Skip navigation

Yelp_Body.jpgby Erin McDermott.


How can you get honest, positive feedback to appear on Yelp or review portions of Google, Facebook, or TripAdvisor? It may sound daunting, but some say all small businesses need to do is ask.


“If you don’t ask, the likelihood of it happening is almost zero,” says Adi Bittan, chief executive and cofounder of Palo Alto, California-based, a company with an online tool that gives customers a direct line to a business’s owners via an app or text messages. “People are actually much nicer than many people give them credit for.”


Where to start? Listen up the next time a customer pays a compliment for great service or expresses satisfaction about a mistake that was quickly fixed. Translating pleasant, in-person encounters into positive social media capital is a matter of reading the signals your customers are giving and being direct about a request for help, Bittan says. If clients praise an employee, service, or product, that’s a cue that they’re likely open to doing more.


Bittan points to a series of Stanford University studies that show people underestimate how likely others are to agree to requests for assistance. In one, researchers concluded those who are approached for a favor are under social pressure to be benevolent, because saying no might them look bad—to themselves or others. (After all, everyone is sensitive to reviews.)


It’s that perception of altruism that motivates some reviewers, and that’s some of the surprisingly good news that might make your own foray a bit easier than expected. Jon Hall, chief executive and founder of Bloomfield, New Jersey-based, has written extensively on the topic of customer reviews and says the vast majority are positive, regardless of the product, service, industry or online community. “There is no need to ask for a ‘good’ or ‘positive’ review. Just ask for a review, ask for feedback,” he says.


Yelp_PQ.jpgHall’s company, as well as Bittan’s, tries to steer customer reviews toward a company’s preferred online destination. uses a platform that directs customers to a landing page, where a business owner can “funnel” their feedback to a review site they care about most, be it Foursquare, TripAdvisor, Google+, Yelp, or a dozen more. Bittan’s service provides a direct channel to the business owner, where compliments or complaints are acknowledged in real time. Both aim to take the steam out of the fieriest of missives from angry clients: first, by making the process of filing good reviews easier for happy customers and swelling those numbers; second, by giving unhappy clients the attention they need from those who can actually help them.  


For businesses now, the stakes are particularly high on Yelp, in more ways than one. The site has more than 100-million unique visitors a month worldwide, via its website and apps, and a recent Nielsen survey reported four out of five of its users consult the site before they spend money. A 2011 Harvard Business School survey found that restaurants that boosted their rating by one full star on Yelp saw their annual revenue increase five to nine percent.


But there’s also a very delicate balance small businesses must maintain when soliciting glowing reports.


For its part, Yelp discourages businesses from asking customers for positive feedback on the site. In its FAQ, it says “These self-selected reviews tell only part of the story, and we don’t think that’s fair to consumers. We would much rather hear from members of the Yelp community who are inspired to talk about their experiences without a business owner’s encouragement.”

Any savvy Internet user can spot the obvious inside jobs. But along with filters that try to weed out phony reviews, Yelp has been active in pursuing those attempting to game the system. In late 2012, the site launched what it termed a sting operation, and exposed dozens of businesses that solicited positive reports from undercover “elite” Yelp users with offers of cash payments. In September, the New York state attorney general fined 19 reputation management companies for fake online reviews on several major sites, including Yelp, Google Local, and CitySearch.

All of which makes a genuine rave more meaningful. So what’s the right way to ask for a review?

Bittar says do it “in the moment,” when the goodwill is fresh and top-of-mind. Here is some advice from her and Hall on how to approach a customer:

SBC newsletter logo.gif1. Explain why you’re asking. Put it at the bottom of receipts or in signage in your shop, and say something like “Please let the rest of the world know that we did a good job. Online reviews are one of the most important drivers of our business.”


2. Link it to a customer’s identity as a local shopper, or just a good person. Use messages like “We’ve been serving the [town name] for more than two decades” or “Please show your kindness and support by letting your social media followers know.”


3. Have a tangible reminder, and try to stay unbiased. Hall’s clients hand their customers a postcard asking them to write a review. It reads: “Help us. Help others. You’re invited to review X.”


Social media has given everyone a voice, for better or worse, but for small businesses, it’s how you deal with it that matters, Bittar says. “It still all comes down to giving great service,” she says. “And the way the world is going, the bar has been raised for everyone. You have to wow them. And it’s that much harder.”

