Online Customer Ratings: To Answer or Not to Answer?

Hotel industry players have long relied on expert ratings and certificates to establish their reputations. Yet websites such as TripAdvisor have upped the game by giving consumers the power to rate their experience. For hotels or any company with an online reputation, problems arise when customer reviews differ from expert ratings. Following a study of more than 200,000 TripAdvisor ratings for London hotels, Tao Wang, an assistant professor at Grenoble Ecole de Management, shares with us his advice on how to respond to online criticism.

Companies have always had to deal with complaints from customers. However, the growing influence of customer rating websites has created an environment where a consumer's complaint can have a significant impact on potential customers. From complete radio silence to religiously answering every negative comment, companies have a wide range of options. Tao Wang, highlights three key steps to keep in mind when deciding how to respond to online ratings.

Decide if a public or private response is appropriate

"Companies must weigh the risks and benefits of a public response. If a company has 1,000 positive ratings and one negative rating, chances are the negative rating will be diluted by the positive reviews. As a public response can be viewed negatively or positively by potential clients, it essential for companies to clearly see the benefits of responding publicly. Otherwise, a private response could be more appropriate." says Tao Wang.

Carefully read customer comments

"Once you have decided on a public response, you have to thoroughly read a customer's comments. If you read between the lines, you can determine if a customer is simply being insulting, or if the customer really wants to encourage change. There has to be an analysis of the customer's comment because potential customers will be reading and interpreting comments and company responses." says Tao Wang.

Craft a response that is authentic and meaningful

"A public response has to be aimed at both the customer who voiced the complaint and potential customers who will read the response. The risk is for potential customers to see an organization's public response as being petty or argumentative." explains Tao Wang. The researcher highlights bad practices such as trying to blame others for a problem or simply copy/pasting ready-made answers. "Be fact-oriented and engaged. A public response is an opportunity to demonstrate a real commitment to customer service."

A shift in the balance of power

The study carried out by Tao Wang and his co-authors examined ratings between 2002 and 2012. The study illustrates the evolution of TripAdvisor and other online rating websites: "The power to encourage change within an organization used to reside in expert ratings and certifications. However, the balance of power has shifted and customers now have a real influence on a company's image." says Tao Wang. Given the growing influence of online ratings, companies need to have a real strategy in place if they want to manage their e-reputation. "Organizations should have a team in place to deal with negative ratings. This means hiring or training customer relations employees and managers who understand the stakes of customer ratings." concludes Tao Wang.

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