How To Handle Negative Reviews

Young man in brown suit yelling into a rotary phone.

I firmly believe that all marketers should work a dinner shift in a restaurant at least once in their lives. You get to meet a huge spectrum of personality types. You anticipate customers' needs, and swoop in before they even have to ask for something. You get a genuine rush from seeing people delighted with their evening out with loved ones, enjoying a delicious meal. Your whole focus is oriented to the customer's experience.

Server leaning over customer to make menu suggestions.

And, holy sh*$, do you ever get complaints.

  • “The music is too loud!”
  • “This fly won’t stop buzzing around my head!”
  • “My steak is overcooked!”
  • “Did you forget to put the vodka in my martini?”
  • “I forgot to say, I’m gluten intolerant...are you trying to kill me with these croutons?”

Or best of all…

  • “Yeah, I didn’t really like my meal,” the customer tells you as you clear away their fully finished plate.

For better or worse, the customer is always right. No service staff should ever have to put up with abuse, that’s not what I’m saying. The customer’s perception of their experience is always right. If their chicken came out cold, that’s their perception. If they had to wait too long for the cheque, that’s their perception. If you sat them at the worst table in the restaurant, that’s their perception.

Dissatisfied customers are just part of the job. As such, servers are trained on these basic protocols. When a customer lodges a complaint about their food, the correct response is to:

  1. Apologize profusely
  2. Immediately remove the offensive meal from the table
  3. Summon a manager to rectify the situation
  4. Bring back the new and improved meal
  5. Offer a discount on the total bill, a free dessert, a gift card...something to make it right

Even if the customer is dead wrong!

Why do restaurant staff capitulate like this?

Because they’re in the business of making their customers happy.

You know what restaurants don’t do when a customer is unhappy with something?

The manager doesn’t come over to the table and loudly argue about why the customer is mistaken. They don’t list the reasons why the restaurant actually has the best food in the city, the best service, a satisfaction rating of 95%, a line out the door of new customers, or awards on their mantel. They don’t do this loudly and in public.

So WHY, why on Earth do marketing managers do this when their company gets negative online reviews?

Reviews Are A Pillar Of Your Brand Presence

The online marketplace demands transparency. Customers can search a dozen similar companies, products and services within minutes. They’re looking for the best service for the best price.

Reviews are an enormous part of this consumer driven landscape. Reviews could come in the form of YouTube videos, Amazon purchase feedback, forum posts, directory ratings, Glassdoor entries, or direct listings on a website.

Sephora, a business driven largely by the beauty community, has reviews integrated into each product page. A product that has lots of positive reviews is one that new buyers will take a chance on. The brand name will grow. Organic search rankings rise. Buzz begets more buzz.

Grey and white kitten having a big stretch with eyes closed.

88% of customers incorporate reviews into their buying decision. Reviews are seen as more trustworthy than celebrity endorsements. And it only takes 1-3 negative reviews to steer a customer away from a product.

Reviews are especially important when your company is attempting to disrupt a category. In the acclaimed marketing book Crossing The Chasm by Geoffrey Moore, one of the central messages is that social proof is required to move a product from the early adopter market segment to the early majority. The early adopters will spend their money on technology for technology’s sake. The early majority look for that social safety assurance that the product does what it’s supposed to and delivers real value.

Whether you’re trying to grow your innovative brand into a household name, or increase your share of a well-established market, reviews are incredibly important.

Be Humble, Take Feedback

One of the reasons focus groups are widely recognized as wastes of time and money is because they provide misleading data. If you ask someone a question, chances are they’ll tell you what they think you want to hear.

Negative reviews buck that trend.

Negative reviews are obviously written from a place of bias; the individual had a negative experience, and is maybe predisposed to be vocal about it. But that doesn’t nullify the value of their feedback.

Marketers need to be stone cold sober when evaluating the typical customer experience they provide. Customers are real people, with real stress going on in their day, with real chips on their shoulder...you name it. A big portion of your clients will take a more jaded attitude when going through the customer journey you’ve laid out.

People who leave negative reviews aren’t concerned with brown-nosing. They’re not your favourite aunt coming to leave a glowing review to help you out. They're not your friends from college who are amazed you’ve launched a company. Negative reviewers are dishing out the truth, whether you can handle it or not.

Stop! You’re Making Yourself Look Bad!

It’s treacherous waters when we go head-to-head with an angry person. There’s a strong psychological principle which suggests that when we spread negative information about someone, people will listen and judge that person negatively. But we’ll also receive that very same negative judgement.

In plain terms: badmouthing others makes us look just as bad.

Getting defensive with a negative reviewer makes your brand look petty, unprofessional and chaotic. It shows that you don’t exist to serve your customers. Instead, they’re supposed to bow down to you. With the viral power of the internet, this attitude from a brand will not be tolerated.

Skincare line Drunk Elephant found this out the hard way when it refuted a mildly negative review from a beauty influencer, and then went on to curtly respond to some inquiring DMs. Before long, previously ardent customers were coming out of the woodwork to proclaim their negative experiences with the brand's products and customer service channels. Drunk Elephant, a pillar of the clean beauty niche, had their small corner of the market turn against them on a dime.

