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If you’re a small business owner in the modern era, chances are good that your business can be found on review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor.
Yelp in particular is a behemoth of the online review game: it boasts over 100 million reviews, an average of 135 million monthly users and is often the first name consumers think of when they want to research a restaurant or attraction.
While there’s plenty of debate over the reliability of the reviews left on Yelp, reading reviews is the biggest reason most people use the site and over 43% of users said reviews had a “high impact” on why they visit at all.
Getting good and honest reviews is incredibly important for many small business owners. Here’s how GreenPal used this tactic successfully.
But as per the site itself, businesses are advised to not directly solicit reviews from their customers, and many have found that it’s difficult to get people to comment on their business unless it’s to complain or disparage.
How can you leave a positive impression on a customer—and then get them to put their feelings into words for others to read on Yelp?
Gene Caballero, co-founder of GreenPal—an online platform that connects lawn mowing services with customers with an Uber model all throughout the American southeast—struggled with that issue for a long time.
“Customers use Yelp almost as much as they use Google now in order to find small businesses to do X, Y and Z,” says Caballero. “We knew we had to establish a presence on Yelp quickly and efficiently.”
But not every business lends itself to the process of Yelp reviews.
Restaurants, hotels, and retail stores are almost always begging to be reviewed—but lawn care is a different story.
“For us, signing homeowners up for this service is the ‘easy part.’ The hard part is getting them to talk about our company after their lawn is cut. Lawn care isn’t the sexiest industry and usually only gets brought up only when mowing is necessary,” says Caballero.
It wasn’t until Caballero and the GreenPal team realized they had a goldmine of information already at their fingertips—and that they could use this information to engender positive relations with customers post-service—that they began building the catalog of Yelp reviews that’s providing the company with a massive boost today.
GreenPal was born three years ago in Nashville, Tennessee. One of the company’s co-founders, who started his own landscaping company when he was just 16 years old, noticed that his company was getting a lot of calls from homeowners about small jobs that were going uncompleted.
He was planning on leaving soon anyway, but his curiosity was piqued.
“At the time, that company did mostly commercial jobs,” explains Caballero. “And he thought, there’s got to be a better way for homeowners to find someone in their neighborhood, someone just starting up and who wants more business.”
There might’ve never been a better time for GreenPal to start:
The shared economy was growing and services like Airbnb and Uber were becoming bigger than ever.
The founders of GreenPal went door-to-door in neighborhoods around Nashville and found that some of the tenets of the shared economy—vetting beforehand by the company, paying online rather than by a check under the door—could be major assets in the lawncare industry, too.
“That’s how we started in Nashville, and now we’re in 5 states and over 15 markets throughout the region. And we’re growing around 300-400% every season,” says Caballero.
The company the same model as Uber: a star-rating as well as written review platform, so users can compare different services through the site. Getting people to review the vendors they used was easy, but ratings for GreenPal itself were harder to come by.
“Getting a review is tough, and getting a good review is even tougher,” says Caballero. “There’s no mathematical formula you can use to persuade someone to provide a review. You just have to ask. We also wanted to create a good word-of-mouth reputation throughout our neighborhoods. We knew we needed to go outside of the box and add a personal touch.”
In order to to create that offline buzz as well as the online footprint, GreenPal knew it couldn’t engage in the kind of tactics that other small businesses have been busted for.
Not only has it led to large-scale investigations by law enforcement, but Yelp is known for having a particularly aggressive and successful filter for identifying fakes, which is only getting stronger as scrutiny increases.
“Yelp has an impenetrable algorithm, where we felt we needed authentic reviews from people who have reviewed things elsewhere for our review to stick,” Caballero says. “We knew we needed real feedback from actual homeowners and users. And a lot of our demand was coming from Yelp, so we knew we had to be a presence in the market.”
After much brainstorming, Caballero hit on how to engage customers and tap into their ability to write honest reviews about GreenPal—without spending extra on market research or too much more on marketing.
“One night, the idea to target our customers’ pets came to me,” he says. “We already knew whether or not they had pets, so why not use that information to get them talking about us? After buying $100 worth of dog bones and catnip, we started sending these out to our customers, thanking them for their business and giving them our Yelp link. After a few trips to the post office, we saw the emails and Yelp reviews skyrocket.”
How could such a small gesture lead to such a great result?
Customers appreciate companies that go the extra mile for them, in ways large and small. The proof is in GreenPal’s numbers.
“It’s been a 50-60% increase in volume over the last 18 months, since we started this campaign,” says Caballero. “We check our analytics on Yelp and see that a huge amount of this increase is coming from Yelp directly.”
And the best part?
Providing this “wow factor,” as Caballero calls it, comes at almost no direct cost to the company.
They spend between $500 and $1,000 a month of advertising through services like Adwords, but still find that Yelp is the major driving force of business with just a small expense for animal treats—one that Caballero pays out of pocket, with pleasure. For 100 dog bones, he’ll pay around $0.35 a bone.
Of course, there are clients who don’t have pets.
But while GreenPal can’t send a specifically targeted gift their way, they can still engage customers in ways that helps keep the company top-of-mind when it’s time to mow the lawn.
“We’ll send them a t-shirt or a personalized handwritten thank you card,” says Caballero.
“Another thing we use is ‘scent marketing.’ Scent is the sense closest tied to memory, and there’s a company we use that has a “freshly cut lawn” scent, so any thank-you card we send out has that smell. Next time they think of lawnmowing, they think of that card, see the shirt, see the dog bone, and hopefully they’ll think of us.”
For a company that’s projected to hit $1 million in gross revenue this year and has become a staple of the southeastern United States’s market for lawn care, GreenPal is spending relatively little on advertising and marketing.
Caballero thinks his tactic of providing personalized gifts is a major part of that success.
“This is very powerful word-of-mouth advertising at very little cost,” he says. “People were thanking us for going the extra mile and saying how they can’t wait to tell their friends about our service. And they’ll never think about lawn care service again without thinking of us first.”
Yelp is the first step for many customers when looking for a business to satisfy a new need or provide a new service. The trick is to catch their attention at that point with positive reviews that stand up under scrutiny, and then keep them from needing to return to Yelp to find another service.
If GreenPal is always the first name to think of in lawn care, a second name isn’t necessary. By sending heartfelt scent-powered gifts afterwards, GreenPal is fighting that two-front war effectively.
It also helps when your campaigns bring you as much personal satisfaction as it does good business.
“I have a dog myself—he’s awesome, and I love spreading that joy to fellow pet owners,” says Caballero. That kind of attitude about providing for your customers is a win for everybody.