Responding to Negative Reviews – Your Prospects are the Real Audience

Ted Paff is the President of Customer Lobby, an on-line solution to help local service businesses to get, manage and publish reviews. Ted called me when he read my principles of a review program post to introduce himself and his company. We had a far ranging conversation that covered everything from the economy to parents but always came back to conversation about reviews and their role in the online world.

I was particularly struck by his company’s approach to finding the lemonade in the lemon of the negative review titled: Negative Reviews Increase Sale and the idea that the response is as much targeted at future customers as the reviewer. I asked him to write a guest blog detailing how he and why he would suggest responding to the negative review :

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So you got a negative review about your business.  Although it stings right now, what you do next has a bigger impact on the ultimate outcome of this situation than the negative review itself.  Your actions will determine if this event enhances your reputation or becomes an embarrassing smudge.

Should you Respond and What to Say

As much as you might want to, you can’t profitably respond to all negative reviews.  Never respond to a review unless you can do Step 1 and Step 2 below (Step 3 is optional).

Step 1:  Own the issue.

Your first objective in a response is to communicate that: you are paying attention to the issue; the issue is important to you; and that you are sorry the reviewer had a problem.  Your prospects will be reading your reply with rapt attention.  Write this for them. Tell them that when someone has a problem, your business will hear them.  It doesn’t matter if the reviewer lied or only told half of the story – own whatever issue they wrote about.

Step 2:  Describe how future customers will not have this issue.

A critical part of any response is to tell your prospects that something has changed and this issue will not happen to them.  This is a golden opportunity to market your business.  For example, writing that ‘we have put a new process in place…’ tells your prospects that your company is good and is getting better.

Step 3:  Offer to fix the issue

Your business will spend a lot of time and money on sales and marketing.    Although you can’t always fix every issue (sometimes you don’t want to), your offer to fix a reviewer’s problem is a great marketing investment.   In the response, suggest that they contact you directly so you can try to resolve the issue.

Guidelines for your Response

Write it with your prospects in mind.  Before writing your response, think about who your audience is.  Although your response should be addressing the reviewer, the vast majority of the readers of your response are likely to be your prospects. Writing your response with the majority of your readers (a.k.a. your sales prospects) in mind will help you set the right tone.  For example, write about your company’s commitment to customer satisfaction.  Your response should not try to change the reviewer’s mind or dispute the facts as set out in the review.

Don’t be defensive.   One suggestion we often give to our clients is to send a draft of your response to someone that doesn’t work at your company.  Ask them to delete anything that sounds defensive.

Take your time.  A negative review most likely made you angry.  Resist the temptation to reply quickly because, unless you have superhuman emotional control, the reply is likely to sound angry.

Keep it brief.  Resist the temptation to “set the record straight.”  The surest way to ensure that your response never gets read is to give your side of the story.

Writing a short, non-defensive reply to a review that owns the issue, describes how the issue has been resolved (maybe includes an offer to fix the issue) will earn you the trust of your future customers.

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Another incredible resource in responding to negative reviews is a piece written last year by Miriam Ellis: Edit, Remove and Respond To Reviews – Tools For Conflict Resolution.

To get a sense of how far wrong things can go when an SMB decides to respond to negative reviews see Inc’s You’ve Been Yelped detailing how bookshop owner Diane Goodman, was “booked for battery and remanded to San Francisco General Hospital for a mental health evaluation.”

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
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32 thoughts on “Responding to Negative Reviews – Your Prospects are the Real Audience”

  1. Mike,

    Thanks for this great series on customer reviews. I’ve shared them with a number of clients who need some help and motivation getting started down this road. If customer service is the new marketing, customer reviews are the new collateral.

    By the way, I am not affiliated with Customer Lobby, but one of my clients uses the services and has had a good experience. I did a write up at Customer Lobby Makes It Easy for Your Fans.

    David

  2. @David

    Glad you have been enjoying the series. I have enjoyed putting it together. It will be interesting to see if Customer Lobby’s reviews get more widely syndicated which would make the service more valuable yet.

    Have you compared results of client using Customer Lobby vs setting up their own review garnering procedures?

    In your article you note: “With this program, as the business owner, you have the option of posting the review or not”. I was under the impression that the criteria for removal of negative reviews was more rigorous than just the business owner making the ask… they do however apparently vet the reviews for “truthfullness” which seems a valuable service to keep competitor and non customer reviews out of the mix.

