Heidi Lamar is a marketing genius. Long before online reviews went mainstream, she was building Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Spa Lamar with old-fashioned networking techniques. She partnered with hotels that lacked spas to offer services to their guests; she offered free treatments to Phoenix Suns’ cheerleaders in exchange for advertising in game-day programs. Her sales went from $500,000 to $1 million in less than three years.
But it wasn’t until she tapped into the power of online reviews that her company became a household name in the Greater Phoenix Area. I sat down with Lamar to hear how she leverages reviews for continued business success.
Have you always wanted to be a spa owner?
Not really (laughs). I actually fell into this business. I was in real estate and bought this building back in 2004; I thought I was buying a building with three tenants, one of which was a spa. It turned out that the owner didn’t want to keep the business. I hired a new director, that director quit and within a few months I found myself running the spa.
With some marketing effort, we got written up quite a bit in local press and customers flooded in. We’ve been busy since we opened.
When did you first hear about online reviews?
I found out about Yelp, specifically, in 2005 from my customers. They told me about the platform, so I joined. I never solicited reviews, but made sure to respond within 24 hours to each review. I’d say 90 percent of our guests tell me that they come through our doors because of a review they read on Yelp.
That is an incredible conversion rate. Could you tell me about your response process?
Responding presents a tremendous opportunity for business owners. If your customers take the time to sit down and write something about you, it is the least you can do to take the time to thank them for it. When there is a bad review, you can tell them how you are planning to make corrections to improve.
I think all entrepreneurs should respond to all of their reviews. Do it with kindness and care and remember that everyone can see a public reply. So, if you are feeling emotionally heated it is a good idea to take a moment before hitting “send.”
What else has come out of your love for/dedication to online reviews?
I joined Yelp’s Small Business Advisory Council about three years ago. They fly you to San Francisco once a year to discuss what is working and not working in the real world in a group setting. Yelp will have us test things—like a few years ago we tested a new version of the app—and we get to speak about our personal experiences.
I like to speak publicly so last year I gave a presentation called “Champagne Marketing On a Bottled Water Budget” about how to leverage reviews, how to respond and how to make sure your voice is being heard. It is a great opportunity to interface with the leaders at Yelp and make change.
What has surprised you the most about Yelp and online reviews in general?
A couple years ago, prospective employees started telling me that online reviews had inspired them to apply at Spa Lamar. Since then, a lot of employees have told me that. They say that they want to work for a place that is positively received by the community.
This surprised not only me but also Jeremy Stoppelman (Yelp’s co-founder and CEO) when I told him about it at the most recent advisory council meeting. It makes sense, though. Online reviews are all about your reputation as a business, and reputation is important for every relationship including when you are buying from someone or working for someone.