. I was sort of tired of the rat race of Washington, DC as was my partner and I have always wanted to run a Bed and Breakfast. So in January 2007 we started doing a lot of research into it and joined the Professional Association of Innkeepers International and by June 29th 2007, we are checking in guests.

Small Business Podcast: Wow! Okay. So any surprises? Anything you didn't expect when you've got into this business?

Barry Werner: There is always lots of surprises. Most of it had been around the property itself and you never find out how political having a B&B can be until you're actually running one.

Small Business Podcast: What do you mean by political?

Barry Werner: Just neighborhood associations, the ins and outs of your local neighborhoods, all that sort of stuff.

Small Business Podcast: I got it. Okay. Why Bed and Breakfast? What attracted you to that particular business?

Barry Werner: Well, whenever I was a kid probably about five years old or so my grandmother and I used to play bed and breakfast. She has been a waitress most of her 75 years now waitressing resorts and high end restaurants and so I go ahead and used my crayons and draw what the rooms would look like and we'd make pretend menus together and make pancakes for lunch and I pretended to check her into a room and now I checked her into a room probably about once a quarter when she comes to visit for real.

Small Business Podcast: I see. You had a lot of experience then in the background basically.

Barry Werner: Yeah. From the time I was little until several retail jobs working at the inn and the [2:55], planning stores, some interior decorating stores, florists and landscaping places so all of this different retail operation sort of landed themselves to being an inn keeper.

Small Business Podcast: So before all of these sites like TripAdvisor and the others, how did the Bed and Breakfast market themselves?

Barry Werner: Mostly on websites where you would pay to be a member. Like and B&B finder and that sort of thing so that was pretty much the only way it works. Somebody did a search like on what was once upon a time a major player Yahoo and not so much anymore that you would hope that organically they'd be able to find some of your information out there.

Small Business Podcast: Now when I started putting this out there that I wanted to interview business owners that were using the sites I got a lot of email and not all of it, in fact I would say about half of it. People were just downright angry at some of these sites because they felt like they weren't in control anymore. You know this is a big change. How are you feeling about this?

Barry Werner: I've received you know the same amount of complaints too from fellow inn keepers. I think there are two ways to look at it. As Jake, president of PAII said, (Professional Association of Inn Keepers International), it's a double-edged sword. You have the good side where you can really get out there and get a lot of really good feedback about places many people are willing to use an anonymous reading as oppose to even paid advertising or even a written travel book, as far as reviews. But the other side is that as you aren't in control and somebody can, as it stands right now completely make up lies and put them on line. But there are few ways to handle that and PAII is working with B&B Inn Keepers and TripAdvisor directly to try to do something about that.

Small Business Podcast: Now I looked at your reviews specifically on TripAdvisor and 99.9% were great. There was one that was a little negative. I was very impressed by the way you handled that. Can you talk about how you did that?

Barry Werner: Well, as TripAdvisor goes and a lot of the other review sites, you almost always have a way to respond to a negative comment or review and that's the first thing I would suggest is you know go ahead and get on there and try to do the best you can to remember because a lot of times these people that have a problem with your business or sit on their hands and wait and wait and wait and go ahead and rate the review then so you have to sort of backtrack and think about it. Well, they may not say anything to your face and wouldn't say it online so you have to sort of do a little detective work and try to figure out who it was. Address each of the key issues that they mentioned in their review and why that may have happened and how without making excuses just explaining the situation.

Small Business Podcast: Now one of the things I noticed about some of the reviews is first of all it always seems to me that anybody who's getting a lot of positive is doing a good job because it's just a known fact that people who are negative and complaining are more likely to submit a review sometimes or anything online especially being an anonymous then they are to complement you. So how do you go about in trying to get those people that normally who are happy to go out and tell people?

Barry Werner: Well, we actually haven't had that much of a problem. One thing that we do is we send out a thank you email because most of our clients prefers emails and we send out a thank you email to thank them for staying with us and remind them about, and we actually have links in the email about several different places that they can leave you know little ratings about their experience here and a lot of times if you ask people to tell you what they think. They loved to be asked. They loved to talk about themselves and what's going on and how much of a good time they had if you only ask. That's the key point, is those people that you have that either stay with you, eat in your restaurant, buy your wears. It's important that you don't forget to ask them to tell people about you. I mean a lot of times people are afraid that, oh, I don't want to toot my own horn or I don't want you know these people to feel like they're obligated to talk about you but if they're enjoying themselves you know realistically and literally then they want other people to enjoy themselves as well and they have no problem showing the information. You just have to ask them to do so.