  3. This is a good article; so many people are afraid of bad reviews and think they can avoid reviews altogether. They can’t – reviews are here to stay – and the sooner small businesses put their review plan, that you mentioned in a previous post, in place, the better. Thanks!

  4. @David
    Thanks for the kind words about Customer Lobby!

    @Mike
    Thanks for hosting this series and for the opportunity to contribute. It is fantastic to have a place to share and learn best practices.

    To clarify Customer Lobby’s review publishing policy, all valid reviews are published within 10 days of submission. We do our best to fight review spam through a variety of efforts (human and machine) including removing reviews from non-customers (competitors, ex-employees, etc.).

  5. @mike

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    Mike, it looks like you are more accurate than I. I may have gotten the wrong impression from my customer or maybe they have modified the service slightly – I honestly can’t remember. I’m going to update my post.

    According to the Customer Lobby website however, they do offer a ‘dispute resolution’ service to ‘manage’ negative reviews. This is great for a business from a marketing perspective, but does leave some gray area as to how the objectivity of the service is received. I would say Customer Lobby is a really good tool to manage and communicate reviews, but it is best when used in combination with other review sites.

  6. Yes, fear of reviews is a totally irrational response IF they run a good business. If they don’t then I suppose it is rational. :) The idea that a business can prevent a bad review by “hiding” the review process is equally irrational. My view is that the business needs to make the review process easy for both good and bad reviewers and totally transparent and cope with their fears.

  7. Super summary and sound advice here, Mike. One of the most wonderful potentials of user reviews, I feel, is that they can weed out the really bad businesses and give the chance for the good ones to communicate with their customers and show their classy way of doing business. No good business owner should fear reviews. They are a sign of life and an opportunity to grow.

    Many thanks for the kind mention!

  8. Yes I totally agree with you that if some error occurs you should own it up and not dump on the user that it’s your problem. Getting defensive can leave the customer disappointed. As a customer support executive, I have always tried to help out customers. I will also try to follow other guidelines set down by you from now onwards.

  9. Hi Farghana

    Yes, the errors that do occur while not ideal are inevitable. You can only hope that the reviewer has mercy and tempers their dissatisfaction…but owning the problem is the only way forward but avoiding the defensive response is very difficult…that’s for sure.

  10. Great series on reviews. I’ll be pointing a couple of clients to them. On negative reviews, like the old saying goes, crisis offers opportunity.

  11. IMHO reviews serve (at least) two purposes:
    1. Let other prospects know about my experience as a customer of the reviewed business.
    2. Give the reviewed business feedback about my experience AND let them respond to it.

    Too often reviews are either disgruntled customers, who just want to vent and not seek a solution for the problem causing the bad review, overly positive reviews by the business owner faking a customer or outright nasty reviews by competitors trying to hurt the business.

    There are different approaches to remedy that:
    1. The ‘yelp’ approach, applying a ‘secret’ algo to eliminate fake reviews
    2. Making date and name of the author of the review known (with permission by the review author)
    3. A review management and certification policy, which gives the business time and opportunity to resolve the problem and updates the review accordingly.

    The yelp approach seems too secret to make sense to the one time reviewer, who when logged onto yelp sees his/her review, but others don’t, since Yelp deleted the review as allegedly fake. You need to be become an active yelper to stay on. What is your opinion about the ‘Yelp way”?
    We at AutoVitals focus on independent auto repair shops and give the business one month to remedy a bad review, if the reviewer has a clearly stated interest in a solution of the problem and left the name. We also ask the reviewer whether the review can be made public or is solely meant as feedback to the business owner. Our experience is that less than 20% of all reviewers like to stay private in the communication with the business.

  12. @Uwe

    Reviews serve an additional purpose and that is increase visibility and credibility of a business on the major search engines and IYP sites.

    The problem I see with Autovitals is that it fails to accomplish that task…

  13. Mike, I am not sure I understand what you mean. All of our clients, who have been with us for at least 4-10 weeks are part of their local 7/3/1 pack with a significant number of reviews and /or have organic listings on page #1 for several local search sites (Google, Yahoo, …). If you mean that AutoVitals itself is not visible organically, then this is on purpose. Car owners in need don’t search for just another business directory, they look for a local shop to solve their problem. Thus we decided to put our clients in our focus and not ourselves.

