Talking Business

Marvin Carolina Jr.: What do customers see when looking at your business?

From talking with small-business owners across the country, I have noticed a troubling tendency: They paint too rosy a picture of their business. Every business — like every business owner — has its strengths and weaknesses, but when I ask small-business owners what areas their business needs to improve in, they usually have no answer.

You should think highly of your business, but realize there are always areas and processes you can improve. More importantly, what really matters is not what you think. What matters is what your customers think.


Paul Conforti, co-founder and CEO of Boston-based Final Desserterie, put it this way: “In the game of business, sales and profit are how we keep score. But the game itself is all about customer satisfaction. Small-business owners need to be able to measure customer satisfaction to truly understand how well they’re playing the game — and customer surveys are the primary way of doing that.”

A survey, which can be conducted in person or online, can be as simple or as detailed as you like. I recommend asking open-ended questions and focusing more on the rationale than on the rating. While it’s great to get excellent ratings in customer service, for example, it does little good if you do not know specifically what customers like about your customer service.

Some small-business owners think they know what customers like, but they’re fooling themselves. Not only is it presumptuous to assume you know what someone likes, it’s also bad business. Successful small-business owners, on the other hand, are asking customers what they like. Surveys reveal likes, dislikes and a wealth of additional information:

▪ How satisfied customers are with your product or service

▪ How your employees are treating customers

▪ How your product or service compares with the competition

▪ What customers like most — and least — about your product or service

▪ What customers need and want


An online review, where a customer gives an opinion about your business, product or service, may give only a snapshot of what one customer experienced, but a pattern of similar reviews — accurate or not — will influence the public’s opinion of your business.

Yodle, a New York company that helps businesses advertise online, in an effort to find out how important online customer reviews are to small-business owners, conducted a survey in December 2013 in which it polled 300 owners in service industries across the country. This is what Yodle found:

▪ Small-business owners do not see the importance of online reviews: Only 50% of small-business owners think positive online reviews are important, and 23% of them think positive online reviews are not important at all. However, 90% of customers say they are influenced by online reviews.

▪ Small-business owners are not asking for online reviews: Only 13% of small-business owners ask customers to post online reviews.

▪ Small-business owners are not responding to, or monitoring, online reviews: Though 70% of consumers have a more-positive opinion of a business if they see the business responding to online reviews, only 43% of small-business owners whose businesses receive reviews respond. In addition, only 32% of small-business owners monitor their business’ online reviews.

▪ Small-business owners do not make the most of positive online reviews: Only 14% of small-business owners post customers’ reviews on their websites.

The overwhelming majority of customers are influenced by online reviews, so you should make monitoring and responding to online reviews—and posting positive reviews on your website—a marketing priority.


Fortune 500 companies spend vast sums of money and employ teams of experts to create and maintain their brand. Public opinion is at stake. When something tarnishes their brand, they waste no time and spare no expense trying to control the damage and resolve the crisis because their executives know nothing is more important than their corporate image.

As a small-business owner, though you lack their cache of money, public-relations experts and crisis managers, you should be just as image-conscious as their CEOs and board chairmen. But not only during a crisis. A well-informed small-business owner knows what customers like and dislike because the owners have conducted surveys and read their customers’ online reviews. They don’t have to guess. They know what their customers see.

Marvin Carolina Jr. is a vice president for JE Dunn Construction. He can be reached at