Local small businesses can no longer bank on a conveniently situated storefront in these competitive times. They have to engage with consumers online, something not every entrepreneur is accustomed to doing, much less prioritizing.
Overall, local businesses "need to do a better job of connecting with their customers," Paul Bascobert, president of Local at Yodle, an Internet marketing services firm, told Small Business Computing. One crucial area many small companies are neglecting is online reviews.
In a survey commissioned by Yodle, Research Now found that 76 percent of consumers are on the lookout for online reviews for local businesses. Thirty-six percent of respondents said reviews help set a business apart while 40 percent just plain expect to see reviews. The results, found in the free report Yodle Insights: What Consumers Want from Local Businesses (registration required), were compiled by polling 6,000 consumers in the U.S.
More than 60 percent of those surveyed appreciate the ability to leave feedback, yet few businesses encourage them to do so. Reviews, once a neat complement to a small business' online presence, have "moved into the must-have domain," Bascobert said.
A Missed Marketing Opportunity
A mere 7 percent of consumers have been asked to write a review of a local business. Yet most people—89 percent, in fact—would gladly post their feedback if they had a positive experience and were simply asked.
Timing is important. Yodle's report suggests asking "when your customer is smiling," that moment when an exemplary experience or transaction makes everyone on both sides of the counter happy. Yodle also suggests getting employees involved and making it easy to post a review.
And don't panic over the occasional negative review, said Bascobert. Although it may sting at first, on balance, its impact is very limited.
Think of your own shopping experience. Consumers today are savvy, he argued. A glowing five-star average sets off alarm bells with today's sophisticated shoppers.
People expect a ding here and there. "It didn't bother them to see a negative review," Bascobert said. If great reviews greatly outnumber the negative ones, most businesses will discover that they can prosper just fine with a 4.5-star rating.
Stepping Up Your Online Marketing Game
The days of set-and-forget websites are over. Consumers won't put up with a subpar online experience, regardless of the size of the business.
"Software and automation have raised the stakes," said Bascobert. "Uber, Amazon and iTunes… These technology innovations have really raised expectations of what customers expect."
As such, a slim majority of survey takers (56 percent) expect improved, mobile-friendly websites from local businesses over the next 12 months. Fifty-seven percent feel that providing special offers to returning customers helps set their business apart.
It also helps to keep in mind how you deliver those offers and other communications. Most shoppers, 69 percent, prefer email while 14 percent like phone calls. Text messages and social media tied were tied at 7 percent while snail mail trailed at 3 percent.
Compete on Quality and Customer Service, Not Price
One sure-fire way of dooming your business is to engage in a price war with big box stores. Instead, focus on delivering excellent products, services and customer experiences.
Practically all consumers (96 percent) believe that local businesses are better at personalizing service than national chains. Sure, consumers know that those giants offer better bargains (77 percent), but most (72 percent) don't mind paying more for better quality. A whopping 88 percent feel local businesses offer better customer service overall.
"Intuitively, it isn't surprising," said Bascobert. Delivering more personalized service helps consumers feel like "a bigger customer to a smaller business."
Pedro Hernandez is a contributing editor at Small Business Computing. Follow him on Twitter @ecoINSITE.
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