A step-by-step guide to managing negative online reviews

Numerous surveys have found that a high proportion of customers regard online reviews as credible.

Many review sites point out that very negative (e.g. 1 or 2 star) reviews make up a relatively small proportion of all reviews posted. Still, negative reviews can have a big impact, so it's important to manage them effectively.

Stay calm, cool down

Many business owners feel upset or angry when they read a negative review. It's important not to respond to a review until you've cooled down.

Decide if it's worth responding

Some negative reviews aren't worth thinking about. If they're posted by somebody whose language and opinions are clearly irrational, or who's a 'frequent complainer', you may be better off ignoring them. Likewise, if a review is on somebody's obscure personal blog, and it's clearly unfair, you may decide not to respond.

On the other hand, you should respond to legitimate concerns, negative reviews by genuine customers, concerns raised by high-profile customers (e.g. those who post reviews frequently), or negative reviews on popular sites.

Read and follow the site rules for businesses

Most sites prohibit swearing, personal attacks and breaches of privacy. But there may also be some rules for responses that aren't so obvious (e.g. many sites prohibit advertising, ALL CAPS and links in responses). Make sure to read the site rules that apply to you. Each site also has rules for reviewers, and you should read these to help decide if a negative review breaks their rules.

Ask for false or inappropriate reviews to be removed

If you believe that a review is false or malicious (e.g. has been posted by a competitor), or breaks the site rules (e.g. contains profanity, personal attacks or private information), contact the site and ask for it to be removed. However, be aware that the site may not agree with your assessment, or may be slow to remove a review even if they do agree. Therefore, you may still like to implement some of the other steps below.

Research the incident

If necessary, speak to your staff to get their side of the story, and communicate privately with the reviewer to find out more details. If you've joined a review site, you should be able to message reviewers privately. If you haven't joined, you can post a public message asking the reviewer to contact you offline (e.g. by phone or email) to discuss their concern.

If the negative comment is on a blog, Facebook page or Twitter, you may have to respond publicly and ask the writer to contact you privately.

Understand the customer's point of view

Even if you don't agree with a negative review, try to understand why the customer has posted it and what they are feeling.

For example, if somebody has tried to call your hairdressing salon all week but your phones have been malfunctioning, and then there's a small mix-up with their booking time, they're likely to be far more negative about the mix-up. You need to understand the customer's feelings, not just the facts, if you want a successful outcome.

Respond privately to resolve the issue

Many businesses prefer to respond privately to negative reviews in the first instance. If you have joined a review site, your business 'dashboard' will allow you to send a private response. Send a short message to the reviewer in which you:

  • introduce yourself
  • thank them for using your business
  • thank them for their feedback
  • apologise for the fact that their experience didn't satisfy them
  • outline what you understand to be their concerns.

It's possible to do this without admitting that your business has done anything wrong, if you feel that's the case. Then ask for more details if need be, or make an offer to resolve the customer's concern.

Sometimes you just need to improve a procedure (e.g. 'I've asked all my electricians to phone ahead from now on if they're going to be late'). In other situations, you might offer some kind of compensation (e.g. 'We'd love to offer you and your wife a free cocktail next time you visit to make up for the mistake on the bill').

Most marketing experts recommend that you invite customers to return to your business. However, if a customer has raised very serious concerns, you will need to think carefully about how they might respond to such an invitation.

Respond publicly

Once you've communicated privately with the customer, it's generally a good idea to post a public message acknowledging the concern and outlining what you've done to resolve it. This will actually boost your reputation with many readers, who can see that you are responsive to feedback. If it's taking a long time for the complainant to respond to you, you might still like to post a public comment so that other readers know you've tried to take positive action.

Be polite and constructive at all times

A negative review is not good for your business, but a rude, aggressive or flippant response from you will probably damage your reputation even more. When responding publicly, be polite and professional at all times. Deal with the issue that's been raised, and never resort to personal insults or comments. The same applies to private responses. Remember, a customer can easily take your private response and post it online as well.

Learn and move on

Successful business people learn from negative reviews, improve their business if need be, and then move on. Try to use each negative review as a chance to learn something new. If you feel a review is really unfair, remember:

  • your response can actually improve your standing with customers
  • most consumers read more than one review of a business
  • encouraging positive reviews is the best way to give readers a balanced view.

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