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How to Handle Negative Online Reviews without Hurting Your Reputation

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Positive online reviews are a gold mine for any consumer business. Sixty-nine percent of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations, while restaurants can see between a five and nine percent increase in revenue with just a one-star improvement on Yelp. If positive online reviews are so critical for generating more business, then negative online reviews are a serious threat to your success according to NYC based crisis and reputation management agency Smart SEO Designs.

A 2011 survey found that 80% of shoppers have changed their purchasing decision based on a negative review. Review sites like Yelp, Angie’s List, Google, and CitySearch will not remove a negative review just because you asked, and just one or two bad reviews on these sites can scare away a lot of customers. However, you don’t want to accidentally make the situation worse when trying fixing your bad reviews either. Here’s how to handle negative online reviews without further tarnishing your business’ reputation and doing more harm than good.

DON’T Counter the Negative Reviews with Fake Positive Reviews

Fake reviews are illegal, whether positive or negative, and the Federal Trade Commission is coming after those who post fake reviews or who promise to write fake reviews in exchange for a fee. In September, 19 companies in New York were fined $350,000 for fake reviews, and both online reputation management firms and their clients (those who purchased the fake reviews) were fined. If your organization has paid for fake online reviews in the past, for whatever reason, then its best to remove those reviews immediately. Although this incident affected only 19 businesses in one state, it’s only a matter of time before other states look into the validity of reviews and catch more companies, since the New York investigation found fake reviews going back as far as October 2010. If that’s not enough to get you to stay away from fake reviews, Yelp will flag businesses with a consumer alert if it suspects you are buying reviews.

It should be noted that it’s okay to reward your customers for writing a positive review in exchange for a coupon, cash, or other promotion. It’s also okay to ask your employees to write a positive review. But both types of reviews need to be disclosed as reviews that have been rewarded or requested as part of the job. Failing to disclose that information would make them illegal as well, since it’s considered deceptive advertising at that point.

DO Address the Issue in the Negative Review

With a negative review, it’s important to be transparent about handling the situation and taking action to fix the problem or to make the customer happy. It’s not enough for a restaurant to find out that Yelpers think the service is too slow and then make an effort to improve service. Unless you respond to the negative review publicly, apologizing for the slow service and saying that you’re making improvements, all potential customers would see would be the negative reviews complaining that you’re too slow. They would have no way to know about the improvements. Some companies might not want to be transparent because transparency means acknowledging there’s a problem. But, unless you acknowledge the issue and show the customers writing these reviews that you’re listening and choosing to do better, then potential customers won’t go to your store or restaurant and will choose competitors with good reviews instead. Your business truly is at stake, so don’t let your pride get in the way of you transparently acknowledging where you can improve.

If you don’t want an argument or a petty back-and-forth fight to ensue online, then when you respond, provide an option for people to take it offline by inviting them to call or to send an email. Doing this could also lead to a more constructive conversation, offering the chance to find the best solution for each individual case while giving the angry customer room to vent or to offer a solution of their own.

One final idea is, once you’ve fixed the problem, invite the negative reviewers to try your product or service again. In the restaurant example, once you’ve solved your slow service problem, invite the critics to have another meal with you, and if they still feel the service is slow offer to pay for their food yourself. The only thing you should ask in return is that they update their review to honestly reflect the new experience once they leave.

DON’T Respond to “Reputation Management” Scams

Fake reviews are a growing problem. A 2012 Gartner study revealed that by 2014, 10 to 15% of all social media reviews will be fake and paid for. Even if you aren’t writing or paying for fake reviews yourself, you could become a victim of one if a competitor or scammer decides to write a negative review about your company for their own gain. Scammers posing as reputation management firms will even write the negative review themselves, and then ask for a hefty fee to take it down and monitor for additional bad reviews. If this happens, alert whatever website the review appeared on and work to resolve it with them directly.

DO Create Your Own Narrative

Even though fake reviews are a problem, you still need a strategy to handle the real negative reviews. To encourage positive feedback and to win back the support of your customer base, you need to create a counter-narrative online by developing your own content. A gourmet food delivery company accomplished this by creating blog posts to rank for search terms such as “[company name] reviews” and “[company name] [city name] review.” These blog posts then featured positive reviews they received from sites such as, SELF Magazine, and Hollywood Life while pushing the negative reviews down in the rankings. Not only do reviews from those sites lend more credibility, but this company put together a counter-narrative to show that the negative reviews weren’t the complete picture.

The best way to fix problems is to stop them before they happen, and in the case of negative reviews, you can often keep them off the internet with a simple email to your customers asking how you did. The email can catch a problem before it ends up online by giving the person a direct line to voice their complaints to you privately instead of publicly, and any positive feedback can be used in a future marketing campaign or as a testimonial on your website. Implementing a system to hear from customers on your own is also important because online review sites shouldn’t your only source of customer feedback.

It takes a long time to build a good reputation, but it can vanish in moments. While this probably won’t happen with your first negative review, you want to make sure you do all you can to protect your online reputation by politely explaining your side of the story on social media, and vigilantly watching for scams and fake reviews. In fact, responding to negative reviews by improving your business gives you the opportunity to turn unhappy customers into happy customers and happy customers into fanatics.. There isn’t a shortcut to earning either of those, and they will generate tremendous profits for your company over the long term.

Has your company struggled with negative online reviews? If so, what did you do about it? Let us know in the comments!


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