How Companies Should Respond To Negative Reviews

April 13, 2009
By Lisa Barone in Reputation Management

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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