What Angie's List Knows About Customer Reviews

When we started Angie's List in 1995 — going door-to-door in Columbus, OH to find reliable contractors for my co-founder's home — our goals were simple: recruit members and collect reviews. After 16 years and millions of reviews, we are still in the same game.

Customers want to talk. And it doesn't matter what you are — small plumbing service or Fortune 500 — feedback matters. Turning testimonials into a tool rather than a threat takes understanding. Understand what your customers are saying, where they are saying it, and (most important) why they are saying it.

But today's sea of online feedback can be tricky to navigate, with a mix of both valuable and unreliable reviews. Take the following into consideration to make the right moves in responding to customers:

Not all comments are created equal. In a survey of more than 600 companies whose customers rate them on Angie's List, two-thirds said they regularly surf the web to read what their customers are saying about them. That's good practice, but evaluating a comment's source is equally important. Anonymous reviews should never receive the same attention as authored comments. Any malicious-minded competitor can easily spark dishonest discussion about your product or service. It's good business practice to engage with customers, but don't waste time worrying about nameless reviewers who offer no opportunity for resolution.

Look at bad reviews as the first step to seeking a solution. I've seen service and health providers respond in drastically different ways to negative feedback. The overwhelming success strategy: understand your customer and develop an honest approach to resolution. Post your own response and offer a way to turn the situation around. In our annual review of customer comments, we found that the companies most willing to reach out to clients submitting feedback are most likely to sport a top grade. Your customer interaction rarely has to end in irreconcilable differences. No matter the reviewer, an olive branch should always be extended when the forum allows such action.

Never underestimate the power of people. At Angie's List, we have a service staff dedicated to helping members. Whether you need help picking a roofer or logging in to the website, our members can speak to a live person located at our headquarters in Indianapolis, IN. And don't shy away from involving your senior staff in customer service: I regularly take calls from both frustrated companies and customers, and personally thank our longest-retained members. One-on-one interaction can nix negativity before it spreads and inspire support from the regularly reserved.

Take the discussion inside. It's clear, at least from the companies on Angie's List, that most businesses want to respond to customers. Of the companies we surveyed who actively look for online reviews, more than 80 percent have responded to comments. Almost 10 percent made staff changes as a result of what the feedback, and more than half took measures to improve customer communication. If you are willing to reach out to the customer, allow your customer to reach out to you. I frequently do online chats with members to talk about anything related to our service. You can also create forums for product or service discussion, allow customers to post video testimonials, and keep social media outlets active to promote client responses. It's great to have your customers preaching your product beyond your site and social media channels. But it's easiest to respond when the conversation is happening right in front of you. Keep your company comment-friendly and you're likely to encourage both.

Good companies are always going respond to customers. But the best organizations prioritize and strategize before responding. Keep your approach evolving and evaluate the platforms where customers are talking. An aggressive approach to customer communication can be a key tool to engaging them.