Small Business Podcast: I also noticed in a lot of the reviews of course on TripAdvisor specifically and even amazons like this you can click on something that says, was this review helpful? And I noticed that if there is a negative review for a business that often times you can tell people are ranting, there's no punctuation, there's some spellings I mean and people are saying that review is not helpful. So in some sense I guess you have to have some faith the community there or the people that are visiting are going to be smart enough to realize who the morons are and I guess it's a harsh way of saying and who's not.

Barry Werner: Exactly. Like you were saying our one sort of negative review that we had with someone that never even stayed with us and a lot of people read what my response was to that and what's surely funny is the TripAdvisor rating is out of five stars and she still gave us a three out of five, which still isn't too bad for never having stayed with us and you know again a lot of the people that we get business from TripAdvisor have read that rating because everybody wants to see what the one negative is and they said you know that your response to that is completely within bounds and she just sounds like she was pretty much [8:39 a lun]. So I think you have to rely on your clients, your guests, your customers to be cognizant of what's really behind on a lot of the negative that is written out they can figure that.

Small Business Podcast: Now the Google maps has had some press recently specifically about four different areas where competitors have come in and written a ton of negative comments on their competitors, what do the sites do about that and how do you kind of deal with that kind of thing?

Barry Werner: There is not much. Unfortunately, the way it is done now, there's not much that you really can do other than keep trying to get as many positive comments as you can to sort of flush these negative ones out of the system so to speak so that they follow like sixth or seventh page. And we had a lot of accomplishment received by going ahead and just asking people anytime they have a good customer, anytime they have a good interfacing with you that you go ahead and you just send them to the review sites and have them post as much you know good stuff on there as possible.

Small Business Podcast: Now, is your business that you can attribute directly to Google maps and TripAdvisor? Are there people coming to you specifically because of these sites?

Barry Werner: Yes. We actually have a part of our online reservation form where you can click and tell us where you heard about us or whenever we get a turned in reservation we asked them where they hear about us and at least 25% of all of our client tell, which is quite a bit comes from either Google maps or a Google search or from TripAdvisor. A lot of people are using TripAdvisor right now. A lot of the business owners out there probably don't realize that. Although TripAdvisor sounds like it's only for travel which you think you know accommodations they can also be listed on their reviews of restaurants, shopping, services, tours, museums anything that a tourist may potentially use whenever they're traveling can be listed on there and reviewed. And a lot of retailers could probably benefit from that if they're in a tourist type of town.

Small Business Podcast: Do you think overall this ability for anybody to go in and do these reviews? Has it raised the bar in terms of how hard people are working to make sure that their customers are happy?

Barry Werner: Well, I think it really has because it only takes you know like maybe two or three people to have a bad experience to get on there and do a fair amount of damage but again if you're doing all that you can and all that you're supposed to be doing, anyway you don't have a lot to worry about and I think a lot of people, I think especially through the 80s and 90s a lot of people sort of thought well you know customer service it is what it is, what matters is that I have the product out there but if you don't react and respond to your customers in the best way possible, it doesn't matter what you're selling. They're not going to deal with you. So it sort of brought it all the way back to where it needs to be. Customer service always has to be as good as humanly possible.

Small Business Podcast: Now I stayed in a Bed and Breakfast with my wife recently and one of the things you know I noticed is the owners were there, we met them, they were nice, they helped us while we were there. I noticed that on TripAdvisor a lot of the big brands like the Marriotts and Hyatts, they have a real issue because when there's no personal interaction with the owners, it's a lot easier for people to go in there and just slam the place it seems. Do you have that relationship with the people to kind of make that a positive for you?

Barry Werner: Oh, yeah. I mean a lot of times if you're staying at a Bed and Breakfast you're staying for where it's located and what it has to offer but the reason you return to a Bed and Breakfast again is because of the way you're treated and the people that you meet. So at least 50 to 75% of the overall experience of staying at a B&B is who the owners are, the inn keepers are and the staff there, which is not the case for a hotel because a hotel is sort of you know your boss, you're just another number in their computer system, in their reservation forms and that's about it where at the B&B you are a person, you are an individual. We're a lot smaller so we can go ahead and really get to know you, what your likes and dislikes are, how you prefer your coffee, if you like your milk in a cold glass, all of that sort of stuff. Because of the size of hotels they just don't have the time to be able to do that.

