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Using Reviews to Unlock Your Competitive Advantage

Jeff Toiste, author, consultant and trainer, shares ways that business owners can glean insights and learnings from their online reviews, as well as best practices for responding and engaging with reviews.

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Behind the Review host and Yelp’s Small  Expert, Emily Washcovick, shares a look at this week’s episode of the podcast.

Courtesy of Yelp

As any small business owner knows, online reviews can be tricky. Positive reviews make you feel like you’re killing it in your business, and negative reviews can feel like a punch in the gut. 

When it comes to reviews and customer service, Jeff Toister knows a thing or two. Author of a number of books on customer service, Toister is a consultant and an expert in getting and responding to online reviews. He’s developed plans for small businesses to build excellent customer service and strategies for responding to reviews—both positive and negative.  

Toister says it’s important to look into all of your reviews and use them to narrow in on your business’s strengths. 

“Even if you have a 3-star average, that doesn't mean that all of your customers are upset. It means you have some customers who really, really like you. You probably still have some 5-star reviews. And the question for a business owner is: What are those customers saying? Because that's probably your strength, your competitive advantage.” 

Once you’ve found your competitive advantage and made that a part of your overall strategy in growing and keeping your customer base, communicating that vision to your employees is critical. They are often the front line of your business and the first interaction for your customers, so they have to be invested in your business in order for it to be successful. 

“As a business owner, you have to articulate the vision for the business. What are the standards of service that we expect? To you, it's obvious. To your employees, it's often not obvious. They're coming in with their own agenda, their own perspective, and many small business owners tell me in particular, the people they hire don't have a lot of experience. They need to be taught.”   

Small business owners can hone in on potential trouble spots in their products or service by paying attention to online reviews, both positive and negative. Even the outliers—like the reviews that might be from someone who just complains to complain—can teach you something about your business.  

“We have to ask ourselves as business owners, what can we learn from this? And how can we move forward? Because even with the most unreasonable Yelp reviews, there's some kernel of truth that tells you, you know, what? We can learn from this experience. We might get this type of customer again.” 

One of the messages that Toister teaches small business owners is the value in a negative review. Every negative review is an asset and can show you flaws in your business that you might not have seen for yourself.  

“Negative reviews are an asset. They are not a liability. Now, if all your reviews are negative, you're in trouble. But let's assume that most of your customers are happy and negative reviews are occasional. How are they an asset? The overwhelming majority of consumers look at negative reviews, and they're looking for consistent themes. And they're also looking for how you respond.” 

Your business could suffer if you don’t respond to negative reviews in a polite and professional manner. But you might be surprised that a complete lack of negative reviews can also be a deal-breaker for prospective customers. 

“If you don't have any negative reviews, they don't trust you. And studies have shown that if we're looking at Yelp ratings, for example, a business with a 4.5-star Yelp rating tends to do more volume and attract more customers than a business with a 5-star rating. It feels more real.” 

Of course, every business owner would love to please all customers all of the time, and each negative review can feel like someone just kicked your puppy—they hurt. However, Toister says business owners should look at reviews from a different perspective.  

“Always understand that reviews are for your business, and whether it's a positive review or even a negative one, how you handle those reviews can help your business and attract new customers who get what you're all about and are looking forward to a great experience. So just understand that that's the true purpose of reviews.”

Small business success depends on a lot of factors, but you can eliminate a few if you follow Toister’s advice on handling your online reviews. 

  • Play to your strengths. Use your reviews to see what makes you stand out from the competition, according to your customers. 
  • Make employees aware of and a partner in your vision. This will empower them to help build excellent customer service. 
  • Use negative reviews to your advantage. They can help you find pain points in your product or service, which gives you a chance to fix them. 
  • Be genuine, professional, and polite in your responses. High-quality responses resonate more with potential customers than a fleet of 5-star reviews. 

Listen to the episode below to hear more from Emily and Jeff Toister, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from business owners and reviewers every Thursday.

Emily Washcovick

Written By

As Yelp’s Senior Field Marketing Manager and Small Business Expert, Emily is responsible for building a thriving network of local business owners, operators and marketers through education and networking events (now, exclusively virtual). She hosts events and webinars to provide business owners with resources that help them succeed and grow in the world of online reviews. Emily’s expertise lies in customer engagement, reputation management and all things digital marketing. Her knowledge encompasses countless industries and through thought leadership and speaking engagements, she’s able to share insights that business owners of all kinds can leverage for the future of their business.


Emily is also host of Behind the Review, a podcast from Yelp and Entrepreneur Media that features conversations with business owners and reviewers about their experiences—whether positive or negative —giving listeners behind-the-scenes insights and real life learnings.