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Whether or not you’re paying attention to your garden center’s online reputation, your customers certainly are. According to the Pew Research Center, 82 percent of consumers consult online reviews before making a purchase. In another survey by Podium, 93 percent of respondents said online reviews impacted their shopping decisions.

“The way people find businesses today is by searching Google and reading reviews,” says Garrett Sussman, content marketing manager for Grade.us, which produces review management software. “It’s important for garden centers to cultivate online reviews because not only do they impact the visibility of your business online, but they also add credibility. People are much more likely to purchase from a store that has a good reputation.”

Luke Hansford learned this the hard way when he started Pink and Green Lawn Care and Landscape with his wife, Lana, in 2008. After acquiring their first few customers by going door-to-door in their Florida neighborhood, they needed to reach more people to grow their business.

“We noticed that most people didn’t trust us because they didn’t know anything about us,” Hansford says. “We started looking into the review process more seriously, because reviews are a great way to build a reputation and let people feel like they know you and trust you before they even meet you.”

Garrett Sussman

Since then, Pink and Green has amassed nearly 750 reviews on Angie’s List and 100 on Google, where it averages a 4.8-star rating. These votes of confidence helped the company grow 23 percent last year, achieving about $4 million in revenue.

If you’re wondering how to grow your garden center’s reputation, follow these five steps to harness the power of online reviews.

1. Claim your space

The first step to taking control of your reputation is understanding how your brand appears online.

“I recommend searching your business name on Google to see what comes up, because that’s what searchers will see,” Sussman says. “The second step is knowing if they’re going to find you over your competitors, so search ‘garden centers near me’ and see who appears.”

To show up more often in the search results, set up profiles on more business listing sites like Google My Business, Facebook, Yelp and Bing. Not only does this improve your search visibility, but it allows you to keep your information current, answer questions from customers and respond to reviews.

“The biggest mistake is not setting up and claiming your business profile on various review sites, because customers can still leave a review even if you don’t set up a listing,” Sussman says. “If it’s just out there unaddressed, people are going to come to their own conclusions. You want to control the narrative.”

2. Monitor your reputation

Read and digest what people say about your business online, whether good or bad, because it can provide valuable feedback from your customers.

Once you claim your business listings, most sites will send email notifications when you receive a new review. Sussman also recommends setting up Google Alerts for your business name to help track brand mentions. There are tools available that can help automate and aggregate these alerts.

3. Generate feedback

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Just because you claim profiles on relevant sites, that doesn’t mean people will leave reviews. A study by Dimensional Research and Zendesk found that only 35 percent of consumers use review sites after a bad experience and 23 percent after a good one. But, according to SEO management firm BrightLocal, seven out of 10 customers will leave a review if asked.

“The best way to get reviews is by providing a great experience and then just asking. For the vast majority of review sites, asking for reviews is totally acceptable,” says Sussman, noting that Yelp is the exception because it forbids solicitation of reviews.

“The most effective way to ask is face-to-face, and the best time to ask is right after a transaction. So, have your employees ask for reviews when they have a positive interaction with a customer,” he says. “A big part of this is training employees to understand the importance of reviews to your business.”

Because garden centers are so visually appealing, Sussman suggests leveraging photo opportunities to promote reviews. When cashing out customers, ask if they snapped any pictures while shopping, then encourage them to post one with their review. You could even print and post their photos on a bulletin board near the register to showcase your customers’ perspectives.

“If you take pride in your garden center and the displays you’re putting together, and you know customers are taking pictures anyway, it’s an easy win to get them to showcase their photography and leave a review,” Sussman says.

To reinforce the face-to-face request, use other media to remind customers to share their feedback. In-store signage or receipts can show them which review sites to visit, but Sussman says the best approach is collecting customer contact information, like email addresses or phone numbers, so you can send automated messages asking for reviews.

4. Respond to reviews

According to the 2018 ReviewTrackers Online Reviews Survey, 53 percent of consumers expect businesses to respond to negative reviews within a week — but 63 percent never received a follow-up.

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“Any business that’s providing responses to reviews is already going to stand out,” Sussman says. “When you’re getting reviews, you’ve got to remember it’s a public channel, so as much as you’re helping that customer, other potential customers are looking at how you respond. That’s why it’s important to respond to both positive and negative reviews.”

For positive reviews, show your appreciation by thanking customers for leaving feedback — but avoid copying and pasting the same response every time. With negative reviews, the goal is to resolve the issue and redeem your reputation.

“When responding to negative reviews, it’s hard not to take it personally,” Sussman says. “But the worst thing you can do is respond emotionally. You always want to maintain a professional tone. Acknowledge their complaint, take responsibility where you can, and then give them a private communication channel where you can resolve it.”

The goal is not to make bad feedback disappear. In fact, according to eConsultancy, 68 percent of consumers trust a brand more when it has both negative and positive reviews, and conversion rates are 67 higher. If your business responds to a negative review, potential customers are 45 percent more likely to shop there.

5. Repeat and improve

The average consumer wants a business to have 34 reviews before they trust its rating, according to BrightLocal. Other studies show that brands with at least 50 reviews have a 4.6 percent higher conversion rate. But that doesn’t mean that once you hit a certain number, your online reputation is “done.”

“Online reviews are an ongoing process,” Sussman says, “and a recent review is much more valuable than a review left a year ago.”

In fact, 77 percent of customers think reviews older than three months aren’t relevant, according to BrightLocal, so it’s important to keep generating new reviews.

“It has to be a conscious, consistent effort,” Hansford of Pink and Green Lawn Care and Landscape says. “You have to have somebody dedicated to it, because it can really make or break you. If you’re not actively pursuing positive reviews from happy customers, then you will only get negative reviews from unhappy customers.”

Brooke is a freelance writer living in Cleveland and a frequent contributor to Garden Center.