By Diane M. Calabrese / Published March 2019
Never complain. Never explain. Turn the other cheek.
Is this good advice when a negative online review takes hold and spreads at the speed of light? Maybe not.
“We’ve all heard the ‘If a person has a bad experience, they will tell ten people’ story,” says Kris Caswell, a principal with ReviewMonster.com based in Oceanside, CA. “Well, with online reviews that scenario gets worse. Unlike word of mouth, online reviews are permanent and for the most part cannot be removed. Anyone who comes across your business online from that point forward can now potentially see these reviews.”
The influence over prospective customers is just one downside of a negative online review. The reviews will also “affect your SEO [search engine optimization] rankings,” explains Caswell.
“Leaving negative reviews alone is never a good thing,” says Caswell. “It leads customers to think their opinions don’t matter, and you can’t take constructive criticism well. Here’s a good formula to follow when responding to a negative review: One—acknowledge the issue. Two—apologize. Three—take responsibility. Four—invite them to discuss the matter offline.”
Reach for equanimity. “Don’t let negative reviews scare you,” says Caswell. “A customer who takes the time to leave any type of review is one who cares. Be appreciative of their opinions. They are giving you insight on an issue, which gives you the chance to solve the problem.”
DJ Carroll, the principal at the eponymous Coach Carroll in Louisville, KY, emphasizes the need for perspective. “Understanding where you can control the conversation and where you can’t” is a must.
“There are two areas on the web where people can leave negative reviews,” says Carroll, “the first being in the actual review area of your Google listing or Facebook page. The second is people leaving negative comments on your post or ads.”
Do what can be done, says Carroll. “Deleting the comment and banning the person from your page is what I typically recommend, as I find most business owners don’t have thick enough skin and can become emotional in their response. Reviews, however, are impossible to delete.”
To counter a negative review, Carroll recommends offering to solve the issue offline and providing a phone number for the reviewer to call. “Hi, Ms. Jones, I certainly apologize for—repeat their complaint—please give us a call at the office so we can help you resolve this quickly [provide phone number].”
What about responding online so that others can see the response to the negative review? “You never want to debate in an open forum,” says Carroll. “You will always lose.”
The medium has changed and amplification is enormous, but dealing with negative reviews has always been part of doing business. “The internet—more importantly, social media—has allowed all voices to be equal and in a very public setting,” explains Carroll. “While negative reviews have always ‘been a thing,’ the onslaught of social media has given people a microphone.”
Anything can happen, including wrong and deliberately given negative reviews. Not responding is not an option.
“Once, when I was with Soap Ware-house, we had a user of a product start writing a number of negative reviews about it and us online,” says Linda Chambers, the brand and sales manager with GCE/Soap Warehouse Brand in Norcross, GA. When she contacted the writer, she had a surprise. “They had not bought this item from us but from another company using our brand name and selling products at flea markets and out of a mini-storage facility.”
Chambers had a second surprise in the response from the buyer. “After explaining that we could not be who sold them the product; that we never sell at flea markets but only over the phone or online; that at that time we did not have a storefront; that the label on the item was not ours, so it was not even our product that someone else bought and was selling this way—the person was still upset and refused to write any retractions. But I was able to go out to each negative review location and post a reply with the facts, and later we even had collection agencies contact us looking for this other entity, finding us by our responses to the negative reviews.”
As Chambers’ account illustrates, it takes time to address negative reviews. But it is time well spent.
“Silence is no defense, and without an opposing view for the reader to see, the negative review—no matter how right or wrong—will be remembered as gospel and hurt your reputation,” says Chambers.
Moreover, explains Chambers, there may be nefarious activity that a business cannot allow to stand. “There have been proven instances of rival contractors and vendors paying for negative reviews to be made against a business because they know how much in this viral age a negative review can hurt the bottom line of the receiver.”
Through it all, the representative of the business must be the one to take the high road. “Never bash the writer of the negative comment,” says Chambers. “That only makes you look vindictive. Reasonable people will be able to evaluate for themselves if the negative claim was valid.”
A sincere response from the business will go a long way toward balancing the negative review in the mind of the reader, even when the negative comment has some merit. “Show that you worked to fix the problem and did not just ignore the customer,” says Chambers. “Then other readers may judge for themselves that the writer was being unreasonable and the review was unfair in the circumstances.”
The lemons-into-lemonade outcome is a bit difficult to achieve on the internet, but tamping down the acrimony is possible.
“Most of the time the initial damage has been done by putting a cloud over your good name, and most people, once they feel they have been wronged, will not completely get over it,” says Chambers. “But if you at least can bring the situation back to a neutral position, you have done as much as you can hope for in most instances.”
Again, negative reviews are not new. Similarly, they are not going away. So be prepared.
“The old line that ‘One happy customer will tell three friends, but an unhappy customer will tell 20 people they meet’ still applies but even more so,” says Chambers. “With sites like Facebook, when someone vents about how unhappy they were with a vendor, it will go to all of their friends on their list, which may be hundreds, and not just stop at 20.”
Yes, there are. Put on a consumer hat for a moment, and exit the realm of business owner. Most of us read online reviews before buying products, and we do sort through them with some care and common sense. A few negative reviews among tens or hundreds of positive ones will not dissuade us from making a purchase, especially if the negative reviews seem less than credible.
“As a consumer, I read product and company reviews,” says Kimberlee Handl, president and CEO of North American Pressure Wash Outlet LLC in Gainesville, GA. “It gives me an insight into the product, and it also indicates to me how the company handles customer service issues.”
Handl explains that by reading the response of the business to negative statements, she can usually determine who is at fault. For instance, she takes note when she sees the business side of a story “divulged in a polite, non-confrontational manner”—an indicator that the customer may be overstating an issue.
“While the old adage ‘the customer is always right’ is still a solid piece of advice, we do see many folks who see a negative online review as a method to a reward like a discount, coupon code, or some other benefit,” says Handl. As our experience with online reviews grows, the better we are all able to evaluate veracity of the negatives.
“Online reviews can be an excellent source of information,” says Handl. But, she adds, because our digital age allows posters to write and post “without a cooling off period,” reviews “can be extremely detrimental to a business”—taking a deep breath and putting a comment aside for a day before posting would help (us all).
The speed and reach of internet communication tie positives and negatives together in an inextricable bond. “While the internet has aided our world in many ways, it has also given way to the ‘keyboard cowboys,’” says Handl. “These are the folks that feel emboldened by the safety and anonymity that an internet connection provides.”
Yet no negative comment can be ignored. “It’s important to acknowledge the customer’s feelings whether the review is based in fact or fiction,” explains Handl.
“I believe that most people just want to be heard,” says Handl. “Online reviews give a customer that outlet. If a customer has a negative experience and it is addressed respectfully and politely, I believe the opportunity exists to improve the customer’s experience.”