Hulya Aksu spent nearly a decade as a publisher of regional lifestyle magazines in Northern Virginia. In working with small and medium-size retailers and service providers, she became well aware of their feelings toward online review sites, such as Yelp, where one negative review can wield a huge blow to business. Aksu’s contacts knew customer service and good word of mouth from existing customers were the best ways to retain and attract new business. But how do you get people to talk to you instead of some third-party Web site? An answer came to her when she was texting her husband about the poor service she was receiving at a restaurant when she thought, “Why can’t I just text the manager directly?” So she created a service where she and other consumers could do just that. Aksu launched CriticMania, based in Herndon, this past February.
“CriticMania is a modern take on the customer comment card/survey that is initiated by the consumer. For business owners, it’s a tool to engage customers and track feedback to improve customer service.
“We offer a private channel of communication using a technology that customers are using already – texting. We don’t have to teach consumers something new, get them to download an app or use hardware they aren’t familiar with. They use their own phones, they remain anonymous, and they tell management exactly what they think. In turn, management is able to collect the feedback, then use CriticMania’s dashboard to track and analyze the feedback to make organizational changes to improve customer service and operations. Our dashboard also offers an easy way for business owners to update their social media pages with positive comments from customers.
“When we meet with businesses, they understand how useful this service is. It’s very easy for them to implement and inexpensive (first 30 days free, then $50 a month per location). However, one challenge we have with some clients is conveying the importance of listening to their customers. Some even fear the possibility of hearing negative comments. We do overcome that challenge in our sales process and can help them understand the value in listening to customer feedback, but that usually requires a face-to-face conversation.
“That gets at our biggest challenge: In order to be a scalable model, we have to have businesses signing up on their own through our Web site. We need to get this in the mainstream. But right now, the industry we’re serving doesn’t know this tool exists. We’ve just created this platform. How do we make the massive business population better aware of this to the point where they actually know the need for the service, search for it online, find us, and sign up?
Elana Fine, managing director, Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship
“I don’t think you need to worry about the mainstream just yet. First, figure out how to capture the early-adopter consumers who will interact with restaurants with your service. You have to first prove that there is a demand for instant feedback to a manager. Given the popularity of review sites, I believe there is. I’ve had a few of my own recent situations where, as a customer, I wished that a business had CriticMania. The challenge, to you, is figuring out what it is about me that you can know and can target inexpensively?
“This goes for the restaurants as well as the users. As you’ve found, some businesses may be a bit naive to the fact that they need to adopt the ‘customer-is-always-right’ mentality that drives CriticMania, so look for chains that already use technology extensively in their businesses or who pride themselves on their customer service. You have to first engage the customers themselves. Once you engage them, the business will see the value in adopting your service.
“I’d suggest focusing on getting early-adopter customers to be the ones advocating for CriticMania at a store. Figure out a way for those people to get the retail establishments they frequent to sign up. Perhaps you can offer an incentive for users. Or look at other successful models, such as Foursquare or Waze, where users are ‘checking in’ and engaged in a community. There could be a network of CriticMania critics. The more you build out that user-generated community, the more likely you are to attract early adopters. Then the businesses don’t have to do much, other than sign up with you and put up a sign that they use your service.
“To find early adopters, you can tap into what people are already saying on review sites like Yelp and others. Use those sites as a development pipeline. You can also create some splash pages to test what works with search engine optimization. I suspect — as you do — that people would much rather talk directly to a business than complain in the blogosphere. If you can facilitate that, you can really take off.”
“Thank you so much for this feedback. Community is definitely a top priority for us. Primarily, we’re focused on the opportunity we have to build relationships between customers and the businesses who serve them. Your advice offers great perspective for an additional way we can frame this positive element as we work to engage businesses in using the platform. It’s interesting, too, to consider expansion in the context of how we might additionally strengthen a community for customers using CriticMania as well.
“Because our service functions only around businesses who are signed up with our service (because it wouldn’t work for consumers to send texts/feedback to a manager who wasn’t using the platform), we’ll have to dedicate some time and energy to ways we can grow support for our product from the customer base up. I do think we could benefit more strongly from utilizing existing restaurant and business-review sites to paint a more complete picture about exactly what organizations stand to gain from implementing our platform. Perhaps we could also find ways to gauge the interest of current/potential customers and how much they feel they’d benefit from a service like ours, and that enthusiasm could then be used to promote our platform directly from the consumers — since, after all, they’re the ones businesses are working for.”