That the Internet has completely changed how business works is an undeniable fact. Perhaps one of the most important ways in which it has changed business is the information dynamic.

Previously companies controlled the information that customers received and customer feedback or dissatisfaction was limited, perhaps to a complaint letter to the company or to the customer’s ability to tell others about the unsatisfying experience. Many companies believed firmly in the old adage that a customer could tell no more than 7 people of his/her unsatisfactory experience. Businesses advertised and informed customers and others about their businesses, however customers had limited means to give feedback and those means were not usually very public.

This one way information flow was completely changed by the Internet’s advent and the enormous growth in its use. When EBay the first company to do so, gave buyers a facility to leave feedback for sellers and made doing so a normal thing to do, the company started a revolution. Companies flocked to the Internet, to sell their goods and services, and naturally had to follow suit, to the point where customer feedback is almost an industry in its own right and now covers the multitude of goods and services which one can buy or importantly research on the internet.

Restaurants find online feedback vitally important to their businesses. Prospective customers thinking to try an unfamiliar restaurant today look at other people’s feedback about their own experiences dining at the restaurant that they are thinking of using. It is therefore vital for restaurant owners to manage these reviews. Any business’ online reputation is important in this Internet Age, but a restaurant’s online reputation affects the numbers of table bookings and thus the bottom line. A restaurant’s reputation is its success or failure. Where prospective customers might take a chance on other goods or services with bad reviews, food is in a special category and most people would rather go somewhere else to dine.

Why the Internet is Important to Restaurants

The Internet has revolutionized all industries including the restaurant and hospitality industry. However many restaurant owners do not yet understand just how much the industry has changed or how customers research and book restaurants and how a restaurant’s online reputation could affect that process.

Some restaurant owners believe that they can continue to make the same offer in the way that they always have done and ignore what people are saying about their restaurant online. Their belief is sadly mistaken and could put their restaurant in danger.

It is important to understand that increasingly people use the internet to book restaurant tables, whether they do so directly or through a third party. Google, the most popular search engine, reports that searches for restaurant booking services, and similar searches, are growing each year, such searches grew by 17% during the year 2012, over those undertaken in 2011. Livebookings a large player in the industry reports online restaurant bookings are soaring, during the period between 2011 and 2012 online restaurant bookings rose by 100% in the United Kingdom, 54% in Sweden and 28% in Germany. Livebookings further reported that restaurant bookings using mobile devices, such as Smartphones and iphones grew by 260% during the period 2011 to 2012.

This tremendous growth is easily explained according to research by the food service consultancy, Horizons, 67% of restaurant customers now expect to be able to book a table directly through a web site, 14% of bookings made through them were taken outside restaurant opening hours and 44% during peak service times, when the restaurant’s own staff could be far too busy to take table bookings.
It is patently clear that not accepting online bookings is damaging to a business, but it does make sense to explore how restaurants could attract more of such bookings. Therefore what people say about your restaurant online could make the difference between failure and success.

One of the secrets to increasing the numbers of new and returning customers is how you approach your business’ online presence. Online presence for a restaurant means far more than getting a web site designed and launched advertising it somewhat and then leaving it to take table bookings, your restaurant’s online reputation also needs careful managing too.

Major Review Sites

There are so many web sites offering review and customer feedback abilities, some also offer booking services that it is impossible to target one particular with a strategy for managing your online reputation. However, the larger review sites with their huge influence on the market give good exemplars how other sites work.

TripAdvisor is the largest leisure, travel and hospitality review site and the one to which most people wanting to know how others rate an attraction, hotel, B&B, restaurant, town or area turn to first. Its own figures state that its web site receives more than 60 million visitors each month. TripAdvisor’s beginnings were in the hotel and travel industry but it has expanded into restaurant reviews. It is arguably the most influential of the review sites in this area because it is the first site that most people visit because it is high in the search engine rankings and also the fact that many booking sites have direct links to the TripAdvisor individual restaurant page to assist their customer in choosing which restaurant to book.