ArtofSale_Body.jpgby Robert Lerose.


The goal of a salesperson is to sell something on behalf of a business, to get the customer's signature on the dotted line. Some salespeople think of this as their only objective, before they race off to the next prospect. But master salespeople understand that selling is a process that involves listening to the prospect, mirroring the way they communicate, leading them step-by-step to a decision, and getting their feedback after they've used your product over time. We asked three sales experts to share some of their techniques and insights for managing the process and closing deals more often.


Keep the ball rolling

"The biggest obstacle that most salespeople face is that they don't realize that probably 95 percent of the people they're dealing with are not in the buying mode. They are in the status quo mode," says Jill Konrath, author of SNAP Selling. "But these people are really where the biggest opportunities lie if you can show them how their life will be better by making a change."


The first step is to explain how your product or service will have a positive impact on their life. Instead of boring the prospect with a dry recitation of bullet points, Konrath likes to tell stories about how other customers with similar problems reached their goals when they made a purchase.


Next, salespeople should ask a lot of questions to find out what the prospect is trying to accomplish—then, take a few days before getting back to them. "You're showing them that you're actually going to spend time thinking about their situation, and people appreciate that," Konrath says.


After the salesperson presents options at the follow-up meeting, the prospect may ask for time to think about them. Konrath says to be understanding, but suggest a definite course of action to guide them along. For example, a salesperson selling in a business-to-business setting could say: "I know this is a lot to think about. Usually when we work with people in your situation, the logical next step is to get the IT person involved. Why don't we set up another meeting to get that person involved right away to determine if our solution will work with your system?"


After the sale is made, Konrath highly recommends interviewing the new customer once they've had time to use your product. The contrast between what they had been using and the improved performance of your product will be fresh in their mind, and you can use their laudatory comments in a future customer presentation.


ArtofSale_PQ.jpgShow that they deserve it

"A lot of salespeople think that if they could become a better negotiator, they could sell more," says John Palumbo, CEO of The Sales DNA Institute. "Instead they should learn how to influence their customer's way of thinking."


Like Konrath, Palumbo is a firm believer in listening attentively to the prospect's problems and then sharing the success stories of other customers. Another hot button technique to persuade the prospect is what Palumbo calls the "deserve it" factor.


"Salespeople have to help their prospective buyers understand how they deserve their product more than anything," Palumbo explains. "I like to see salespeople shift over into the mindset of the customer from not whether they need or want the product, but that they deserve it. The prospect doesn't say that out loud, but that's what going on subconsciously: we earned it."


A third strategy is to harness the power of numbers to make the advantages of buying really come into focus in the prospect's mind. Palumbo likes a two-sided technique that he calls "enlarging to the magnificent"—magnifying the benefits that the product or service delivers—or "reducing to the ridiculous," which shows how the cost of the product over time is a bargain.


"I don't mean skewing numbers," Palumbo says. "I just mean knowing your numbers inside out so it causes [an unsure prospect] to reverse their thinking."


Make it easy

"You don't get very far when you get stuck on the way you like to communicate over the way your customer likes to communicate," says Laurie Brown, a communications and customer service expert at The Difference. "[Salespeople should] listen to their style. When you can meet them and match them, it's far more effective to persuade them."


For example, Brown identifies people as either "towards" people—goal setters who have long-range plans—or "away from" people, who are more interested in solving problems. When trying to close a deal with a "towards" person, the salesperson could focus on the positive benefits gained from buying the product or service. With an "away from" person, emphasizing the risk management attributes would resonate more with them.


SBC newsletter logo.gifWhile price is a consideration in any purchase, there is another item that buyers focus on today. "I think what people really want more than anything else is for everything to be easy," Brown says. "They want the process easy. Buying from you should be easy. Using your product or service should be easy. If you can make things easy—whatever that might look like in your circumstance—that's a place where value gets built. As consumers, we have less time, less patience, and we just want easy."


If a potential client says that he or she needs time to think about making the final buying decision, Brown will invariably ask what they need to think about. Then she will send them something of value, such as an article that addresses their concern, to inform and help them come to a decision—again, making it easy for them.


