Build trust with your customers by verifying reviews

What a difference a few years makes. We have witnessed a seismic shift in the balance of power for those who control the brand message. In this age of social media and heightened communication, the customer has a more powerful voice than ever before, which is why many are calling this the “Age of the Customer.” Given recent market trends, it is increasingly hard to disagree with this moniker.

When spending their hard-earned cash, customers want companies that react responsively and quickly to their feedback. Restaurants flexible enough to adapt to this new era will win out over their competitors. The key to adapting is simple—knowing what your customers want, and then giving it to them. This might seem easy to do, but in an age of fickle consumers with lots of choices as to where to spend their restaurant dollar, it is trickier than it sounds.

One major obstacle to moving forward in the Age of the Customer is trust. The true voice of the customer is becoming lost in a sea of fraudulent reviews proliferating on online platforms such as Yelp and Google Reviews. For most, it has become impossible to trust customer reviews because there has been no way to decipher whether or not certain reviews are made by actual customers, competitors, or just people with an axe to grind. Many reviews are outdated, especially when you consider employee turnover and changes in protocol. A recent customer experience can be much different than it was a month ago. As a result, companies’—especially restaurants’—online reputations suffer, despite every effort to improve the customer experience. Companies are no longer able to manage their reputation.

This is frustrating for customers, too. They ask difficult questions. How do I know I can trust the information I am finding online? How can I make a truly informed decision? Which of these reviews do I believe?

As a result of this issue, restaurants are finding new ways to approach this challenge and stand out from their competitors. An interesting case study is transpiring at the restaurant chain Costa Vida Fresh Mexican Grill. The owners wanted a way to showcase and publicize the customer feedback they were receiving. The problem was that they found the reviews on third-party review sites to be infrequent and not indicative of the actual customer experience at Costa Vida locations.

After reviewing their options, Costa Vida chose to use OpenTell, an online reputation management tool recently launched by my company Mindshare Technologies, to publicize customer review data collected through their Voice of the Customer (VoC) program. This allowed them to share certified, unfiltered reviews from actual customers and provide a more accurate representation of their business.

One of the things that jumped out at me was the volume of reviews. Over the last six months, Costa Vida collected nearly 40,000 customer reviews, with an average of 738 reviews per location. In comparison, Yelp averaged only 12 reviews per location in that time. Costa Vida locations using OpenTell received an average of 105 reviews per month, while Yelp averaged only 0.39 reviews.

Because of training, employee turnover, and various other factors, a review more than two months old is no longer representative of the actual customer experience. The average age of the most recent review on other review sites was 96 days—more than three months old. In contrast, the most recent review on OpenTell was, on average, two days old. All Costa Vida locations using OpenTell reported reviews that were done within the past two weeks.

Costa Vida loved the results. Across the participating Costa Vida locations throughout North America, customers universally gave the brand satisfaction scores 20 percent higher than at non-authenticated review sites. Using OpenTell, Costa Vida averaged overall satisfaction ratings nearly one full star higher on a five-star scale than other review sites.

I talked to Jeff Jacobson, the COO of Costa Vida, after the six-month trial. “We were getting great customer feedback through Mindshare Technologies’ VoC program and wanted to promote the experience our customers were having,” he told me. “Infrequent reviews on sites like Yelp and Google cause customer feedback to go stale, not to mention the fact that there is no verification that the post was from an actual customer. We feel those other sites often don’t provide an accurate representation of the great experiences our customers are having every day. OpenTell proved that theory to be true.”

Consumers today expect greater transparency and more conversational relationships with businesses, which represents a fundamental shift in the nature of customer engagement. Companies already have this data locked up in their systems. All they need to do is flip the switch and unlock it. Now Costa Vida can let its appetizing menu and welcoming customer service speak for themselves, while also managing its online reputation. If you are proud of the customer experiences you are fostering, you need to share those real-world experiences with potential customers looking for a good place to go eat.

Restaurants can learn from the Costa Vida experience to help them prosper in the new Age of the Customer, in which customers want to trust companies that react quickly to customer feedback. For restaurant owners and operators, there is often a tension between the fear of transparency and the desire to get ahead of the shift in consumer expectation. In today’s social world, however, it’s important to recognize that open discussions are inevitable. Restaurants need to establish transparency proactively, or they will lose out to competitors who do. Business leaders need to step up and build a sense of openness with their customers to buttress their reputation. To do this, companies should focus on the concept of a sample size of one, ensuring every individual’s feedback is valued and acted upon.

So, who wants Mexican tonight? How about Costa Vida?

The opinions of contributors are their own. Publication of their writing does not imply endorsement by FSR magazine or Journalistic Inc.

Expert Takes, Feature, Costa Vida Fresh Mexican Grill