Positive online reviews can be a powerful sales force for small businesses. So, should you do whatever you can to encourage customers to write rave reviews? Not if you value your reputation and your ability to sell on Amazon.com and other marketplace sites.
That’s the moral of the latest “pay for play” saga, in which merchant VIP Deals was caught offering buyers a full refund on their purchase if they left a glowing Amazon review. The underlying problem, no matter where your moral compass points, is that it violates Amazon’s terms for sellers.
But positive reviews on Amazon and other sites can turn a browser into a buyer, which can bolster a small business’s bottom line. So, what’s OK — and what’s not — when it comes to encouraging feedback? We asked Scot Wingo, CEO of ChannelAdvisor, to help sort out the smart business practices from the shady approaches and flat-out wrongdoings.
“You don’t want to buy the review,” Wingo says. “Any kind of a discount, coupon code, or anything like that tied to a review tends to cross that boundary for most terms and conditions within review systems.”
Although financial incentives are a no-no, there’s nothing wrong with simply asking for reviews. Wingo notes that even Amazon merchants — who don’t get the customer’s email address — can do so by adding language to their stores or shipping materials. “Your best bet [on Amazon] is [putting] something in the package,” Wingo says. “We’ve seen all kinds of creative things there.” He says a common method is to use the “belly band” packaging concept so that your customer sees your message as they unwrap their purchase.
A related proactive tactic is to ask customers to contact you before leaving a less-than-stellar review. The wording might look something like this: “If you didn’t feel this was a five-star transaction, please let us know directly before you leave feedback.” Wingo says this can be particularly important for small businesses that sell on eBay, because the auction giant’s multi-layered feedback system enables buyers to rate merchants on specific aspects of the transaction, such as shipping time and shipping and handling charges. It may help to politely remind customers who received free shipping, for example, that they should expect a longer delivery wait. (The impolite subtext: Don’t complain about free shipping.) “Make sure that they understand and remember what they picked, so they don’t ding you at feedback time,” Wingo says.
Reviews-savvy sellers are paying much more attention to Google these days, Wingo notes. That’s largely due to its Seller Rating Extensions for AdWords advertisers, which automatically adds ratings to search ads for businesses with four or more stars and at least 30 reviews. This can improve conversions and help sellers stand out in the search crowd, Wingo says. The first step is to check your current Google reviews. (You can do so with this URL, where XXX is your store’s URL: http://www.google.com/products/seller?zmi=XXX.com.) Then you can begin to assess and improve your online standing in a strategic — and perfectly legitimate — manner, something Wingo says most small businesses don’t do enough of.
“Merchants don’t do enough analysis of their reviews,” he says. “This is where the Google system is neat, because they parse the text to kind of ‘bucket-ize’ it.” This enables you to identify and address issues — a key to improve overall scores. If you notice that a particular product or shipping zone is consistently causing issues, for example, you can fix the problem instead of continuing to chase middling reviews. “There’s a lot you can do to improve your ratings that I don’t think merchants spend enough time on,” Wingo says.
Of course, earning new five-star reviews is a fast way to improving your overall standing. Wingo also recommends working closely with comparison shopping engines like Epinions and Bizrate — both are key sources for the Google aggregate review system.