How Companies Should Respond To Negative Reviews

Something kind of scary happened last week. Yelp announced that they’ll soon let businesses respond to the critiques and the not-so-glowing reviews made against them on the site. I know, this should be good news, but, holy heaven does it make me nervous. Let’s face it, social skills and a beating heart aren’t necessarily two characteristics common to most organizations. Giving them a microphone to address the people vocally speaking out against them, well, let’s just say this could go horribly wrong. On a positive note, all our online reputation management services could be booming in no time.

Huzzah!

I kid. But not really. According to Yelp, the new feature allowing businesses to publicly respond to negative reviews and critiques will be live in the next week or so. That means there’s not much time to start the education process. Businesses, are you listening? You’re about to get a voice on one of the most active and loyal review sites on the Web.

Don’t. Screw. It up.

You need to act fast to educate your team on the When and How of reputation management. And you should do it before someone from your company goes and puts their foot in their mouth.

When to Respond:

Not all bad reviews are created equal. Sometimes going in and engaging a disgruntled customer will help them see your company in a new light and other times you’re just opening yourself up to more negative attention. Here are some cases when you should respond :

  • You genuinely need to make amends: Sometimes you just goof. Your company sold a bad product, you gave a tear-inducing haircut, you missed an appointment, etc. Life happens. People understand. If you goofed and someone is legitimately upset about it, it’s typically in your best interest to engage them and to do your best to make it right. It often doesn’t take much to smooth over one bad experience.
  • They’re misstating the facts: Your Company is being blasted for giving a reviewer a bad massage and not sticking to the promised 40 percent off coupon. However, you don’t offer massages (just haircuts) and you definitely don’t offer a 40 percent off coupon (you’re cheap). If that’s the case, speak up and politely let them know that they may have simply misunderstood something or perhaps they’re even getting you confused with another company. If it’s a matter of bad facts, you should step in to correct them.
  • When the review develops legs: Sometimes things that shouldn’t be a big deal gain traction and “me too” responses anyway.  These situations absolutely need to be addressed and need to be addressed fast. Staying quiet simply because you don’t think it’s serious enough to warrant a response is almost certain to invite the fire to spread beyond Yelp and onto other blogs and news sites. You don’t want that to happen. The best way to contain the mess is to handle it at its source. If something is gaining legs, get in the conversation and help calm it down. Often just a few words from you will be enough to soothe the hype and get the conversation back on track.
  • The person is angry with you, not just life: How do I say this delicately? Not everyone wakes with a spring in their step. Some people wake with the desire to ruin someone else’s day. If that’s all that negative comment on your listing is – someone’s lame attempt at attention – let it go. Yes, the negative comment will stay there in all its glory, but trying to engage said miserable person will only incite a war and will likely become far more damaging. If the comment isn’t outrageous or slanderous on its own, there’s no need to get it more attention. Hopefully there will be enough positive reviews to counteract it.
  • When someone else reads it and is offended for you: This may sound funny, but you’re not always the best judge of whether or not a review deserves a response. Companies often write negative reviews off as being written by “trolls” simply because they’re biased about their company. You can love your company and what you do, but not at the detriment to your customers. Every now and then, consider getting someone else’s opinion on all those “trolls” spreading “lies” about you on the Internet.  If a neutral third party thinks the problem is you and not them, well…at least you’re hanging around honest people, right?

How

Once you decide a review is worth commenting on, you need to handle it with some finesse. Busting in to police a community that you were just yesterday invited into isn’t going to win you over any friends. Take some time to get familiar with user attitudes with your company, wait for your hands to stop trembling and THEN keep the guidelines below in mind:

