For years, we’ve known that consumers are serious about online reviews as a tool for informing their on- and offline purchasing decisions. Ninety-seven percent of people now read online reviews for local businesses, and between 86% to 90% say those reviews influence their buying decisions.

Your franchise’s perceived reputation is more than a conversion tool, though. Given Google’s propensity for featuring online reviews in search results—and even using them as a local ranking signal—reputation and reviews management has become an integral part of any franchise’s digital marketing strategy. 

Managing the reputation of a franchise brand takes coordination and dedication at every level, from the individual store owner and her managers to the corporate office. How can you support your franchisees and maximize their opportunities while furthering your brand’s marketing goals?

No one said it would be easy, but with the right tools, processes and people in place, franchises can execute a cohesive and comprehensive reputation management strategy that supports growth in all markets. In this post, reputation management experts share tips to help franchises enhance local search visibility, provide exceptional online review experiences, and empower local managers for successful reputation management at scale, across all of your locations.

How do you balance corporate needs and controls with having franchisees involved in managing their own reviews and responses?

John Musser is the Marketing Coordinator for Digital Services at SportClips, an 1,800-location barbershop franchise in the top 20 on Entrepreneur’s 2019 Franchise 500 Ranking. In his organization, online reviews for franchised locations are managed locally by each franchisee. 

“Any reviews for our company-owned stores are handled internally with our own teams. Outside of that, we push everything down locally to local teams. We use Rio SEO’s Local Reviews to help with managing the conversation and the authenticity of the voice behind it,” Musser explained. “One particular function is using a template for responses; it shows examples of what to say when it comes to responses, but then our local franchisees also have the ability to add in their own voice and make any updates.”

Investing in training your franchisees on the importance of responding to reviews is key in building that authenticity that consumers demand, said Krystal Taing, Listings Management Product Specialist with Rio SEO.

“For these franchise managers and owners, this is their livelihood. They’re running the operation, they’re doing the paperwork… when they respond to reviews, some may take it too personally, and that’s normal,” Taing said. “Before you give them the reins, make sure you’ve invested in training and given them guidelines, so that they feel like they’re supported by corporate but empowered so these reviews are coming from their voice.”

Our franchise has never had a reputation management strategy and the volume of reviews across all of our locations is now overwhelming. How far back should we go?

Aaron Clifford, SVP of Marketing with Binary Fountain, recommends that you just get started and move from this point forward to respond to reviews.

“Normally, you wouldn’t bother with anything that’s over a week old, but it depends on your business,” Clifford said. “There are situations where I would not go back past a week or two in responding to reviews. If you haven’t started until today, just start responding from this point forward.”

A local reviews audit can be a useful tool for franchises, Clifford said. 

Audit your online reviews across the franchise to discover opportunities to better connect with customers and improve your local presence.

“When evaluating a number of different clinics and how they were managing their reviews prior to us having a corporate program, it was all over the map,” he shared. “Either no one responded, or they were responding inappropriately. We saw some really rogue stuff happening, and so corporate had to come in and go, ‘here are the guidelines.’”

In doing an audit, you can discover opportunities to create guidelines and policies that will support your corporate objectives and help your franchisees better manage their online reputation. It’s important to measure and communicate the efficacy of these guidelines, as well. 

How often should our franchise locations respond to reviews?

Musser says that at SportClips, corporate teaches franchisees to respond to all reviews within 24 hours. 

“There’s a survey out there that shows 55% of reviewers expect a business response within a day, and then 30% expect a response within three days,” he explained. “But we really want to leverage within the 24-hour mark—and not just if there are negative reviews out there but positive, as well. We always want to drive response time down, rather than wait a few days.”

However, this may depend on how your locations are staffed, says Reed Smith, VP of Digital Strategy for a healthcare communications consulting firm. According to Smith, “From a resource standpoint (especially in healthcare or hospitals), if we glean something from a review and that person is still in the facility, being able to go and do that service recovery in-person is much more meaningful.” It’s more likely that the reviewer will update their comment if the business can interact with them while they’re still there, he explained. 

However, Smith notes that this is not always possible due to staffing levels. He warns, “I think one of the worst things to do is set an expectation that we’ll like positive reviews in 15 minutes, but leave negative reviews to sit for several days–that’s a bad precedent to set.”

How can you quickly locate new reviews if your franchise locations have more than 100 Google My Business listings?

Taing notes that there is a limitation in Google My Business that prevents accounts with more than 100 listings from getting alerts to new reviews and Q&A. 

“If you have 500 locations with Manager access, that will enable alerts,” she said. “But anything over 500, you have to use a tool. Otherwise, the only way to do it is to go through each of your locations, manually keep track of your reviews, and then somehow notice whenever another review comes. 

Manage online reviews at scale with a tool that monitors reviews and facilitates responses across the franchise.

A reputation management tool is the best bet for franchises with several hundreds to thousands of locations, Taing said. Providing the tool that empowers local managers to monitor reviews across the local search ecosystem also gives corporate the ability to listen in real time, analyze sentiment across the brand, identify top performers, and more. 

When a franchise changes hands, can the new owner start fresh with Google Reviews?

SportClips has a strategy for just this scenario, Musser said. “This will happen as we get franchisees that leave the network and new ones coming in to take over the existing store,” he explained. “We go after the best, most loyal clients and invite them while in-store to leave us a review. We also email for surveys. Spreading the word about new franchise ownership helps change things around, and it has to be done organically and authentically.”

Taing noted that it is within Google My Business guidelines for a new franchisee to create a new listing and close the previous one down. She cautions that the franchisee with no presence at all still faces an uphill battle, though.

“Your time is probably better spent asking every single customer that comes in to leave a review. Ask them how their service was and whether they’re enjoying the new management. Really train staff to make this a priority,” Taing advised.

Do Yelp and Google allow you to ask for reviews?

“Yes, you can ask for reviews,” Smith said, though he cautions that Yelp doesn’t look as favorably on the practice. He continued, “Having like tablets sitting around in a room for reviews is probably not the best idea, especially from a Yelp standpoint. But having a way of reaching out is important. Consider in healthcare, for example, when you’re given a CAHPS or HCAHPS survey, there’s been such a long span between what you’ve experienced and when you’re getting this formalized survey. With Google, it gives you more real-time feedback and certainly, you would think with the more that you’re doing and the more you’re asking, you’re going to get more positive reviews.”

Clifford advises that franchise marketers make sure to understand the content guidelines of each platform. In addition, in some industries you need to be cognizant of the rules around registration and consent. 

“It’s important to get that consent, because it allows you to do further email marketing and also, potentially, even texting customers and asking them to leave a review or share their experience,” Clifford explained. “Sometimes we think of these things as a marketing initiative, but it actually impacts operations and you have to make sure that you’re dotting all your I’s Crossing all your T’s as it relates to obtaining that data, getting consent from the patient, and working with your colleagues in the other service line, either in your facility or within your practice.”

Learn more about how Rio SEO can help your franchise succeed at the local level:

John Musser, Reed Smith, Aaron Clifford and Krystal Taing were guest experts on a recent Reputation Management and Local Listings webinar. Explore the full Q&A and access the webinar recording here.