TripAdvisor review listings have recently been problematical, allegations that false reviews have been posted by business owners trying to raise their own restaurant’s reputation and those trying to affect their competitors’ reputations. Nonetheless TripAdvisor retains enormous influence over customer perceptions.There are many other review and directory sites, which are connected to the restaurant industry for example, Yelp, Google+ Local, Foursquare and specialist sites for example TopTable. They offer varying review facilities; some only allow customer reviews others allow more.

Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are increasingly important in managing your restaurant’s reputation. Social media is the ultimate conversation since users posting location based status updates and comments, receive comments from others and importantly others can see what they are saying about your restaurant. It is crucial then that restaurant owners are aware of what is said and that they engage with such customer feedback positively.

Lastly, one type of review is that of local authorities on food and hygiene. Increasingly, local authorities publish restaurant hygiene ratings on their web sites. Low ratings here can spell disaster for any restaurant.

Why Online Reputation Management Matters
Some restaurant owners may believe that a little bad feedback on their web site would blow over or that they could redress its effects with discounts or marketing, but they would be very wrong. University of California Berkley research examined how ratings on the Yelp feedback site affected bookings at 300 restaurants in San Francisco. Using the site’s star ratings tools, they discovered that moving a restaurant’s rating from three stars to three and a half stars increased the chances of it being fully booked during peak periods from 13% to 34%, moving it a further ½ star rating to four stars increased the chances to 53%. The research further found that online feedback affected bookings far more than price adjustments, offers, customer service, menus or other factors particularly where there was less alternative online information available.

Food Horizons research found that 80% of those who research restaurants on the internet, having read the reviews and advice, then expect to be able to book a table online.

Online reputation is vitally important to a restaurants’ survival and it has a greater financial impact than anything else that you can do within your restaurant.

Online Reputation Management Best Practice
1) Negative feedback should never be ignored. Formulate a process for dealing with negative reviews, no human endeavor can ever be constantly perfect, humans make mistakes. Engage with complaints clearly, courteously and positively and you will create a favorable expression with prospective customers. A complaint or poor rating may be unwarranted and aggression and rude comments might make you feel better, but they will deter other prospective customers.

2) Encourage customers to put positive reviews online. Customers are seven times more likely to leave reviews when they have had negative experiences. So be proactive, if customers compliment your restaurant, ask them if they would put their compliment online. You could instigate a system to encourage satisfied customers to leave their positive online feedback, when they have dined at your restaurant.

3) Never be tempted to post false reviews. Restaurants, which do so, get blacklisted from online booking systems. Do not engage with the various dubious internet companies, which offer to swamp such sites or otherwise neutralize negative company reviews using unfair techniques. Cheats always get discovered.

Can you Manage your own Online Reputation?
Theoretically, of course you can! On most restaurant review sites, it is possible to register as a restaurant owner and you can personally address customer interaction. You could also manage your Facebook and Twitter presence.

However, it would be very difficult for any restaurant proprietor to do so. There are several reasons for this Most proprietors do not have two or three hours every day to manage their online reputation on the many web sites and social media channels available. Most proprietors do not know how to find the thousands of sites available or the ability and time to track the new sites constantly being created. Saying the right things and dealing with feedback in the most effective manner using the best techniques for doing so is an art, which most proprietors have little time or inclination to learn nor do they wish to spend time and money training staff to do the job.

As with your restaurant accounts or kitchen fitting some things are best left to professionals, who have the right experience, knowledge and skills. Online Reputation Management is exactly the same.Online Reputation Management is an investment in your business’ growth and vitality. It positively affects table booking numbers and how much you can charge. Like any such important investment in your restaurant you need to find the best company for the job. Finding an established, successful, ethical Online Reputation Management Company will benefit your restaurant hugely over time.

Although the effects of Online Reputation Management may not be immediate, the long term return on such an investment will be far more effective than any other action that you could take. Other restaurant owners are already availing themselves of the services of the fast growing Online Reputation Management industry. Surely you owe it to your restaurant to follow their example.

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