  • Listen: Listen without reacting. The complaints your customers have about your company aren’t really about you, they’re about them. They’re about how they feel. How they were let down. What they need. Find the root of the problem and address that. And sometimes that means looking beyond what they’re telling you. Yes, your product may have failed them, but perhaps it was your customer service rep’s total disregard for their frustration that really set them off. They’re commenting on the site because they want to be heard. Show them they have been.
  • Be Honest: If you’re going to engage a negative reviewer, come at them completely honest, sincere and with your hands where they can see them. Apologize for your mistake and let them help you find a way to move forward. Don’t make excuses. Don’t try to spin it to make yourself look like the victim. If you messed up, apologize and immediately diffuse the situation. If you didn’t mess up, then be honest about what happened. Without pointing fingers.
  • Remain Calm: If you can’t remain calm in a fight, then you should not be allowed to participate in social media. The moment you lose your cool, you’ve not only lost the discussion, you’ve also just thrown 20 gallons of kerosene into the blaze. Good luck making amends with anyone once you’ve shown that you don’t take criticism well and that you haven’t yet mastered how to play well with others. Oh yeah, and it almost always makes you look like a jackass.
  • Speak Like a Person: If you have an MBA, that’s awesome for you. However, your customers don’t care and they don’t want to hear any of those $10 words or corporate jargon in social media. You will talk like a real person. A real, apologetic person or you will stay the heck away from social media and critical reviewers. People don’t like robots or spokespeople who think they’re smarter than everyone else. We like normal people. Because we’re normal. (Shut up! Yes, I am!)
  • Promise to be better: End your reply with a promise to be better. Whether it’s a promise that you’ll try harder, make amends, listen more, etc, give them a sign that you heard them, you care, and that you want to be better for them. It’ll go a long way in establishing some goodwill.

If that doesn’t clear things up for you, follow the Air Force’s social media guidelines. It’s worth noting that the guidelines listed above can be used equally well to keep the peace with your girlfriend/wife. Good luck out there!

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About the Author

Lisa Barone

Lisa Barone co-founded Outspoken Media in 2009 and served as Chief Branding Officer until April 2012.

Get social with Lisa at Twitter

45 thoughts on “How Companies Should Respond To Negative Reviews

  1. Sage advice Lisa. I suspect a far share of business owners will screw things up but you have some great tips that can help reduce that occurance. As a business owner, I like the idea that there’s an opportunity to respond, but I also like the idea of letting clients do most of the talking.

  2. Lisa — great advice. Note to companies: being responsive responsibly is imperative to your success in this social media world. One bad Yelp or one bad TripAdvisor note can do just as much damage as 100. Always offer to take the conversation offline and recommend that when you’ve resolved the issue that the client goes back to their post and updates. Like Michael D says above — let the client do the talking, but you have to take action first.

  3. Outstanding advice Lisa.

    I think most people lean to one extreme or the other. Either they ignore negative publicity in hopes that it will go away, or they respond with guns blazing. They would have far better results if they just waited until they were calm, and then responded in an intelligent manner. Your article definitely gives them a step by step guide on exactly how to handle it.

  4. Lisa, you offer a really good roadmap here. One of the most important things is not to get defensive – listen without responding, as you said. Often, if your company has built up a good reputation, your fans will rush to your defense and negate a lot of what’s said in a bad-mood post by someone with a bone to pick.

    Another thing I would add is to take the opportunity to turn this into a genuine dialoge. “I’m so sorry you had a bad experience with our extablishment. What can make your stay/meal/experience better?” or “What would it take for us to earn a second chance?” If the original commenter was just looking to vent, you may not get a response. But they might just be willing to engage with you and give you some valuable feedback. A lot of people are really shocked when a business simply acknowledges them, that it can go a long way in reducing some of the ill will.

    @amymengel

  5. Really, really well done Lisa, and oh so needed. Thank you for articulating this very critical and important message. It’s a good reminder for those who already know social media and a great primer for people new to it. Great job Lisa.

  6. Fantastic article Lisa. Think your points in relation to not always responding are spot on. It is suprising how many organisations enter into a war of words without the consideration of the ‘footprint’ left behind – something that in many cases can be worse than the original offending article.

    Further to that – the requirement to listen rather than tell is fundamental to any brand reputation response.

  7. Solid advice. And very true when put into practice.

    You definitely shouldn’t go chasing after every single negative review/comment. But it’s hard to swallow the times when you just know some people have a problem and they’re not telling the truth/facts (even on national television, but we helped them anyway) and they won’t admit it. And pointing it out would only lead to more negative publicity.

    Currently going through a rough social media patch with a company and I’ve noticed that you really need higher level people to back you up. If you can’t or aren’t allowed to respond fast or (remotely) truthfully, then it’s best to stay away from social media alltogether and try to influence things through popular news sources.

