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How To Handle Negative Online Reviews

Written by Kelly Kranz on September 17, 2015

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Ah, those pesky negative reviews. What’s a business owner to do? You work so hard to please customers, and you think you’re doing everything right. Then you check in with one of your online review sites and there it is: a bad review. Ouch!

Negative reviews happen, whether they are deserved or not. No business is perfect, so naturally you’re going to screw up from time to time. There are also people out there who are simply mean-spirited or who think that by posting (or threatening to post) something negative they can hold you up for a freebie. And then there are sites like Yelp that “filter” your reviews in such a way that positive comments seem to disappear, leaving you with a disproportionate number of negative reviews. Ouch again.

The best way to combat the negative is with a positive game plan.

Always respond to negative reviews. If they just sit there unacknowledged, they will fester and gain importance they don’t deserve.

Be nice, even when they aren’t.

You cannot fight fire with fire. You have to be the adult here, the one that takes the high road and handles every situation with tip-top professionalism. That’s not easy when someone posts a terrible review, especially if it’s unnecessarily nasty or factually inaccurate. Nonetheless, do not give in to the temptation to retaliate. If you must vent, type up what you really want to say, print it out and stick it in a drawer. Take it out next week and re-read it. Wad it up and throw it away, as you say to yourself, boy am I glad I didn’t post THAT online!

While your I-hate-you-back note is percolating safely in your drawer, compose a businesslike response you can post online, and do that right away. If necessary, have someone else write it so it doesn’t sound petty or vitriolic.

Depending on the issue, sometimes it’s better to contact the poster privately. The last thing you want is a public he-said-she-said argument.

If you believe a review is bogus – made up by some individual or a competitor – or it’s flagrantly inaccurate, you can try to take it up with the site administrator. But the majority of small business owners across the country say this is monumentally frustrating and rarely worth the effort. You can respond to inaccurate reviews to set the record straight about facts without getting into a tit-for-tat conversation. Beyond that, it’s best to simply move on.

Use those lemons to make lemonade.

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Your mom always said you should learn from your mistakes, and she was right. If your service was lousy or you ran out of an advertised menu special early in the evening or you were unfashionably late for a home repair job, admit it.

Apologize sincerely. Explain what happened, if appropriate, and fix the problem. Change your policies or your staff training to buff up your customer service. Don’t promote something you can’t pull off – prepare more food next time or warn diners quantities are limited. Plan ahead better with your scheduling or do a better job of keeping waiting customers informed.

Then – and here’s the best part – post another response to the negative review explaining what you did to fix the problem. This is a smart business move for two reasons -- it shows the poster and every other reader that you actually listened and followed through, and that gives you a big boost in the credibility department.

Since your real goal isn’t to simply correct the problem but to regain this person as a customer, take your response one step further by offering them an incentive to return – a discount, finishing their project for free, whatever makes sense.  

Accentuate the positive.

Ask customers to post reviews for you. You can’t overtly solicit Yelp reviews, but you can tell people what sites you’re listed on and tell them how much you appreciate customers taking the time to post.

Use quotes from great reviews in your email signature, on your website, on a sign in your lobby or waiting area, in your marketing.

Thank your fans.

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If you’re operating a solid, customer-conscious business, you can expect to receive far more positive reviews than poor ones. Check your review sites every day (two at most) for new postings, so you can attend to anything negative right away. Even more importantly, you can bask in the glow of all those nice comments. Who doesn’t love praise?

That goes for your fans, too, so respond by thanking them for their great review or their helpful suggestion. Tell them you loved having them eat or stay or shop at your place. (Don’t thank every reviewer, because it will quickly come off as canned rather than sincere, but do it often enough that people see you’re paying attention.)

In a 2013 consumer study, 83% indicated they read online reviews about local businesses. 79% said they trust these reviews as much as advice from friends. We’re willing to take the word of someone we have never met and know nothing about regarding where and how to spend our money.

So deservedly or not, online reviews have the power to build or destroy your business. No one expects you to get 100% perfect reviews. It’s what you do about the negative ones and the tone you use that build reputation and endear you to long-time customers and prospects alike.

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