How to Handle Negative Online Reviews

Judy VedderInternet Marketing, Search Engine Optimization

We’ve talked before about the importance of using local search sites (such as Yelp, Manta, and Google Places) to help your search engine rankings. These sites also allow prospects to read what satisfied customers have to say about you, encouraging them to do business with you.

But what about when this strategy “backfires”? What do you do when someone leaves a not-so-glowing review about your business? Perhaps more importantly, how do you make it go away?

Put on Your Customer Service Hat

Negative reviews give you the opportunity to respond to the customer complaint in the same way that you would in a real-life conversation.

What would you do if someone came into your store to tell you they were dissatisfied with your product, or called you up on the phone to explain their problem with your service? Do you have a “the customer is always right” policy, or do you reply on a case-by-case basis?

Whichever approach you take in “real life” can – and should – be applied to negative online feedback. The same is true with negative feedback on any social media site – Facebook, Google +, etc.

If the complaint is legitimate, don’t be afraid to apologize profusely and tell the person exactly what steps you will take to remedy the situation. While you may feel that admitting you were wrong could put your business in a bad light, quite the opposite often happens. Future prospects reading your response may realize that you are safe to do business with, since you make the effort to follow up with customers to ensure that their experience is a positive one.

Turn a Negative Review into a Positive One

A good example of how to turn a negative review into a positive one comes from a flashlight manufacturer who received an online complaint from a disgruntled European customer saying that he had been waiting for weeks for his order to arrive and was disgusted with the company’s efficiency. As soon as the company noticed the online review, a customer representative immediately and politely responded, apologizing for the delay and explaining that shipment circumstances were beyond their control. She followed up immediately with a long-distance call to clear up the problem. Soon after, the customer posted a follow-up message to his original complaint, complimenting the company’s “exceptional customer service” and pledging to give them repeat business in the future.

Deal with Inaccurate Accusations

Of course, there’s always the possibility that the “grievance” is entirely fictitious. I know of a mechanic who once failed to pass a vehicle at inspection, and a few weeks later discovered that the disgruntled customer had fabricated an entire story about how his vehicle had been dropped off to be repaired, wasn’t taken care of for weeks, and ended up being in worse shape at the end than it had been in the beginning.

If something like this happens to you, just remember – keep your cool and respond in as professional a manner as possible. Don’t be afraid to mention that the story is untrue. If you recognize who the person is making up the story, explain that you know what really happened in their case, that you are sorry they felt that they had to “retaliate” in such a way, and that you have other recourses in place for unhappy customers to take that would have been much more redemptive than posting a fictitious online review.

People reading these kinds of reviews later are generally pretty savvy and will recognize a red flag when they see one. If you come across as the “professional” in your response, they will often realize the attempt to sabotage your business for what it is: a lie.

Go on the Offensive

Unfortunately, because most people who post online reviews for businesses  – both positive and negative – are doing so through their own personal local search profiles (i.e.  they’ve set up their own Yelp account), it is difficult, if not impossible, to remove their negative reviews.

Because of this, some businesses, afraid of possible negative publicity, decide to steer clear of local search altogether and refuse to set up profiles for their companies. The problem with this strategy is that individuals can post negative statements about your business via their own accounts, even if you haven’t set up your own profiles. By setting up your own profiles, you are actually giving yourself the administrative power to respond to any negative feedback.

So, if you can’t remove the complaint, what can you do?

There is always the possibility that you could contact the local search site itself (i.e. Yelp) in the case of untrue accusations, explain the situation, and ask that they intervene to remove the slanderous statements. Occasionally they will do so, but often they will not, as they generally allow for freedom of expression for individuals.

A more effective strategy is usually to flood the local search site with positive reviews. Most local search sites post the most recent reviews at the top. If you ask some of your top customers (or even employees) to post their positive recommendations on the site(s) where the negative review is, their efforts will bury the negative review towards the bottom, rendering it much less destructive to your business’ reputation. (If you do this, it’s usually helpful to give customers the direct link to your company profile on the local search site, so they don’t have to spend time searching for it.)

Even better, once they leave their positive review, you can harvest it (with their permission) to use elsewhere in your marketing, such as on your website or a brochure.

While local search sites can be a minefield for businesses unwillingly forced to deal with negative online publicity, they offer a unique opportunity to express your company’s customer service personality in a way that attracts prospects to want to do business with you.