    PS: don’t promise your girlfriend a damn thing unless you’re 110% sure you can make it happen. Best way to slow down those grey hairs. ;-)

  8. “The person is angry with you, not just life:” This to me is synonymous with “troll” Of course as the author stated, the best way to deal with a troll is to not acknowledge them. Any other time I’ll probably respond.

  9. Really nice post, some great points. I totally agree with your “If you have an MBA, that’s awesome for you. However, your customers don’t care” statement. lol…

    So much can be saved by just getting in touch and being friendly and professional with customers.

  10. So true. In a previous life, I used to work in customer service. I know it’s hard when somebody’s yelling at you to not take it personally. And it’s even harder to not respond with a personal attack right back.

    But it’s what you’ve got to do. (Not take it personally and not attack, that is.)

    I have seen waaaay too many times when a company owner — or a poorly trained, perhaps a bit overzealous employee — have simply made the situation much, much worse by jumping in with both barrels blazing, when a more measured response (or even no response at all) would have been wise.

    Great tips for how to “triage” a situation and determine what (if any) response is warranted. Those Air Force guidelines are an excellent resource.

  11. Lisa,

    Some “sufficient cause” thinking is important to understand if a complaint or other expression of dissatisfaction has merit. It is human nature to speculate a cause for an effect, especially when people do not really understand the ins and outs of the product or service that has provoked a response. When an organization listens carefully, it can understand the [often hidden] assumptions which connect the cause to the effect and determine if indeed this situation needs a response or if clarifying the assumptions will resolve the matter.

    If the team finds sufficient cause to believe a formal response is in order, I concur with your general approach. Here is how I typically deal with such situations:
    1) Insist that my team listen;
    2) insist that my team not get defensive;
    3) insist that my team take away [potential] action items; and,
    4) if it is necessary to communicate, speak with fact.
    The temptation is often to respond too quickly. I usually work to commit to some type of response by a certain date that is reasonable given our understanding of the facts and circumstances.

    Finally, I work with the team to mobilize the right resources to provide a measured response.

    I enjoyed your article.

    Cheers,

    – John

  12. Wow. Great advice! I wasn’t aware that Yelp was going to do this. At least now business will be able to refute the occasional outlandish claims that come up. It is going to take some level heads though. I know I have a problem when people bad mouth my business. I instantly refute all claims in an arrogant, you-dont-know-what-you’re-talking-about style. I am definitely going to have to work on that.

  13. I thought of your post yesterday when I called a local retailer regarding a double-charge to my credit card. It was a simple mistake and easy to fix, but the person I spoke with spent a lot of time telling me quite loudly that it wasn’t their fault.

    Since we were just on the phone, the damage to their brand was minimal (just little old me and whoever was in the store listening – hopefully no one!) but I couldn’t help but think about how that tone would have gone over with a larger audience. It’s a clear example of why it’s important to have guidelines in place for handling any kind of customer complaint, not just ones you encounter in social media. Your guide is a good one and I hope companies will pay attention to the ideas you’ve suggested.

  14. Great techniques here for responding to negative criticism, Lisa.

    I think the smart small business owners will realize that they are being judged by consumers just as closely on HOW they respond to negative reviews, as on the negative review itself. They definitely should not go off half-cocked and berate consumers or something just as silly. Although some undoubtedly will … but in those situations if they make things worse, then they have only themselves to blame if things blow up in their faces.

    However, on the underlying issue of Yelp and other review sites, it is absolutely crucial for small businesses to have this equalizing opportunity. It’s ridiculous for things to remain one-sided. They just need to respond the right way, like you’ve outlined.

    – Anita

  15. Come on , sites like MeasuredUp have allowed companies to answer reviews for awhile now. Customer reputation management is more important in an economy like this then ever before. Companies that listen to their customers will build their brand.

  16. Very good advice Lisa. I was actually just on Tripadvisor yesterday reading some responses from hotel managers to both negative and positive reviews. Some were just plain horrid but others really had it down, thanking both types of reviewers and being specific in their responses. I found a few hotel managers who were able to field these negative comments in such a positive manner that it made me want to stay in their hotel regardless of the reviews.
    Bizwiki doesn’t yet offer business owners a chance to respond to reviewers although it is on the cards. We’ll certainly be watching to see how it works for Yelp. Good luck to all the businesses :-)

  17. I have a few thoughts in reply to the entry. For one, it’s excellent and every small business needs to read it. Second, is the fact consumers are more empowered than ever and companies need to accept this. Third, I’ve had pretty decent success by digging deep to listen to what our customers (past and present) have to say about our company. Not all of it negative, not all of it impressive either; qualitative comments lend insight into their experience.

