When I recently asked a group of restaurant operators how many reviews they believed the industry gets monthly, I was surprised at their estimates. Before sharing their answer, consider the question yourself. The answer? We see about four million restaurant guest reviews each month. That annual level has teetered up and down slightly from 2020 yet remains high at about 50 million reviews per year—and that’s just the restaurant industry.

Dining and ordering out is a frequent occurrence, and people love to talk about food and share their experiences. Most of this feedback used to be exchanged face-to-face, often directly with the restaurant staff or to friends. Technology, smart phones, and social media have changed this, along with the impact of COVID, causing more and more guests to opt for online communication. 

Despite an increased influx of online reviews and guest communication, restaurant brands aren’t drinking from the online guest feedback firehose as expertly as they should. The CEO of a large restaurant brand explained it well: If a guest was in the restaurant sharing feedback, the manager or staff would respond, but online, guests are being ignored. It’s as if a guest is complimenting the manager on her experience, but the manager is standing with arms crossed not saying a thing. Even worse, when it’s online, brands are doing that in front of tens of thousands of prospective guests who are considering whether they will select that restaurant.

The number of restaurants brands choosing to respond online and, as a result, the percentage of guest reviews we see being responded to is increasing, but is still surprisingly low. Many brands have not made engaging with their guests online a priority. Not yet, at least. Likely, those brands are thinking most reviewers are negative or fake, other priorities are higher, it costs too much, there is no reward to responding, or if they ignore it, it won’t matter.

These thoughts are changing as data, technology, and experience are proving otherwise. As it turns out, most reviews restaurants receive are positive. The average rating of guest reviews for the entire industry is hovering around 4 stars out of 5. Furthermore, there is significant statistical evidence that a brand’s ratings correlate to their sales success. A Harvard study found that a one-star increase is associated with a 5–9 percent sales increase. Merchant Centric has repeated similar analyses many times and found a one-star increase correlates with a 4–22 percent increase in sales, depending on the brand’s starting point.

Brands that respond to their guests and value their online star rating as an insightful business intelligence tool are reaping benefits that provide a virtuous cycle—they are enhancing guest relations, understanding guests better, identifying operational themes impacting business positively and negatively, building brand value, getting more reviews (particularly positive ones) and likely improving SEO ranking, which is critical since search site algorithms promote businesses that engage online with users.

Having responded to more than a million reviews on behalf of brands we represent, we’ve developed best practices we share with all our restaurant partners. These best practices also reveal how important this feedback is for restaurant businesses.

Establish guidelines, FAQs and the appropriate brand voice for your replies. You train your staff on how to greet and interact with guests in person, so as you build your brand, make sure you’re employing those same tactics with online guest responses.

Reply to all or nearly all your reviews on top sites. Don’t just reply to negative reviews. Guests who praise your brand may think you are not listening, and others will not post their positive comments. You also miss a wonderful opportunity to turn a positive guest into a loyal guest. Additionally, don’t try to take all your criticisms offline with, “We are sorry. Please contact us at this email,” as it does not show how you address issues. Sometimes apologizing and/or explaining issues publicly earns you more points with guests and prospects.

Be authentic. Don’t “dumb-bot” your guests with canned replies. They can tell and so can review platforms, and there are consequences.

Quid pro quo. Use short replies for short reviews and longer replies for longer reviews. Try to address the key themes mentioned in the review in your reply to show you are paying attention.

Have a system and policies in place to address issues. For example, flag negative reviews for removal if they violate site content guidelines—removing a single one-star review is like adding four 5-star reviews. Escalate critical issues internally, including disgruntled employees, upset guests with an axe and social media following to grind, legal threats (food poisoning claims, slip and fall, etc.) or bad actors threatening extortion. Establishing crisis management protocols and acting proactively can help combat the effects of negative, viral media.

Remember that that CEO mentioned earlier? He prioritized guest engagement for his brand by increasing their reply rate from sub-20 to over 90 percent in a few short years. During that time, they saw dramatic unit growth and sold their brand for a remarkable valuation. Don’t miss your opportunity to make your mark.

Adam Leff is the co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer for Merchant Centric, a leading reputation management solution that caters to the restaurant, veterinary and automotive industries

Business Advice, Customer Experience, Outside Insights, Restaurant Operations, Story, Technology