Jennifer Martiné
Heather McNeil’s business is managing restaurants’ online presence.
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Online and On Top

Amy Traverso - March 2014

A tech-savvy entrepreneur helps restaurateurs navigate tricky Internet waters.

Heather McNeil makes most of her living on Yelp. Not as a programmer or boondoggler bartering reviews for cash, but as a social media consultant and reputation manager for restaurants. For a fee, beginning at around $1,000 per month, she monitors her clients’ virtual profiles seven days per week, 365 days per year. She tracks the one-star screeds and engages the disgruntled. She listens, empathizes, and alerts the restaurant to problems with the food or service. If she’s done her job well, she’ll have converted a naysayer into a fan by the time she’s finished.

In doing so, she has cultivated a roster of restaurants at every price point—gourmet hot dog spots to fine dining—mostly around her home turf in the San Francisco Bay Area. One client, Martin Yan, who opened M.Y. China in downtown San Francisco in 2012, calls her his “director of enjoyment.”

In the four years that she has been doing this work, McNeil has distilled a set of principles for boosting a restaurant’s bottom line through social media (wisdom she shares in a new e-book called Exceeding Expectations: How Yelp! Can Help). First, Yelp is king (with TripAdvisor and OpenTable in second place). Love it or hate it, it’ll make or break your business. Second, ignore negative reviews at your peril. Third, be genuine. And lastly, outsource, if you can.

McNeil has a long history in the restaurant business. “I started as a cocktail waitress in downtown Chicago when I was 15,” she says with a laugh. “I would sneak out of my house at 10 p.m., climb down a tree, drive to the city without a license, cocktail for four hours, drive home, climb back up, and I’d have $200 in my pocket.” She was an otherwise well-behaved kid, but her parents eventually caught on, and the cocktailing gig went kaput. “I didn’t do anything quite so crazy after that,” she says. “But I did go down the restaurant road. I love being in the business.”

For more than 20 years, restaurants were her livelihood. She waitressed, bartended, managed, and eventually became a partner in Nico’s Steak and Chop House in Chula Vista, California. Then, with two kids to raise and an unexpected divorce, she left day-to-day operations in 2009 and launched a food blog and menu planning business. (“Dumbest thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “Too much work, and it never went anywhere.”)

But blogging got her online, and around that time, she also discovered Twitter. “It got me into the social media space,” she says. “I had a lot of friends in restaurants who said, ‘Oh, you’re doing that? Could you do that for us?’ I knew how to set up the accounts. I knew the tone restaurants should have when they spoke to customers.”

Soon she had a small consultancy, managing Facebook and Twitter feeds for restaurants. But she realized very quickly that Yelp was the platform that mattered most. “I don’t think Facebook or Twitter generate revenue,” she says. “I really don’t. I do think they can engage your customers. And it’s a nice way to tell your story if you have time to do it,” she says. And you should always watch for praise or complaints and respond. “But for a lot of people who put their restaurants on Twitter or Facebook, most of the time they’re just telling people to come into their restaurants and talking about daily specials.” In other words, restaurateurs are using Twitter and Facebook as virtual billboards, a platform for making announcements.

That’s missing the point, says McNeil. “People are sick of being marketed to. They want to be listened to, engaged with, thanked.” And she’s not at all sure that all this time spent updating your feed and procuring “likes” even translates into sales. “In my opinion, the only platform that drives people to your restaurant in the moment when they’re making a decision is Yelp,” she says.

To back up her view, she cites a 2011 study by Harvard Business School professor Michael Luca, who looked at the correlation between positive Yelp ratings and revenue for restaurants in Seattle. He concluded that a one-star increase on Yelp translated to a 5 to 9 percent increase in revenue. In 2012, UC Berkeley researchers Michael Anderson and Jeremy Magruder reported that when San Francisco restaurants improved their star ratings by just half a point, the likelihood that they would sell out their prime 7 o’clock reservations increased by 49 percent. Less work has been done in evaluating the impact of OpenTable and TripAdvisor reviews, but McNeil is paying more attention as they gain market share. “Yelp will increase your business or could literally shut it down if not managed and paid attention to,” she says.

And so, whenever one of her clients gets a negative review, she responds. Always. “I don’t necessarily say that 100 percent of the time, the customer is right,” she says, “but it’s their perception of what has happened. So I ask myself, ‘If I were this person and I believed that this was my experience, what would I need to hear?’”

If the complaint is serious—say, food poisoning or discrimination—she calls the restaurant immediately. But if it’s a more run-of-the-mill issue, such as too-high prices or too-slow servers, she handles it herself and reports it later.

What does she say? “First, it’s an acknowledgement,” she says. “Say, ‘I’m so sorry that was your experience.’ Did I admit anything? No. But you have to believe that if someone is taking the time to write this review, some portion of it’s real. Say, ‘Thank you so much for letting us know. We learn so much from our customers.’ Because it’s not just about that one person. It’s the thousand other people who read what you write.”

Next, ask for more information. Who was the server? What time were you there? Give the customer your email and phone number. “Get it off the online world as quickly as possible,” McNeil advises.

“You don’t necessarily have to give something away,” she says. “What people most want is to be heard or acknowledged. And at the end of the conversation, you can get a sense, is this person still unhappy? If so, you can say ‘Please let me know when you’re coming back. I’d love to make the reservation for you.’ Give them extra attention. There are other things you can offer besides free food or drinks.” McNeil recommends outsourcing this task. “For a restaurateur, this is their baby,” she says. “It’s so hard to set aside your emotions and just listen to what someone is saying.” And handing the job off to a staff member has its pitfalls. Do you trust your 21 year old hostess to finesse the right tone to soothe a disaffected customer? If your manager appears to side with an irrational customer, servers may feel betrayed.

But what about restaurants that can’t afford a social media consultant? If you have an employee who can tell your story in a compelling way and communicate your values, pay him or her a small fee to manage your Facebook and Twitter feeds. Or, if you work with a PR agency, farm it out to them. And if you have to manage your Yelp feedback yourself, take a day between reading a negative review and responding to it. Or ask a friend or family member to write the response for you so it’s as neutral as possible.