Small Business Podcast: One of the things I wanted to kind of push a small business owners here so I've got my own motives I guess for doing interview like this is that the conversation is going to happen whether you're involve or not, right. So you might as well get involve with it.

Barry Werner: Exactly. I mean the only way that like you were saying, a lot of people feel out of control. Well, people only have as much control as you give them to some extent and if you were there and present and cognizant of every interaction you have with your customer then you are in control. You just don't realize it.

Small Business Podcast: What are the suggestions you have to somebody who is getting reviews but hasn't stepped into this? They might be tempted or maybe put their own review on there and try to be somebody else; I mean that's obviously a no, no. If you kind of know that from TripAdvisor they'll tell you right off the bat, when you put in a review, don't put in fake reviews. But what advise might you have for somebody who's just trying to get started here?

Barry Werner: Don't ever, ever, ever write your own reviews. First off, you're sinking to the level of what some of those bad competitors maybe trying to do as far as writing negative comments about you even though they don't interact with you and you're doing the same thing but the flipside of it and plus you may think you're doing a really good job of like sort of hiding your tracks and covering up that its you writing about your own business but people can tell. And as you're going to be doing it like a hundred times, there's no way that that's going overall have a grand effect on the things, anyway. You need to have real reviews by several different types of people written in their own voice for it really makes a difference and the only way to do that consistently is to give good customer service, which again goes back to what you should be doing anyway.

Small Business Podcast: If somebody does have that horrendous review and you think it's a competitor that is trying to just bad mouth you, do you have any recourse? Can you email? Can you call? Is there anything you can do?

Barry Werner: Currently, especially with TripAdvisor you really don't have any recourse but PAII working toward doing some different things with that because unfortunately, TripAdvisor didn't really realize how bad things were or didn't know how to go about solving some of those issues but Jake here and the executive director of PAII is actually having conversations and they've got a really good working relationship with TripAdvisor to have certain checkpoints in there like whenever you're filling out your form to write a review, did you actually stay there, yes or no or is your review limited to only your you know on the phone interaction and different ways to sort of ensure that it is legit as possible.

Small Business Podcast: It would seem that could solve a lot of problems by forcing people to use their real name and verifying this against the database maybe by a credit card or something. I know that would reduce probably the number of reviews but will they be more helpful reviews?

Barry Werner: They could potentially be more helpful but the same instances that sort of open up a can of worms to the opposite extreme. People are much more likely to go ahead and tell you things if they are anonymous and a lot of times if they say a few you know negative things it isn't necessarily like oh, my God the world is going to end, this is so awful. It actually might point out a few things that you didn't realize needed to be fixed. Like say, you're a property owner and for some reason, as you're a B&B owner for example for some reason the lock on one of the bathroom doors jams from time to time. If you don't check that each and everyday you may not have realized that and somebody writes that in their review. Well that gives you the opportunity to fix it. If they have to put their name on there they probably won't say hardly anything and then that would give you, you know no chance to make up for any problems that you may not be aware of.

Small Business Podcast: So I guess the idea there is that we all have egos, we all want to hear great praise but we have to be open to the fact that there are improvements we can make and this is a great way to find out what those are.

Barry Werner: And when you are a small business owner you don't really have anybody that can sort of give you your performance evaluation. Our customers do that all that time and this is the best way to get the true, hard information that you need to be able to do a better job.

Small Business Podcast: Oh, Barry you've been a great sport, you've kind of letting us inside and you how manage this so I want to give our listeners a chance to know about you. Tell us about how to find your website, how to find you.

Barry Werner: You can find us at or you can do a search for Scarborough Fair Bed and Breakfast Baltimore, Maryland on Google and find us right on there on Google map.

Small Business Podcast: Or TripAdvisor I guess too.

Barry Werner: Exactly.

Small Business Podcast: Alright. Well, listeners will link to the website as well so you can check this out. Barry thanks very much for your time. I appreciate it. I think this is really an important subject for a lot of business owners. Thanks for being our first to talk about it.

Barry Werner: It's been great. I really enjoyed it. Thank you for having me.