Below is a transcript of a speech I give to local business owners. It’s basically a lesson in how to be a responsible business owner, and a responsible consumer. It’s been slightly edited to make it easier to read. Enjoy.

Today, I’d like to discuss how online reviews can make or break your business. More importantly, I want to examine this through a customer-centric lens. As in, instead of talking about how we can garner good reviews through manipulation or techniques meant to game the system, let’s talk about how we can get good reviews by pleasing the customer in an organic way.

Before I jump in, let me start by giving you a little background information about who I am and what it is that I do. I am a digital marketing consultant, a blogger and someone who might not have all the answers, but who’s had more than a bit of experience in the online marketing world. When I say I don’t have “all the answers,” what I mean is that I firmly believe that there is no magic bullet that one can unleash in order to give their brand a strong online presence overnight. I believe that different companies have different needs; however, there are certain basic techniques and concepts that I think can be helpful to all businesses.

There are countless webinars, seminars and blogs devoted to teaching businesses how to promote their brand online, especially through social media. These days, even those of us who aren’t particularly tech savvy know that Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms are essential to building your brand, increasing visibility and raising profits.

However, I don’t see a lot of attention being paid to what I as a professional consider to be the most important digital marketing strategy in the current era, which is having a positive presence on customer review websites like Yelp.

The History of Customer Reviews

To understand the importance of a website like Yelp, let’s think about the history of customer reviews. Fifty years ago, customer reviews came in two forms. There was, of course, the professional critic, who would critique a restaurant or a brand in a written publication. We still have those today, naturally. I’ve personally never put too much stock in the value of professional critics and a quick glance at the user review section of any Rotten Tomatoes page would show that I’m not alone. I don’t think customers were or have ever been truly influenced by professional critics. But that was one of the earlier forms of brand criticism.

The second form, which I consider to be the granddaddy of a site like Yelp, was word of mouth. In our parents’ and grandparents’ day, if they were going to make a major buying decision, they were going to consult with family and friends. If a store in an area had a reputation for being overpriced or for employing rude people, this information would spread via word of mouth and business would diminish. This is where the “customer is always right” mentality sprang from. Businesses understood how quickly word of their ineptitude could make it around a neighborhood. This is why great customer service was essential.

Valuing the Opinions of Friends and Family, or not.

Today, word of mouth reviews don’t hold as much weight. It’s not that you all don’t value the opinions of your family and friends – well, maybe there’s a few whose opinions you don’t value. I have one or two I can think of who I always take with a grain of salt. No, word of mouth hasn’t lost its value because we’ve stopped valuing the opinions of our friends, but rather because the scope of our buying power has expanded.

So, if you’ve found an obscure online retailer that looks promising but you’re unsure, it’s not all that likely that you have any real world friends who’ve purchased from them. It also has to do with the rise of chain stores. Most of us aren’t going to take the time to ask where the best place is to buy a microwave, because we know that the answer will probably be Walmart or Sears. We know where to buy things.

Enter the world of online review sites like Yelp. Yelp allows any person, in a matter of seconds, to look up a business and instantly see whether or not they have good reviews from the general public. It also allows customers to instantly air their grievances. In the old days, if you wanted to air a grievance, you had to file with the Better Business Bureau. Most people don’t want to go through the trouble of that unless they’ve been somehow scammed or defrauded. You didn’t have an outlet through which to merely alert others about poor customer service or a faulty product.

Who’s Controlling Your Message?

Let’s say you’re a restaurant owner and your entire staff is having a bad day. The kitchen is sending out tasteless food, the waitstaff is giving the customers attitude. Do you know the scariest thing that a patron can do in that situation? It’s not walking out on their tab. Rather, it’s pulling out their smartphone. In a minute or so, they can relay their experience to the entire world. This puts the consumer in control of your message.

I’m a really big fan of talking about plumbers when I’m talking about online reviews. Let’s say that it’s the 1970s and your hot water heater springs a leak. Water is soaking your basement and it’s the 70s, so you probably have shag carpeting, which means if you don’t take care of it quickly there’ll be mildew everywhere. What do you do in this situation?…

You go to the phone book. You go to the phone book and you call the first plumber that you see. You’re not going to take the time to call up a friend and ask them who they recommend, especially if the water level is rising. You’re going to pick who has the nicest ad in the phonebook.

