Bryan Clayton’s business, GreenPal, a company that screens lawn companies, gathers bids, and schedules lawn care service online in seven major U.S. cities, lives and dies by its online reviews — especially those on Yelp. A good review can bring in tens of thousands of dollars of business; a bad review can take away just as much (sometimes more).
So when Clayton turned on his computer in 2014 - just a year after launching his company - and saw a scathing review on Yelp, his heart dropped. “The reviewer explained that he hired someone on the (GreenPal) app to mow his lawn and it went horribly wrong,” he says.
Upon closer inspection, Clayton and his team learned that the reviewer had not used GreenPal at all, but had submitted a bid for lawn work at such a low rate that it didn’t garner a response from an interested lawn care company.
“He was ticked because he couldn’t get a mow for $20, but he didn’t actually use our system; he never hired anyone,” says Clayton. “We reported it to Yelp, but they didn’t do anything.”
Clayton was only operating in Nashville at the time, but wanted to expand rapidly and didn’t want to be hampered by bad online reviews. This Yelp comment rocked him to his core, so he and his team built a message into the GreenPal app suggesting customers give them a review if they had a good experience.
“Yeah, that didn’t work very well,” says Clayton. “We got a few reviews after a while, but we knew that at that rate it would have taken two years to bury the bad one.”
His team needed to do something so out of the ordinary that customers would be inspired to write a positive comment, unsolicited. They got creative and decided to tap into their customers’ love for pets. The team revised the registration form to find out if customers had a pet, and if so, what type and the pet’s name. About one in 10 signups filled out that portion of the application.
“Then, a member of our team would send the dog or cat a handwritten note —addressed to the animal—saying that we’d alerted our vendor to your existence and they know to be careful around you,” says Clayton. “We would put a dog/cat treat in the envelope and write that we appreciated their business.”
How did they think up such a creative review-generating tactic?
“As the saying goes, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention,’” Clayton says.
The plan worked beautifully. Within a few weeks of the first mailings, reviews came pouring in. Even better: Customers were so touched by the gesture that they posted photos of the dog notes and treats to Instagram and Facebook, tagging GreenPal. Pretty soon, the bad Yelp review was a distant memory; it had been buried with positive notes from genuinely happy customers.
Two years and 10,000 customers later, GreenPal still sends about 50 handwritten notes to pet owners per week. “Gene, my co-founder, used to spend half of his Saturday writing them, but now he has an assistant that helps out,” says Clayton. “It still takes a while, but it is worth it. So much of our web traffic comes directly from Yelp pages.”
Advice for business owners
While negative reviews are quite common for any type of business, entrepreneurs can increase their chances of good reviews.
“You have to be proactive about it; come up with some kind of plan to get a review,” he recommends. “You can’t fix the problem by just asking your customers to give you a review. There is so much friction for someone to go online, find your business, create a Yelp account and give you a review. You have to do something other than just ask.”
Innovative ideas and stellar customer service won’t save every company, though. If a business is continually on the receiving end of negative reviews, it may be time to look inward.
“If there is legitimacy to what they are saying, you need to fix the problem,” he says. “Otherwise you are spinning your wheels.”