Whether they are out-of-control cranks or out-of-the-blue evangelists, customers want to have their say. And if you won't listen to them, the Internet is teeming with people who will. According to JupiterResearch, 77 percent of online shoppers turn to consumer-generated reviews when they make a purchasing decision. This trend has bred a new crop of online tools that enable an easy back-and-forth between companies and their customers. So, if you want to know how your customers feel about your company, it's easier than ever to find out. And if some of them happen to be badmouthing you, you may even have a chance to change their minds.
Best for Monitoring your rep
What it is: A directory of customer ratings and reviews of local businesses
What's cool: Yelp provides a good handle on your company's word-of-mouth buzz. Anyone can submit a review of a business, but the most crediblereviews -- or at least the ones receiving the most votes from fellow users -- rise to the top. The site is designed to sniff out and delete attack reviews from competitors as well as glowing endorsements from relatives. Sign up as the official spokesperson for your business, and you can privately respond to reviewers. You can also pay for sponsorship, which allows you to display your favorite review prominently.
Drawbacks: Yelp's automated system probably won't catch every unfair review, and the site won't take down negative reviews, even if you buy a sponsorship.
Price: About $150 per month for a sponsorship
Best for Asking for ideas
What it is: A Web-based service that collects customer suggestions
What's cool: The site allows customers to post ideas and rate the ideas of others. Employees can rate the suggestions internally with a built-in scorecard and correspond privately with those making suggestions. You can also automatically notify customers when an idea has been implemented. The service offers a widget you can add to your corporate website to direct customers to your suggestion box.
Drawback: Just because a lot of customers support a certain suggestion doesn't mean it's something you will want -- or be able -- to implement. Some customers may not understand that.
Price: $49.95 per month for one user, plus $9.95 per month for each additional user
Best for Resolving disputes
What it is: A suite of customer feedback tools, including reviews, satisfaction surveys, and e-mail marketing software
What's cool: RatePoint allows you to add to your online store customer-generated reviews like those found on Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN), but with a difference: You can reach out to users to resolve an issue before a negative rating is made public. RatePoint verifies e-mail addresses or telephone numbers to ensure that submitted reviews are valid, and you can use that information to build marketing lists or solicit other feedback from customers.
Drawback: Users who want to avoid calls and e-mail from marketers may hesitate to share personal information with RatePoint.
Price: $17.95 per month or $179 per year for up to 1,000 customers; $99.95 per month or $995 per year for up to 25,000 customers
Best for Following blog chatter
What it is: A search engine for online conversations
What's cool: Thanks to blogs, tweets, and other posts, there's an ever-growing flood of commentary online. YackTrack brings all of those conversation threads to one place, where you can easily find recent references to your company or products. A single search scours Twitter, Technorati, Google Blog Search, and FriendFeed and lists the most recent posts first. After you search, you can subscribe to an RSS feed to read new chatter about your search topic as soon as it's posted.
Drawbacks: YackTrack displays only the most recent posts. Also, searches that yield plentiful results are sometimes sluggish or result in an error message.
Best for Finding squeaky wheels
What it is: A website that allows customers to report problems and post complaints
What's cool: Get Satisfaction thrives on transparency. Customers find a company or product, post their issue for all to see, and get answers to their questions from fellow users or company reps. Get Satisfaction offers widgets and a programming interface that let you incorporate the service into your own website.
Drawbacks: Even if you don't sign up for an account, customers may decide to circumvent your own customer service system to post here. And if you don't respond to their complaints, you may appear apathetic.
Price: Free. Get Satisfaction will soon roll out premium services that will allow companies to edit conversation topics and delete posts deemed inappropriate.
Best for Quick polls
What it is: An online survey tool
What's cool: You don't have to learn about statistics, coding, or market research. Simply plug a list of questions into one of SurveyMonkey.com's templates -- upload a logo if you like -- that span eight survey categories, including service industries and marketing. Choose which questions require an answer and whether to allow just one response per computer, then sit back and watch as the real-time results roll in. For highly sensitive surveys, you can add an extra layer of security.
Drawback: To participate in a survey, customers are taken to SurveyMonkey.com's site, which could result in some lost online traffic.
Price: Free for up to 100 survey responses; $19.95 per month for 1,000 survey responses; and $200 per year for unlimited survey responses