Today, if your hot water heater springs a leak – hopefully none of you still have shag carpeting – you’re still on a time crunch, sure. But consulting Yelp, consulting Angie’s List… it takes just as much time as flipping through the phone book. You can quickly access not only a list of plumbers, but a list of plumbers ranked by overall rating. In a matter of minutes, you can skim the reviews and check for any red flags. You don’t care about their blog’s keyword optimization, you don’t care about the company’s strong Facebook presence… all you care about is a list of plumbers and the voices of real people who’ve hired them.

That’s what I’m talking about when I talk about the power of online reviews.

How do we get those positive reviews?

The biggest question I get asked, then, is how? How do we get those positive reviews? And that brings me to my point about the importance of being customer-centric. Yes, there are steps you can take towards garnering more online reviews. You can put up signs urging people to review your company on Yelp. That’s what I call the “passive approach.” Or, you can take what I call the “active approach,” which is offering a discount of some sort in exchange for a customer showing that they left a review.

However, the best way to get good reviews is what I call the “organic approach,” and that’s great customer service. Two years ago, I began working with a client. A dentist. She was passionate about what she did, she was passionate about her practice, but she had a handful of reviews and a two-star rating… which is downright toxic for any business.

When she came to me, I don’t think she was expecting me to push the organic approach. I think she was expecting me to behave like some sort of computer hacker from the movies: “Oh, we can fix those bad reviews with this special secret code I bought from some Russian hackers. There, you’re all set! Thanks to my special internet expert powers, you’re a five star business!”

She thought she was coming to me for a magic fix. But there was no magic fix.

There is No Magic Fix

What I ended up doing for her was coming into her business, looking around, and seeing a lot of things that were wrong. A lot of things that weren’t designed with the patient in mind. Something I want you to remember is that Yelpers and online reviewers are not the “enemy.” This is a dangerous mindset that I see in far too many business owners. When I walked into her practice, I didn’t see the two-star reviewer as my enemy. Rather, I saw him as a person just like me. I could see what he found wrong when he stepped foot in her business. I could put myself in his shoes, and in his shoes, I would have left the same review.

Ultimately, the best thing I could do for her as an internet marketing expert didn’t come in the form of keywords or optimization. It came from me sitting down with she and her staff and coming up with a plan on how we could fix what wasn’t working, improve on the good qualities and ultimately create a practice where patients felt valued, respected and satisfied. And we worked hard at this. We didn’t stop. We focused on creating a customer-centric business.

Today her practice has over 200 Yelp reviews and over 80 Google reviews. 95% percent of those reviews are five stars. Her business has tripled and she just opened her second location.

Yelpers Are Not The Enemy

Remember what I said about Yelpers not being the enemy. I can’t stress this enough. Yelpers were the reason why that dentist was able to open a second location. If your business has bad Yelp reviews, you’d be a fool to blame the reviewers and not yourself.

I see so many digital marketing professionals who act as if Yelp is a hindrance, who act as if Yelp is this massive inconvenience that they’ve been burdened with. It’s utterly bizarre to me. If you’re in the business of marketing to or appealing to customers, the fact that you would have scorn for those very customers shows me that you might be in the wrong line of work.

I don’t think the rise of online review websites is a bad thing; in fact, I’d go so far to say that it’s overwhelmingly positive for society at large. There are some truly sleazy companies out there. Companies that only care about a fast buck, who have no qualms about ripping off their customers. In the old days, those companies got away with it time and time again with no penalties. Today, that’s changed. Unscrupulous companies get what they deserve. And great companies, companies that are truly focused on their customers, get the praise, popularity and success that they deserve.

Ultimately, my advice to any company that wants to improve its standing on Yelp has nothing to do with my experience in internet marketing. It has to do with the most organic, basic business advice of all: The customer is always right. If you can provide outstanding service, if you can put your heart and soul into your product and you can really invest all you have into pleasing your consumer, then you’ll get the positive reviews on Yelp that your business needs to thrive. Remember, it’s about the people. If you can’t accept that, then like I said, you’re in the wrong line of work.

Thank you very much.