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"Brought my ‘84 Mercedes 380 SL for an estimate. The front frame / sway bar bracket had serious damage and needed a replacement part welded on. As a woman and a welder, I’m suspicious of mechanics who are slimy, condescending or vague. Unfortunately, the guys I interacted with at Euro. Collision Center, were all these things.”

So begins an online review of San Francisco–based European Collision Center on Yelp.com. The site aims to “connect people with great local businesses” through feedback from folks like San Francisco’s “Tulip F.,” who gave European Collision a rating of one out of five possible stars.

“Fed up w/ their ogling, and shady service” she continued, "I took my car to Will’s Auto Body Shop. Will charged me a total of $150 to repair the damage. Plus, he looked me in the eye, and articulated the repair work to my complete satisfaction. … Go to Will’s Auto Body Shop.”

Online since 2004, Yelp’s mantra is “Real People. Real Reviews.” Not too long ago, an unhappy customer like Tulip F. might’ve ranted to a few friends about her experience, or called the shop to vent to the manager. Instead she shared her beef with the 26 million people who visit Yelp each month. That’s the downside of real people giving real reviews.

The upside is that European Collision Center, owned by Dennis Kirkpatrick, has an overall rating of 4.5 out of five stars, based on 18 reviews. Only one other is negative, and not nearly as scathing as Tulip F.’s screed. In fact, most of European Collision’s reviews are all but glowing:

“You want something done with prestige topped with excellent service, you get it done at European Collision Center.”—Nick V.

“In a world where everyone is out to screw their neighbor for a quick buck ... you can count on Eurpoean [sic] Collision center for being the exception and taking care of their customers.”—Jason B.

“I hope I never have to see them again ... but if I did I would go back in a heartbeat.”—Lena D.

Some shop operators have used Yelp as a business tool to help them improve their service, engage with customers and market themselves to new customers. Yelp allows businesses to send messages to reviewers, post photos and describe business offerings and hours for free. For a fee, business owners gain a measure of control over how their shop is portrayed on the site. So why invest your time and possibly your money monitoring online comments? Because thousands of collision repair shops across the nation have been reviewed on Yelp, whether they know it or not.

The Price of Yelp

For small shops with a limited marketing budget, Yelp can be a solid tool to build community awareness about the business, and ultimately to bring more customers through the door. “Word-of-mouth is the best advertising there is,” says Kirkpatrick. And that’s what Yelp amounts to: online word-of-mouth advertising.

Any body shop manager knows there are going to be unreasonable customers, Kirkpatrick says. Consumers are able to post any comments they want, as misinformed or nonfactual as they might be.

“As long as you run a business with a focus on customer service, you don’t have to worry about your reputation.”
—Luther Lowe, Yelp's manager of business outreach

However, Yelp employees have found an overwhelming majority of the information reported on the website to be accurate, says Luther Lowe, Yelp’s manager of business outreach. The site has more than nine million reviews, and according to Yelp’s statistics, 85 percent of the reviews rate businesses as three out of five stars or higher. Further, the site uses an automated filter to delete “fake, shrill or malicious reviews.”

The direct way to deal with negative reviews, especially unfair ones, is to sign up for a paid account. That allows business owners to reply to a negative reviewer either publicly on Yelp, or more discreetly through email, and to select a favorite review that precedes their full list of reviews. Paid accounts get periodic top-billing in the search results as a “sponsored result.” A sponsored result may also be highlighted on the profile of a competing, nonsponsored business, in a box labeled “You Might Also Consider” that displays the sponsored shop’s favorite review. Any nonsponsored business risks having a competitor’s banner splashed across the middle of their page, says Lowe.
Kirkpatrick pays $150 per month to be a Yelp Sponsor, and he says it’s money well-spent.

Yelp Freely, and with Confidence

The free version of Yelp still delivers ample benefits, says Rick Ibarra-Rivera, shop manager for Reliable Auto Body in San Francisco. On his nonsponsored Yelp page, Ibarra-Rivera posts special offers, photos and general customer communications. Being reviewed by customers is valuable, he says, and the positive comments tend to outweigh the negative ones.

Those good comments are what drive people to contact the shop. “It’s one thing for a business to claim they’re honest and do great work, but it’s so much more valuable coming from an unbiased customer,” Ibarra-Rivera says.

Whether or not you pay for your page on Yelp, you can use the site to your shop’s advantage:

Read every review posted about your shop. Kirkpatrick makes sure he stays up-to-date on postings about his shop so he can respond to them in a timely manner.

Use customer compliments to reinforce to your staff the good business practices that should be maintained, Kirkpatrick says.

Don’t ignore negative comments. Kirkpatrick has received two negative comments since his business has been on Yelp, and he responded promptly to both of them. “If you ignore the negative, you’re putting your business in jeopardy,” he says.

Turn a bad situation into a good one. If you do receive a negative comment, contact that person and try to make it right with them, Kirkpatrick says. Some businesses have won their most loyal customers this way, says Lowe, who points out that customers are often impressed by a business’s initiative to bring a resolution to a problem. They tell their friends about the business’s willingness to go out of their way to correct a situation. Those moments increase valuable word-of-mouth marketing, which can lead to more customers and drive sales.

Adapt your business practices to ensure negative situations don’t happen again. After the experience with the put-off customer, Kirkpatrick instructed his employees to spend more time with customers. “We coached our employees to explain the methodology in how an estimate was written the way it was,” Kirkpatrick says about Tulip F.’s dissatisfaction with the shop’s estimate-writing process.

Working with Word-of-Mouth

Reliable Auto Body doesn’t have a strong Web presence, so word-of-mouth marketing has always been essential to the shop’s success. Yelp has helped by increasing consumer awareness of the shop online and in the community, says Ibarra-Rivera.

People don’t search Yelp for collision-based services for fun, Lowe says. If a consumer is searching Yelp for an automotive shop, they are likely in the market to get work done.

“Yelp has allowed small, independent businesses to benefit from online word-of-mouth [marketing],” Lowe says. “As long as you run a business with a focus on customer service, you don’t have to worry about your reputation.”

Taking a hit on Yelp can signal when your shop’s reputation might be in jeopardy. After Tulip F.’s negative review, Kirkpatrick used the experience to create a teachable moment for his staff.

“Being publicly blasted can really hurt your credibility,” Kirkpatrick says. But in the long run, he says, the experience helped him run his shop better. “There can be a lot of constructive criticism, which dramatically helps improve the business.”
 

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