  14. @Mike, we are not an auto repair shop, our clients are. The purpose is to enable feedback from car owners to our clients and other car owners in need (similar to Customer Lobby). Thus you don’t find reviews at our map index. Does that answer your question? Maybe we should take this to a one on one email, I was originally interested in your and the other contributors opinion about the yelp approach, publishing name and date and the review publishing policy.

  15. @Uwe

    So where do the reviews go and how do they get there?

    As to my opinion of Yelp (which may vary from many readers here)….Yelp will do what is in their perceived self interest…they perceive that low volume reviewers have less trustworthy reviews than high volume reviewers. That is their business decision.

    They control their sandbox so its not good or bad in any moral sense, it just is. If a business needs to play in that sandbox (ie if they are a restaurant in SF) then it is a vagary that they need to put up with. If on the other hand, they are body shop in rural PA then the value of Yelp is minimal. From my point of view it is a business decision.

    For the body shop that needs exposure to their reviews they would be best having them placed on either CitySearch or Yahoo fro maximum exposure to their likely customers via Google Universal & the many places Citysearch synidicates or in the case of Yahoo, the Yahoo universal results.

  16. @Mike: This is a great post. But it fails to address the fact that the biggest fear of a business being reviewed now is a competitor logging in on an untraceable PC, writing B.S. reviews to take down his competitors.

    As the yellow pages go more and more the way of the dinosaur, you will have a lot of jealous businesses trying to find ways to destroy their competitors.

    What better way than to write bogus reviews that Google REFUSES to remove? Think about that one.

  17. @Panzermike

    Fear is overrated. It rarely works well as a decision tool.

    Since there is little control you have over Google or your unscrupulous competitors I would suggest that not expend too much energy on it.

    As a childhood hero of mine once said: What me worry?

    Mike

  18. @Alfred E Neuman:

    Well one man’s fear is another man’s windfall in this case. It seems only fair that Google at least have measures in place to have bogus reviews reviewed/removed, or an opt out feature.

    I can already envision the litigation that will result and the Google custodian of records being inundated with demands for IP and user info for “interference with prospective economic advantage” lawsuits and defamation claims.

    But he was my childhood hero too, as well as Wally George of course ;-)

  19. You said “what you do next has a bigger impact” and not responding to a review is bad practice in my opinion. I had a client that had some terrible reviews as well as some raving reviews.

    If the client had taken this advice they would be able to acknowledge the terrible reviews and show potential customers that they will not have the same issues – Great point!

  20. @David

    In most circumstances, I agree that businesses should respond to negative reviews. However, if a company doesn’t have something constructive to say, I think its best to remain silent.

  21. I Google Mapped a trip, Utica NY to Holiday Inn Express, Cooperstown NY. OMG . . . Google Maps took me over 20 miles out of the way, to the opposite side of Otsego Lake. NO MAN’S LAND! I was late to scheduled events! I was unable to check into ‘prepaid reservation’ at HIEx until 10 PM, and issued the worst room in the facility!

  22. @Marcia

    Google’s directions work best in larger urban areas. The further you get from population centers the more you need to be sure to double check the answer they give you.

  23. As an innkeeper, a pet peeve of mine is when someone responds (mgmt response) to the general public and NOT THE REVIEWER! Talk about not owning up to anything. Address the reviewer, even if you disagree with them, thank them for the review, for taking time to share their opinions and experience with others.

    Their experience is what it was, what they felt, you cannot tell them they did not feel that. It is too late to problem solve, at this point, tell them thank you and a short what you did or did not do about it, and be done. K.I.S.S. always applies! 100% of the time!

  24. and…ps give people credit for be discerning and not morons, everyone knows nut-jobs are out there and when they lash out in a negative review, we can see that is what they have done. Don’t respond in kind, don’t stoop to their level and get irritated and short, and correct them in the mgmt rspnse.

  25. Hi Mike,

    I have a client who just received a couple negative reviews and he suspects it’s a former employee (he doesn’t recognize the reviewer’s name).

    I’d love to revisit this blog post from 2010. Has your opinion changed since originally writing this?

  26. Hi Chris
    Great question. These are written with the idea that the bad review is real.

    When you suspect forgery or malicious intent, you need to assess whether these guidelines function.

    At the extreme of dealing with employee reviews is the legal system. And if the review is harmful enough that might be a recourse. Although it can be expensive and offers no guarantees. You need a judge to order Google and the ISP to reveal the name & IP address of the poster.

    Short of that then you need to think long an hard about a response. If the review is compelling and not obviously written by a whack job then the above makes sense within limits.

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