    I’ve found by leveraging Google Alerts, Twitter Search RSS subscriptions, frequent cursory searches and simply engaging and listening to customers helps me stay connected to the thoughts of the groundswell.

    Speaking of Groundswell, I encourage every consumer advocate, customer support manager and employees in any company to pick up a copy of Groundswell, read it and apply the principles in how to interact with customers on the Web. It’s very actionable and inspiring. :)

    ~Joe

  18. Great article, Lisa. I actually refer our members to the article now in our forum devoted to reviewing real estate gurus and courses. Most people think that responding to all negative comments is a good idea, and as you said, it could certainly backfire. I hope this piece can help educate these folks. Thanks!

  19. Good points for any online marketer to be prepared with. While everyone strives to deliver quality of our products and services, it’s also a fact that we sometimes stumble. In this case, we are at the mercy of a handful of people who are truly vocal about their dissatisfaction.

    But if we deliver what we promise most of the times, it would seem quite unfair that our reputations are tarnished by those 1- 2% of times when we fail to meet expectations. After all, no one, and no company for that matter, is perfect. I have used a tool AirCheese. Its really good for ORM. Check it out. Its beta version is available for free download.

  20. My review of this post:
    Since reading this post, my blue ram cichlid has developed some fin fungus, it’s obviously your fault Ms Barone. Anyone reading this blog beware – it will destroy your life.
    Kidding!
    I’ve been witness lately to an online feud developing (or continuing) between a couple of SEO industry leaders; Posts chalk full of passive aggressive remarks, name calling etc. It’s definitely put a dent into my opinion of their professionalism. While these guys aren’t posting negative reviews per se, they are responding somewhat passionately to each other’s accusations on a public forum.

    I agree, It’s sage advice to calm down before reacting to negative criticism posted on the net. Airing professional differences should always be done behind the scenes when possible.

  21. It is only expected that some clients will not be entirely satisfied with a company’s services. What is difficult to predict are the stuff that their reviews that they oftentimes post on the Internet. Although these reviews are important for the company in the sense of making room for improvement, they can still be damaging for the company. Companies who have lots of negative reviews online should make use of online reputation management companies such as Reputation Technologies. I hear that they do their job very well and remove the bad press from Google’s first pages right away.

  22. Really good, brief, practical advice. Thanks! :)

    I do have a situation going on right now with a customer of ours who was dissatisfied with the outcome of his order and who went on every possible review site to tell the whole world about it.

    We don’t currently have a review system or page on our site for customers to leave comments or complaints, so we pretty much just found out about it; he posted all of these comments over a year ago. (We’ve only just begun to get into our online reputation management.)

    I spoke with my CSM and he explained it’s one of those cases where the person is really misstating the facts. When he immediately noticed something was wrong with his order, we tried to tell him the facts, but obviously that wasn’t enough, so he felt he had to go on all those sites and complain about it. The CSM was very professional and listened and wasn’t defensive, etc.

    Should we just leave it alone or should we contact him and talk about it? Like I said, it’s been over a year.

    Thanks!
    Summer :)

  23. Hi Lisa, I really like the article a lot. Can you also suggest some tools apart from Google Alert through which we can monitor complaints lodge on the Internet against a particular company.

  24. Great content never dies, just found this today in a link posted on Twitter that directed people to SERP in Google for “how to respond to negative reviews on yelp”.. this was at the top of course right under Yelp.

  25. i found this article maybe long after it was posted but because i had a client come to me saying that they had been blasted in Yell and what should they do…they had already waited for 3 months thinkin about it, oh dear..

  26. Hi, Lisa,
    Great summary. I would add one more: Don’t try to get in the last word. When people are upset, THEY want the last word. Let them have it. Trying to get the last word yourself makes for a very long tirade.

  27. Superb piece – just what I was looking for!

    Good reviews are good to have – lots of them create a sense of “consensus” among the crowd. Bad reviews carry more weight and can have a disproportionate impact – especially if the response digs a deeper hole.

