It should come as no surprise that online reviews – like all word-of-mouth recommendations – factor heavily in most purchase decisions. According to a 2017 report from Northwestern University’s Spiegel Research Center, 95% of consumers read online reviews before they make a purchase, and they are four times more likely to buy from a business with at least five online reviews. Simply put, online reviews are a critically important component of your funeral home’s reputation. If you want to be the provider of choice for consumers in your area, your web experience must extend to sites like Yelp and Google.

While many funeral professionals understand the need to manage their online reputation, few know how to successfully integrate online reviews into their marketing plans. To truly optimize this segment of your funeral home’s digital footprint, you need to master two things: generating reviews and proactively responding to them.

Generating Reviews
A recent study from Dimensional Research found that consumers who have had a bad experience with a business are 52% more likely to post a review online. It’s no surprise, then, that if you don’t actively seek out positive reviews, the majority of the feedback you’ll receive online is likely to be negative. And those negative reviews can have a catastrophic impact on your brand.

Let’s look at the online reputation of a funeral home that served 100 families last year, with a 99% satisfaction rating. Only 3% of them took time to post a review online, and research suggests that the dissatisfied family was the most likely out of all their customers to post a review. So, even though two happy families left perfect, five-star reviews, a one-star rating from the dissatisfied family gave the firm an average 3 1/2-star rating for the year. Unfortunately, most consumers (87% according to a recent survey by BrightLocal), won’t consider a business with less than three stars. That means that one more negative rating for the funeral home, without any positive reviews to combat it, would disqualify their business in the eyes of many consumers.

Consider the alternative: That same funeral home asked every satisfied family to post feedback on sites like Google and Yelp. If those families fell in line with most consumer trends, 70% of them left a review when asked to do so by the funeral home. Instead of three reviews, their business received 70. And, yes, the unhappy family was in that mix. But let’s assume that half of the satisfied families posted five-star reviews and the remaining half posted four-star reviews. Even with the one-star review from the dissatisfied family, the funeral home still averaged 4 1/2 stars for the year. That’s a significant difference in their online reputation, solely by asking families to review their business.

Keep in mind that, in the examples above, the funeral home served the same number of families and delighted 99% of them. But their reputation – the way they were perceived by online shoppers – was significantly different. And remember that search engines like Google serve up higher rankings for businesses with positive reviews. If only three families review your business online, search engines have no way of knowing that you also served 97 other highly satisfied families. Your search rankings will suffer, which opens the door for competitors to attract would-be customers.

So how do you ensure your online reputation mirrors your offline brand? The best defense is good offense – you need to proactively ask client families to review your business:

• Start by asking every family about their experience with your funeral home. You should already be doing this – and many of you are. Some businesses ask for feedback over the phone or in a direct mail survey, but I prefer face-to-face as part of your aftercare follow up. But however you ask, you need to provide time and space for families to share their experience with you before you consider asking for a review. If they were not fully satisfied with your services, you need to ask what you could have done (and could still do) to improve their experience. If the family says they were completely happy, you’ve created a perfect opportunity to discuss an online review.

• Ask for an online review, and let them know why it’s important. You don’t want to get into a long discussion of search engine rankings with your client families. It’s enough to simply tell them that other families who will one day experience the loss of a loved one could benefit from the expertise and advice of someone who has already gone through that process. When framed as a way to help others, most families will be more than happy to share their experiences on Google or Yelp.

• Give specific instructions for how to leave a review, and thank them in advance. Make sure you address any questions they have about how to leave an online review, and be ready with a few suggestions if they want to know where they should start. Let them know that, while star ratings are important, their comments about your services will be the most valuable to other families. Thank them for the time they will take to leave a review for your business, and let them know how honored you were that they entrusted their loved one to your care. Before you move on, reaffirm your commitment to be a resource to them in the days and weeks ahead.

By far, the most important part of this process is the ask – countless studies have shown that consumers are more than willing to leave a review when they’re asked to do so by a business. If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this: You can dramatically improve your funeral home’s online reputation and search engine rankings simply by asking your client families for online reviews.

Responding to Reviews
Unfortunately, it’s not enough to simply encourage positive reviews – you also need to respond to and manage them. According to a 2018 study by Review Trackers, the majority of consumers expect a response to their online reviews within seven days, and the latest conversation index from BazaarVoice found that 41% of consumers believe that companies that quickly respond to their online reviews care about their customers. What funeral home wouldn’t want to underscore how much they care about their client families?

How you respond will depend on the type of review. For positive reviews, it’s often enough to thank them for their feedback and reiterate how honored you were to care for their loved one. The key here is to respond to every review as soon as it’s posted – especially with negative reviews.

According to the Speigel Research Center, 82% of consumers seek out negative reviews first when researching products and services, and the way you handle complaints says a great deal about your business. A key part of managing your online reputation is putting a process in place to thoughtfully and publicly address negative reviews.

I recently spoke to Brian May, owner of three St. Louis funeral homes. Last year, he and his staff received a lengthy, one-star review from a family they had recently served. The review detailed a number of concerns with the service the family had received – concerns Brian was already aware of from conversations with his staff. He immediately reached out to the reviewer by phone to express his regret that they had failed to meet her expectations. He then posted a response on the review sites (the original review appeared in more than one place), reiterating his apologies and thanking her for speaking with him over the phone to address her concerns. He also assured her that the feedback had been shared with the rest of the staff.

There are number of good lessons in Brian’s response:

• Maintain open communication with your staff. Brian was not surprised when he read the review because he and his staff had already discussed the family’s experience and taken steps to correct the issues that led to poor service.

• Respond as soon as possible. Brian responded to this review the same day it was posted – due in large part to automatic email notifications from the review site. If you haven’t already, make sure you go out to Google and Yelp to set up automatic notifications for your business. That will ensure that you know exactly what is being said about your business online and can respond quickly whenever a new review is posted.

• Take the discussion offline. Before he typed a response to her review, Brian first tried to diffuse the situation in an offline setting. Firing off an immediate response online before you’ve addressed the issue in a more private setting will often lead to miscommunication and unnecessary escalation. It’s best to address the concerns in a more personal format – face to face or over the phone.

• Write up a thoughtful, considerate response. Brian drafted his response in a word document so he could carefully craft his message, double checking the wording and spelling before he posted it online. He also made sure to thank her for speaking to him over the phone – indicating to anyone reading his response that he took her concerns seriously and had addressed them in a personal way.

• Respond to the review on every site. This particular review appeared on three different review sites, so Brian copied and pasted his response and posted it to all three. This ensured that anyone who saw the review would also see how professional and thoughtful he was in addressing the concerns.

If this seems like a lot of work, remember that how manage your online reputation has the power to change hearts and minds – 70% of participants in the BazaarVoice conversation index said their opinion about a business changed after the company replied to their review. And don’t forget how one negative review (especially one that goes unaddressed) can undermine your online reputation.

The impact your web presence has on your reputation and, by extension, your call volume is significant – and it will only continue to grow. If you don’t have a plan to manage your online reputation, it’s time to put one in place. FBA

Luke Frieberg is President of eFuneral Solutions, LLC, a breakout digital solutions company that helps funeral homes maximize market share through optimized online sales. Prior to joining eFuneral, Luke spent almost a decade in various roles with Principal Financial Group, a Fortune 500 insurance and financial services company. He is a graduate of Drake University where he earned his Bachelor’s and MBA. Learn more about eFuneral at efuneralpartner.com.