Or what about Glassdoor? Granted, most customers won’t look at those reviews before making a buying decision, but some might. With certainty, top talent you might be looking to hire will peruse Glassdoor. Future investors will also look at employee feedback to gauge the stability of a company. Employers that defend themselves against every less-than-stellar review give themselves a bad look. It invalidates the employee’s experience. And, it makes it look like the employer holds an iron fist over internal attitudes and culture. Employee feedback is an extremely valuable dataset when looking to optimize your operations. But, again, you can’t rely on feedback from unwaveringly cheery employees who have nothing to complain about. You have to look for the pain points.

Don’t Ignore Bad Reviews

While it’s a poor idea to get defensive with a negative reviewer, you can’t ignore them either. Particularly, you can’t thank all your positive reviewers while giving the silent treatment to negative reviews, on the very same webpage! People have eyeballs, and they will see this.

Have review-response templates at the ready for whatever type of review you receive. Resist the urge to have a gushy conversation with a positive reviewer. Keep it concise.

If (and when) you get a negative review, your response should consist of three components:

  1. A sincere apology
  2. A vow to make the situation right
  3. Contact information so concerned parties can get in touch

Here’s an example:

“We’re so sorry our (bath soap, cell phone, latte, hair cut) didn’t meet your expectations. We’d like to extend an offer in apology. Please contact us at 1-800-so-sorry and we’ll make it right in no time.”

When you ignore bad reviews, it makes it look like you have no plan for how to handle tough situations. There’s no back-up system in place. Don’t give customers the impression that your castle is made of popsicle sticks.

Really Make It Right

When a customer calls your hotline to accept your offer of retribution, treat them properly. Listen to their concerns, and inform the customer that the information is being passed up the chain. Let them know that this type of incident won’t be repeated in the future. Then, give them a refund. Or a rebate. Or a free gift.

It doesn’t have to be a lot. Don’t think of this compensation as coming out of your bottom line. Rather, it’s an investment in making sure negative word about your company doesn’t spread.

A customer who feels truly listened to and truly valued may go back and update their review to reflect this positive experience. They will probably tell their friends about the wonderful customer service they received. They will become a repeat customer of your business, because they’ve already poured so much time and energy into this relationship. Marketing studies show that every touchpoint a customer has with your business further cements the relationship. That is, as long as you keep the outcomes positive.

Understand The Psychology Of A Complainer

Everyone who’s worked in customer service has felt like a free therapist at some point or another. People who work at call centers note the same people calling them again and again. Doctors have perfectly healthy patients who insist on coming in weekly for checkups. Fast food workers have to deal with the crotchety old man who complains everyday about his bagel not being toasted enough (okay, this one’s personal to me).

Some people just need to be heard. Sure, maybe it’s not totally fair that they have to air out their grievances at the expense of your brand. Maybe it’s not totally fair that ornery customers take advantage of your staff’s friendliness and the fact they don’t get a break until noon. Welcome to planet Earth, the land of things not being fair.

This is simply a personality type your company will have to manage. The kind of person who wields what little power they have in life by being an online tyrant.

The good news is, these folks are largely bark and little bite. Recognize that what they really want, deep down, is to feel special. By playing into this need, you’ll have a highly satisfied customer, a strong regular, and a pleasant time all around.

“Hi Barry! How’s this for your bagel? I know you like it extra toasted, we’re getting it down to a science so the edges have just the right amount of char. Alright, butter, cheddar, and there you go. How’s the farm doing? Your grandkids? Bring them around sometime, alright, you have a good one now.”

You just made Barry’s day.

Don’t Fear The Negative Review

Much like the reaper, negative reviews are inevitable. But it’s not all doom and gloom; customers actually see bad reviews as a sign of transparency and authenticity. In fact, customers tend not to trust a review board that’s filled with only positives. Alarm bells go off that these reviews are shilly (written by employees, paid-off customers or the boss himself).

A couple negative reviews peppered in amongst the positives gives a healthy mix to your social proof profile.

Sometimes you don’t need to worry about negative reviews if they’re superficial. They only make the poster look like a prima donna. Hey, you can’t please everyone. Some people, right? *Wink*.

But, whatever you do, do not argue with a negative reviewer. It’s a hugely unprofessional look. It will mobilize the power of the masses against your brand. And it will surely make a mountain out of a molehill, when maybe your customer just wants a sympathetic ear.

Negative reviews are prime oppourtunities to learn. If you turn your company into an echo chamber, you’ll alienate strong talent on your team, lose customers and incur strained morale. It’s easy to pay lip service to how you’re building a transparent environment, but it’s much more difficult to actualize one. If you truly want to be a data-driven company, take negative reviews seriously.

Most of all, don’t let negative reviews discourage you. If dinner service shut down every time a customer complained that their soup was too salty, or their salad was too leafy, or their fish was too fishy...all restaurants would be out of business. There’s something to be said for cutting your teeth in the hospitality industry. You get an old-fashioned feel of how to cater to a customer, and a professional attitude that bleeds into your future experiences.

Anyways, if your experience reading this article was disappointing, I am thoroughly sorry. Please direct all inquires to alicepatdono@gmail.com, and I’ll be in touch shortly with an exciting offer to make it right.

Expect a free slice of cheesecake in the mail.

Slice of cheesecake with strawberry on top.