ORLANDO – Julie Kean didn't particularly enjoy her recent visit to PDQ restaurant. So she did what an increasing number of people do: left a less-than-stellar review on the popular online business-review site Yelp.
The 55-year-old said she "was just expecting something totally different."
But she was surprised at what happened next. A PDQ official contacted her through the site and invited her back to the Orlando-area restaurant for a second chance. She said she was impressed by PDQ's willingness to try to make amends.
"They are trying to improve," she said. "If more businesses did that, you'd have more people come back."
Online review sites such as Yelp, Angie's List and Google have given business owners a new way to connect with customers.
PDQ co-founder and CEO Nick Reader said giving Kean a behind-the-scenes look at his eatery's food-preparation process helped show her another side of the business.
"Social media and the Internet have become another outlet for people," he said. "You have to take the good with the bad, but you can't take it personally. You have to be sincere and listen, even if you don't like what they say." Reader said reaching out to Kean is the kind of direct approach his company tries to exhibit.
That approach has become more common in business, with more seeking comments from customers after providing services.
"Small businesses need to take a more active, engaged role in connecting with customers, or someone else will," said Paul Bascobert, an executive with Yodle, an online marketing company.
One of Yodle's services helps clients build a social-media presence and guides them through the steps to create a system that actively seeks feedback.
"For small businesses, seeking reviews is just not what they do," he said. "Oftentimes, they are good at plumbing or HVAC work. They didn't go to school for social media."
Jennifer Martin's downtown Orlando Bee Square Tax Consultation and Service last year had two employees reach out to customers following consultations, seeking feedback.
The result was more than 100 people reviewing the business on the ratings website RateABiz.
"We had no online presence," said Martin, who has been at Bee Square for 30 years. "We knew something had to change. It turned out better than expected. We understand now the power of an online presence."
Yodle, based in New York, persuaded Martin to solicit feedback directly. A recent Yodle survey found 90 percent of consumers would offer feedback online if asked. But only 10 percent of responding businesses said they have a means for customers to give that feedback.
At PDQ, a fast-food and chicken joint, the criticism can be harsh at times, Reader said. The eatery debuted in Central Florida in 2011 and has 42 locations in seven states, with most of them in Florida. But Reader called review sites such as Yelp and Urbanspoon "phenomenal tools."
"We strive to be perfect, but we love the feedback," he said. "As any restaurant, you want more good than bad. You might not like it. But the people who usually post are those who care about food."
During her follow-up visit to PDQ, Kean received a VIP tour, taking a behind-the-scenes look at the workings of the restaurant. She was so impressed, she suggested the company open a window into the kitchen so others can see how it all works.
Kean, who works as a personal assistant, says she takes her reviews seriously because her opinion could help others.
"Whether they are good or bad, I like to go on there and check reviews out and be honest about whether I really like it or not," Kean said. But "it's only as good and honest as the person leaving the review."
Kean, who has left 44 reviews on Yelp during the past two years, says they give consumers more power than ever in the merchant-customer relationship.
"Before, if you had a bad experience, you'd call the store and say so," she said. "Or you'd turn in a comment card. It was only word-of-mouth with your friends and family. But it's a great avenue now because it makes these retailers step up because they have to answer to more people now."