[IMGCAP(1)]For most accounting firms, the Internet is game changing.

It used to be, and in many cases still is, true that accounting firms lived and died based upon face-to-face meetings and referrals from existing clients. Given the increasing prevalence of the Internet in peoples’ lives, whether on their desktop computers or on their phones, even the smallest shops can compete against the largest of firms.

Besides leveling the playing field amongst companies, the Internet has made the consumer even more powerful. No longer is shoddy (or even great) service restricted to that customer’s small circle of friends. Instead, the Internet has enabled a consumer to tell the entire world how great or how poor a company is in dozens of places. If properly harnessed, the power of customer reviews represents a huge opportunity for any company to spur growth and success, or dramatically bomb in a distinctly public fashion. 

The numbers don’t lie when it comes to the power of online reviews and a consumer’s decision. Here are some statistics about online reviews and their power:

• 81 percent of people use consumer reviews in their purchase decisions. [Source: Nielsen Online via BizReport, February 2009]

• 90 percent of online consumers trust recommendations from people they know; 70 percent trust unknown users, 27 percent trust experts, 14 percent trust advertising, 8 percent trust celebrities. [Source: Erik Qualman, Socialnomics, via Search Engine People, July 2010]

• 92 percent have more confidence in information found online than they do in anything from a sales clerk or other source. [Source: Wall Street Journal, via Search Engine People, July 2010]

• 7 in 10 who read reviews share them with friends, family and colleagues, thus amplifying their impact. [Source: Deloitte & Touche, via Search Engine People, July 2010]

• 51 percent of consumers use the Internet even before making a purchase in shops. [Source: Verdict Research, via Search Engine People, July 2010]

The data goes on and on about the power of reviews upon consumer buying decisions. Clearly dedicating time and resources to managing reviews is in a business’ favor – just don’t let it be a source of angst. Let it be a source of opportunity.

The first place every business should start with their customer review management is to hop online and find and claim the listings related to it. The critical sites ever business needs to be addressing during this process are:

• Google Places (www.google.com/places)
• Yahoo Local (http://listings.local.yahoo.com)
• Bing Local (https://ssl.bing.com/listings/ListingCenter.aspx)
• Insiderpages (www.insiderpages.com)
• YP.com (www.yp.com)
• CitySearch (www.citysearch.com)
• Yelp (www.yelp.com)
• Superpages.com (www.superpages.com)

The process of claiming one’s listing on these sites typically begins by searching for a business at these sites. Usually, there is a link that says something to the effect of “claim listing,” “update listing” or “change your listing.” Most of these sites will require basic business information such as logos, address, hours of operation and a description of services provided. For many of these Web sites, a post office box will be rejected as an address so a physical address is a must.

There is a great chance that during this process a couple of negative reviews will appear. Don’t fall for the trap of writing a blistering response damning the reviewer to kingdom come. Instead, look at it as an opportunity. One key aspect of the customer purchase decision and reviews is that customers are looking for opinions they can trust.

Oftentimes, if a consumer finds a business listing with impeccable reviews, they will question the legitimacy of the information and move on to the next provider. That said, negative reviews should be dealt with two ways. The first way is to prevent them from happening in the first place. Every company should have an outlet such as an email address or phone number for a customer to provide feedback to the company before airing their dirty laundry on the Internet.

While these emails and phone calls are uncomfortable, it is better to have a one-on-one conversation with an angry customer about their issue before they broadcast their complaint to a global audience. If the reviews are already in place, take a deep breath and respond candidly and apologetically. While most businesses like to think they are at the top of their game every day, the reality is most have off days and customer service is not what it should be.

Listings claimed. Negative reviews sorted. The next step is to get a testimonials/reviews page built on the company Web site. This page is really simple and has three elements: a handful of positive testimonials from past/current customers, a note that solicits impartial reviews, and finally links to some, but not all, of the above review sites. As people leave reviews, change the links on this page periodically so customers are able to leave reviews on other sites and there is a fairly even smattering of reviews throughout the Internet (for an example of a great review page, visit http://www.webmixmarketing.com/go/reviewpage).

Note: while these links to other review sites should change over time, the link to Google Places should never be removed. For most local businesses, Google provides a decisive majority of traffic.

Once a business has claimed its listings on these sites and built the testimonials/reviews page, it is time to take a look internally at company processes. Most companies are so mission focused that they miss dozens of opportunities to garner feedback from their customers. They perform their service and leave a bill behind. Or perhaps a customer calls in with a question.

The question gets answered and everyone moves on. Chances are, with a little self examination, most businesses can identify dozens of daily interactions with customers where they could be soliciting reviews.

The whole trick to this is to have a way to ask a customer for a review and to consistently ask. Perhaps it’s including a slip of paper along with the bill that directs people to the review page on your Web site.

Another way is to spend some of the quiet season calling customers and, again, getting them to visit that review page. There are limitless ways of communicating with customers and getting them to leave a review. The trick is to just ask and ask consistently.

By this point, many businesses are either enthralled with the prospects of leveraging their customers’ comments as an important sales tool, or they have the sudden idea of posting fake reviews. Do not fall into this trap. The quickest way to earn a ban from Google or the above sites is to post fake reviews. All of the above sites have sophisticated algorithms that do a decent job of figuring out the real reviews from the fake reviews. Similarly, posting reviews on behalf of your customers will earn a ban. While yes, the customer gave the testimonial, all the above sites want reviews placed by the actual consumers.

One last point of note, avoid the temptation of leaving bad reviews for competitors as they can reciprocate the favor.

Once this program is put into place with consistency, the results should quickly manifest themselves. Most businesses find that the leads garnered from the Internet convert into sales without much of a sales effort. They find that the increased communication between customers reduces customer churn. Some are even reporting being able to reduce their paid advertising expenses as their reviews and presence over the Web increases. Ultimately maximizing customer reviews is about one thing: asking, asking and asking again.

Lee Gientke is the managing partner at Webmix Marketing (www.webmixmarketing.com), a marketing agency that specializes in helping accounting firms make the transition from the offline world to the online world. For a free guide to making social media sell, visit www.webmixmarketing.com/cobuzz.

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