According to Forrester Research, 71 percent of online shoppers read reviews before making a purchase. And most search engine optimization (SEO) experts agree that customer reviews play a big role in boosting your visibility online and rankings in local search engine results. Even offline, a glowing, positive word of mouth referralfrom a happy customer to a friend is likely to generate far more sales than most paid advertising can.

Why customers like to provide reviews. Most people like to share their opinions if you ask them. Every time you ask a customer to provide feedback on a purchase, it makes them feel important and valued—like they weren’t just another transaction. It demonstrates to them that you really care about what they think and you want to keep them happy. Customers also like feeling that they’re involved and contributing to the process of making your business better.

The top reason businesses don’t get reviews. Given the immense value reviews and ratings can have on a business, it’s important to make sure yours is getting its fair share. The number one reason most businesses don’t get reviews and referrals isn’t because they aren’t good at what they do or customers are too busy to provide them. It’s simply because many businesses don’t ask for reviews or make it easy for customers to do it. So we’ve put together a list of 12 offline and online ways for small businesses to ask for customer reviews and referrals.

1) Ask for them. It sounds ridiculously simple, but if you don’t ask for reviews, you probably won’t get them. Businesses have to get in the habit of asking for customer reviews as close to the point of customer satisfaction as possible. That point is usually right after the purchase or once they’ve had a chance to try out their purchase. If you don’t ask, they’ll assume you’re not interested. Few customers—happy or not—will provide feedback unless invited to do so. According to a study done by TARP, a research firm, for every customer who complains, there are 26 who do not. That’s a lot of people who won’t be coming back simply because you weren’t interested in their experience. Existing customers are more valuable than new customers because they are more likely to buy from you again. So it makes a lot of sense to get their feedback and keep them happy.

2) Make it easy. Don’t believe for a minute that a customer doesn’t like the opportunity to provide feedback. Most people will take at least two seconds to click on a simple star rating system. If they really are too busy, they will politely decline or ignore the comment card. But the easier you can make it for customers to review their experience with you, the more feedback you will receive. Provide opportunities at every turn with multiple touch points to attract a broader range of responders. Some people will prefer online surveys, while others will prefer filling out a postcard. If they bought it online, they’ll probably be interested in reviewing it online. Also, provide the opportunity to offer anonymous feedback for those who are hesitant to give their name.

3) Create an online survey. There are a number of online survey companies such as that can make it very easy to gather feedback via Web-based surveys. Many are easy-to-use, fast, efficient and an inexpensive way to gather data from customers. If your business has a Facebook page, you can even create a survey for free using the Questions tool.

4) Offer incentives. Encourage customers to provide reviews by offering an incentive such as a chance to win something of value. The idea is to motivate customers to take the time to provide feedback, not bribe them. Companies that offer discounts or give freebies for reviews can taint their results because it looks like they’re trying to buy only positive feedback.

5) Include a link on receipts. Have you noticed how long receipts are these days? That’s typically because at the bottom, companies are inviting customers to participate in online surveys regarding their shopping experience through a website or a toll-free phone number. It’s a great place to ask for reviews because a customer may toss the bag or the packaging, but they’re likely to hang on to the receipt.

6) Include a comment card with every purchase. Whether you put it in the bag with a purchase or slip it into a shipping order, a comment card with either a website or prepaid postage has a good chance of being filled out and returned.

7) Add reviews to your website. Just like Amazon®, add a simple star rating system to your products on your website with a note requesting “Give us your review” or “Be the first to review this product.” Be sure to also leave space for customers to type their comments. You could learn a lot about your customers’ favorite features or product flaws quickly.

8) Follow up emails. Once the customer has had a chance to use their purchase, follow up with an email asking for a product review or comments. If they are particularly happy, you’re likely to hear about it. However, sending the email too soon or too late can affect your responses.

9) Follow up phone calls. A bit more old-fashioned is the follow up phone call to make sure a customer’s experience was up to par—yet, for some, it does offer a more personal touch than email.

10) Follow up postcard. More costly than email because of postage, follow up postcards are still a good way to solicit feedback—especially with older customers.

11) Provide in-store access. This includes in-store signage asking for feedback and the classic customer comment box on the counter by the register. For a more modern take on it, set up a computer nearby so customers can enter their ratings and provide feedback that you can track easily.

12) Bring in outside help. If you have the time and resources, bring in a professional research company to help you design a thorough survey. Customers will often be more honest with a third party than they will be with the company directly. Best of all, the research company can provide an objective perspective and help you interpret the data collected to see where the greatest opportunities for improvement lie.

An important business tool. Getting reviews for your business can be a scary proposition. Positive and negative feedback tend to go hand-in-hand and hearing bad things about your business can be difficult to swallow. But a smart business uses negative reviews as important feedback to better their business. Continuous improvement is the best way to adapt, grow and become more profitable. Businesses that ask for reviews and make it easy for customers to provide feedback are typically the ones with the happiest customers.

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