    For me, the upshot of this piece is just how important it is to invest the time and energy into responding to negative reviews. And clearly, it will take considerable thought and energy to respond effectively. But when you effectively respond to a negative review, you earn the trust of others and deepen your relationship with existing customers. And you may even turn your critic into a loyal customer.

  28. Thanks for sharing this information. When you put yourself out there on the Internet, you’re bound to get negative attention sooner or later – it is important to know how to deal with it. In the past, I argued with those who insulted me or my work. Thanks to this info, I know how to deal with it better.

  29. You will always find people enjoy talking more about negatives than positives, it is a way of life in some countries, being from the UK we know how much people love to moan, we just have to handle it like a professional online

  30. It’s a lose lose situation. Your damned if you do, your damned if you don’t. I’ve seen some interesting reputation management tactics disseminated in the blogosphere, but this article really lays out some practical strategies for dealing with bad reviews. Thanks for putting this together Lisa!

  31. Thanks, this was extremely helpful. I’ve been given advice that negative complaints should be addressed and I agree, but you’ve just shed light that not all reviews are created equal. Yes, some customers are upset and want the world to know and then they’re done. These complaints are helpful to consumers when they’re researching companies and serve a purpose. As a consumer when I’m researching reviews, I look for these customers who have something specific and legitimate to say. I never pay attention to the rambling consumers who have clearly have an axe to grind with a company and make outrageous claims. When I see that a company has a few legit complaints yet mostly favorable ones, then I’m more apt to use that company.

    On the business side, I appreciate the information on how to distinguish between the reviewers and which must be responded to right away. You’ve helped me to create a policy going forward, thanks!

  32. What? Grab the popcorn, I’ll warm up the couch! Who needs ‘Desperate Housewives’ and ‘True Blood’ when you’ve got Yelp!! Drama all the way.

    All joking aside, I agree that this move can either be a total disaster, or a true blessing. I do believe companies need to train their employees on customer service, and what better way than to deal with severed client relations? Since most disgruntled clients never actually face the company with their dissatisfaction, it’s hard for companies to identify their weaknesses and work on them to ameliorate their business practices. That’s where Yelp came in, in my opinion.

    And now the companies get to do some public client management. I am not sure most of them will. We have a tendency to turn a blind eye when problems concerning us do not reach us directly. However, for those that do decide to manage relations, this can be an opportunity to build a reputation and gain trust and customer loyalty by admitting to weaknesses and being open to change.

    It’s called a relationship for a reason. Everyone on board?

    M-A

  33. I come from the hotel industry and this is particularly true, as in our industry, our travellers now rely on social review sites such as trip advisor.

    While this is good for the traveller trying to find honest reviews on hotels and destinations, this is also killing hoteliers. One bad review could leave your hotel empty during the next long weekend or holiday.

    Therefore I do believe that business’s should be given a chance to respond to negative feedback, but hopefully doing it professionally and fixing the problem.

    wooozaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.

  34. Well how do you go about this…my name and company i work for has been for over a week now- constantly on ten different sites in counting…given a bad review. Some of these posts are copied and paste- as the same post shows up many times on different sites. Most of them talk about me being a terrible manager and in the same week this all started a false police accusation call was made to child protection saying I abuse my daughter. Which is completely false and the police said it was an anonymous call. They also say there is no direct threat in the online posts for them to get subpena to get the posters identity info. In the mean time I have exhausted all my suspects- and they all turn up that it’s not them. I have gone thru a lot emotionally and I am trying to figure out who did I hurt so bad for them to not only target my work but also my home life. The posts and the police call share too many similarity’s to be a coincidence. I think it’s connected. My boss says to ignore it and it will go away. However for someone to target my family and my child- is really disturbing and I can’t get a good night sleep until I know who it is. Any advice?

  35. Managing your negative reviews is important for any small business. Your tips on once you decide a review is worth commenting on were useful and easy to implement. Listening, being honest and staying calm are always good to do. Good article, thanks.

  36. It’s a lot harder than you think to react calmly to a negative review, business owners very easily start feeling emotional about there business, almost reacting like somebody has made the comments one of their children.

  37. There are some great social media tools out there to help everyone. Many people rely on review sites to make their decisions.

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