"If you always have their best interests at heart," Brown says, "the more trust you'll have and the more likely you can close the deal."

BizIncubators_Body.jpgby Robert Lerose.


According to the National Business Incubation Association (NBIA), 87 percent of entrepreneurs who entered some type of incubation program were still in business after three years. Incubators come in a variety of forms, each catering to particular industry categories. For example, special purpose incubators could specialize in biotechnical or software start-ups. A mixed-use incubator may provide both industrial and office space. And some incubators focus on white-collar professional services. Doing your due diligence when investigating incubators can often pay off handsomely in the growth of your business. (To find a business incubator near you, use this NBIA guide.)


Do your research

"Incubators are broad in scope, depending on the community where they are located and the type of space available," says Jasper Welch, CEO of the NBIA.


Welch offers a five-point process to help entrepreneurs find the right incubator that satisfies their business needs. First, an incubator that is a member of NBIA assures that they adhere to professional standards and conduct. Second, talk to graduates or current incubator occupants to find out about their experience. Third, be ready to take your business to the next level by having some kind of business plan or outline for your future growth. Fourth, make sure that the incubator supports your type of product or service. The fifth point is what Welch calls the magic factor.


"If you take all those things—your business, your dreams, the incubator and what they offer—will they work [together]?" Welch says. "If you're in a large metropolitan area and there are choices, you can look around. In other cases, your choices might be limited and you'll need to make some adjustment to fit within that incubator."


Fees range across the board—some incubators charge as low as $100 a month—but again, you need to be clear on what you get for your money, such as space, phone and Internet services, marketing or branding advice, and so on.


Some start-ups may be lucky to find angel investors willing to invest in their company, but typically not at the beginning. "Many businesses that come into an incubator are either debt-financed or use personal funds," Welch says. "Incubators will connect you with financial resources, but they don't necessarily have money [to hand out]." 


Getting past the obstacles

Incubators are often associated with the development of high-tech products, but even more conventional product categories—such as food start-ups—can find a suitable place to experiment and innovate.


BizIncubators_PQ.jpg"If you have an idea or concept for a food product, the regulatory and production hurdles and the ability to understand how to get your products into larger markets is just enormous," says Chris Reedy, executive director of

Blue Ridge Food Ventures, a North Carolina not-for-profit food incubator. "We offer folks an on-ramp that allows them to approach these kinds of issues as it pertains to making a food-based product."


Blue Ridge has three production kitchens, as well as a team of experts that provide help on a range of issues, such as product development, food safety training, cost analysis, and sales projections. Fees run about $30/hour for kitchen time, with additional fees for storage. For the time being, Blue Ridge does not charge for their support services.


Since opening its doors in July 2005, Blue Ridge has had about 230 entrepreneurs pass through, 31 of which have moved on to expand their business elsewhere. Others have dropped out because they  realized that food production was not for them, or have simply moved on to other opportunities in the food service industry, such as operating food trucks.


But even the clients who don’t graduate out of the incubator can meet with success. "We had a client who started at the facility less than six months after we opened and she is still here," Reedy says. "She had a chocolate product that addresses a specific niche in the raw foods market. She's probably the largest business at the facility now, and employs about 10 people twice a week. She's got a great business."


Network, then move on

When Outreach Promotional Services outgrew its home space, they relocated to the Dublin Entrepreneurial Center, an Ohio-based incubator that offered them a new facility with high-tech features—and more.


SBC newsletter logo.gif"Because the rent is subsidized by the city, we probably pay 60 percent of what we would normally pay for this kind of office space," says Nevin Bansil, Outreach’s CEO. "Then there's the networking. There are more than 100 businesses in the center. We've actually had the chance to work on some projects with a company here in partnership. A lot of times you can't meet those kinds of people when it's your home space."


Bansil plans to move out in under two years. After an initial six-month contract, he pays on a month-to-month basis. The center brings in outside speakers who can pitch their products and services to the occupants, and Dublin's own clients are allowed to make presentations as well.


"Take advantage of the things that are going to help you grow your business in an incubator," Bansil says. "Network—you never know what's going to come out of that. If you keep your head down all the time, you're not taking full advantage of the incubator space. Be cognizant that it's going to be a temporary address. Have a plan to move out in two to three years and make sure you're working toward that."

Filter Article

By tag: