Online product and services reviews have shifted transaction influence from the provider to the consumer, rewarding companies who deliver excellent customer service and experience, and making life difficult for those who don’t. Within the travel industry, TripAdvisor delivers millions of customer judgements across travel providers, all of whom recognize the value in keeping in the customer’s good graces.
However, not all travel websites apply the lessons and value of customer reviews to themselves, certainly providing consumers with travel provider reviews but not necessarily reviews for their own role in the customer’s travel experience process.Travel agencies without online customer reviews are allowing an opportunity to present a meaningful value proposition slip through their fingers. A recent survey pointed out that 61% of prospective customers read online reviews while in the process of making a purchase decision; every ecommerce website striving for continued success must respect the power of such customer behavior. Any travel agency, selling big ticket and highly personalized travel products & services, should be very cognizant of the beneficial impact of positive online reviews.
The Importance of Online Reviews
There’s no great mystery why online customer reviews are so important: good reviews are associated with above-average conversion rates, perhaps the most important performance metric for an ecommerce site. Positive reviews provide credibility and visitors are more likely to return during the lifecycle of their travel decision. Even prior to the purchase decision phase, travelers use online reviews in their travel planning process. A 2015 Custom Survey Research Engagement study found 79% of travelers read between six and 12 reviews across four to 10 websites during the course of deciding on travel plans.
Revenue Increases: Perhaps travel agencies whose sites lack reviews simply view their importance as being relegated to the ultimate provider – the air carrier, hotel or tour operator - rather than the agent sitting between those providers and the customer. However, the primary reason reviews are powerful is they have the ability to eliminate lingering doubts a customer may have toward a company or service. Since travel agencies and other travel businesses share the challenge of eliminating consumer doubts, there shouldn’t be any question for an agency that reviews will be equally effective and valuable for them as well.
Website Traffic Increases: Every travel agency website wants a larger organic footprint on the Internet and greater numbers of unique visitors. Since search engines value and prioritize unique content which is continually updated, travel agency websites with fresh, new, content tend to advance up search engine results pages and, consequently, draw more customers to their site and associated travel technology. Online customer reviews are a very good way to provide this type of content on a constant basis. An added benefit is improved organic search results because people searching for content often use the same language as people leaving reviews.
Attracting and Displaying Online Reviews
The value proposition for online reviews is so strong (bad reviews can actually help sales; almost 70% of website visitors have higher trust when reviews are a mix of good and bad opinions, though bad opinions must be a distinct minority) it could be travel businesses just don’t know how to attract them.
Generating a steady stream of reviews can be a challenge. On one hand, a genuine product or service evaluation has an obvious value to the reader; on the other hand, the value to the customer submitting a review is less apparent. The following, three-step approach has proven to be successful in gaining reviews for online service providers such as travel agencies:
- Follow-up email: the customer is sent a review request email between 24 and 48 hours after the service provider transaction has taken place – enough time for them to have balanced recollection of the event but not so long that it’s no longer well remembered.
- Streamline the review: a simple four star rating bar, with a concise free form text field for comments, is a popular format – concise enough to encourage participation and robust enough to deliver value.
- 48 hour compliance period: there must be common sense review policies – restrictions on language, provisions for privacy and confidentiality, etc. – and time for a review to be checked for compliance. This is also a window for the company to identify poor reviews and attempt to mitigate the situation prior to publication. Once reviews are part of a website, reputation management is an ongoing activity.
Consider a scenario in which a travel agency uses this three-step approach and, over time, generates a hundred or more reviews from new customers: how should they be displayed? Certainly they need to be organized in a way that makes reading them efficient for interested site visitors; and also the presentation must support credibility and trustworthiness by being clearly objective.
In the case of a four star rating system, both objectives can be achieved by organizing reviews by stars. People on the travel site can then decide to go through the one star reviews, the four star reviews, or any preferred combination that makes sense to them.
Another approach – conceived by Amazon and extremely successful - which meets both objectives is having people rate the reviews themselves by answering the question “was this review helpful to you?” This enabled Amazon – and companies who subsequently employed the approach –to use new customers to sort reviews for others. People can quickly find the three most helpful four star reviews, or the most helpful one star and two star reviews. Over time, it becomes a self-organized system based solely on customer input, enabling a rapid assimilation of objective review information.
A third approach is to use a bar chart which visually displays the numerical totals for the reviews. For example, with one star reviews as the bottom bar and rising up to the four star review bar on the top. This format provides a site visitor with the ability to make a general evaluation with a glance.
The most important lesson for a travel website is not that reviews can be gathered and presented effectively; it is that the power of reviews to increase revenue and Internet presence is such that it must be leveraged.