When you think about building your eatery, there’s one thing that comes to mind above all else; diners. New diners are your lifeblood, and discovering ways to acquire them is the top reason restaurant owners turn to the internet for marketing and advertising. But what’s the best way to track down new diners? The answer might have more to do with looking back than looking forward.

Word of Mouth, on Steroids

Word of mouth recommendations have always carried a lot of weight. And today, with the rise of a globally connected, internet savvy population, public comments, recommendations, and reviews have become a lead influencer in which services and professionals attract new business. According to a a 2014 study by BrightLocal, up to 88% of people read customer reviews when researching a site or service. Some industries are more heavily reviewed and searched than others, but the growth in online research is significant everywhere.

People Trust People

The amount of confidence people have in online comments and forums is growing every year. For a typical consumer today, a batch of good online reviews carries the same weight as a recommendation from an acquaintance. Compare this to people’s opinions on paid marketing or advertising, and you’ll see the real value of user reviews. BazaarVoice recently put out a great infographic showing that customer reviews are 12x more trusted than advertisements or marketing info.

Make Reviews Part of the Plan

Good reviews are important. But a steady stream of new reviews is even more so. Other food service venues in your area won't stop generating new reviews, and recent reviews are a vital indicator of a quality food service venue. Think about how you can make it a no brainer for diners to review your food service venue without it being an inconvenience. Include links for diners to review their experience in your email communications. Follow up with happy patrons after-the-fact and solicit feedback. Then see whether or not they would be interested in posting something online. Many companies are even adding public review forums on their website, which is as easy as finding a good free plugin. Reviews are a resource that compounds over time. Just like a savings account, make sure you’re adding to your body of reviews regularly and consistently.

Reviews as the Magic Mirror

A big body of awesome reviews, and a simple system to bring in more, is all well and good. But the value of reviews doesn't end with building your professional image and brand. They're also great inspirational material. Reward and incentivize yourself and other employees who generate positive online feedback. Adorn your walls with highlights from real reviews. Reviews can help you see beyond the bubble, and understand more about what you need to do to succeed.

How to Handle Bad Reviews

You do your best for every single diner you work with. But you can't make everyone happy all the time. So how should you respond when a furious review shows up on your website or Twitter? Keep in mind, a sour taste is more memorable than a sweet one, and people are much more likely to post reviews about a bad experience than a good one. First off, don’t panic. A lot of the time, all it takes to make a person happy is a little attention and effort. Get in touch, diagnose the problem, and do your best to make things right. You might well be able to change the person’s opinion and convert a negative to a positive. Even when you get a tough cookie that won’t budge, don’t chalk it up as a lost cause. Post your response to the same forum or website where the review first appeared, and address the issue professionally and with genuine care. This is a chance to show future prospective patrons exactly how to respond when the going gets tough. Sometimes, a rocky review can give you the footing to explain more about your operation, values, and offers.

Some Clear Steps

If you’re looking to meet more customers and boost your food service venue with patron reviews, here are some quick steps to get you started. 1) Create a Yelp profile, and use social media icons to link to it from your website. 2) Add a survey or feedback form to your invoicing, to identify happy customers who might be willing to write a review. 3) Feature longer testimonials on your website to provide ‘social proof’ about your restaurant. 4) Use a free review plugin to capture new reviews right on your website. 5) Get to know your diners during your normal interactions, then expand the relationship to social media. Once you have a good online rapport, ask if they'd be able to write a short review or recommendation.

Do you use reviews as part of your larger business strategy? Tell us about it, in the public comment section on this page.