One of fortunate outcomes of the “democratization of information” is that anyone can now be a critic. You don’t even have to be work for a publication anymore because of sites like Local.Yahoo and Judy’s Book. Even amateurs can rate businesses: Power to the people!

Ilana DeBare of the the San Francisco Chronicle wrote a terrific piece (9/3/06) about this phenomenon called “Amateur reviews changing approach of small businesses.” Check it out by clicking here. She starts off with a story of how a new restaurant thought it could work the kinks out during the first thirty days only to fibd out that customers were already criticizing the place on Yelp after the first weekend of business.

My favorite line in the story comes from a Seattle window cleaner:

“The yellow pages are going extinct. In 10 years you won’t have the yellow pages anymore.”

DeBare ends with some good tactical tips:

    • Find out what people are saying about you. Even if you don’t know anything about Internet review sites, they may know about you. Do a Google or Yahoo search with your business name and “reviews” and see what comes up.
    • Respond to unhappy customers. Some sites allow you to send a personal message to reviewers; others let you post a public response. If a reviewer has a legitimate gripe, e-mail him or her with an apology. Consider making amends for their bad experience with the offer of a free or discounted service. If the site allows a public response, try to explain your side of the story without sounding defensive or angry. Avoid getting into a cycle of hostile accusations.
    • Respond to happy customers. You can’t ever thank people too much. If possible, send a thank-you note or small gift to people who write positive reviews.

      Hmm…maybe there’s a business here: an outsourced company that would monitor what people are saying about an organization and help the unhappy ones and thank the happy ones. Bloggers could use company to thank other bloggers for links, post comments, and respond to tirades, etc. It would be perfect for someone who wanted to work at home.

  • Use reviews to improve your operations. Some negative reviews are off the mark, but most provide at least a kernel of truth about problems in your business. Take steps to fix these problems.
  • Encourage your customers to post reviews. Mention these review sites to your regular customers, and tell them how much you would appreciate them posting an honest review about you.
  • Use positive reviews in your marketing. Just like a Zagat’s write-up or a newspaper profile, a good online review can be posted in your shop window or on your Web site.

Finally, I think it’s great to read a practical and tactical piece like this in a major newspaper instead of the usual ode to a billionaire CEO.