The Dos and Don’ts of Dealing With Negative Online Reviews

Updated on August 24, 2020
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Whether you check your business’s online reviews daily or haven’t even bothered to claim your Yelp listing, you can be sure potential customers are reading what others are saying about you online. A whopping 79% of U.S. adult Internet users check online reviews before they make a purchase or visit a business, according to a survey by[1] In short, positive reviews are a powerful way to drive customers and clients to your small business.

But many small business owners simply ignore online review sites because they’re terrified of getting a bad review. If this is you, take comfort: another recent survey reports that just one in 25 entrepreneurs say they’ve been impacted by a bad online review.

Chances are low, but bad reviews do happen. If someone slams you online, how should you respond?

Here are the dos and don’ts of dealing with negative online reviews.

The “Don’ts” of Dealing With Negative Online Reviews

If a bad review is plaguing your small business, here are some ways to not go about dealing with the situation.

1. Get defensive.

It’s natural to get mad when someone criticizes your business, especially if you feel the complaint is unfounded. You try to run your business as best as possible, so a bad review can feel like an attack.

But responding in anger does no good—and might possibly spiral into a viral nightmare. No small business owner wants to be the raging entrepreneur who couldn’t handle negative feedback. Take some time to get your thoughts in order before you respond. Maybe even write yourself and email to review later, and see how your thoughts come across on screen.

If you feel as though the situation was a total miscommunication, it might be hard to sound genuinely apologetic and not defensive. Even if you were in the right, try not to rub that in the customer’s face—it’ll only make the situation worse.

2. Ignore it.

Ignoring a negative online review is almost as bad as posting an expletive-filled answer. First, the reviewer will feel completely justified in his or her anger because you’re not addressing the issue.

Second, other customers and potential customers will start to wonder if you really care, or if they can expect the same brush-off if they have a bad experience.

Being unresponsive on a bad review might signal to current and future customers that you really don’t care about customer service, and situations like these aren’t all that uncommon for your business.

3. Get pulled into an online battle.

No matter how polite your initial response, you may run into a troll who just wants to keep complaining online.

If your interaction threatens to escalate into an exchange of name-calling, just re-state that you’re happy to resolve the issue and ask the person to contact you offline. Other readers will see that you’re being reasonable and that the troll isn’t. But if you engage with someone who just wants to pick a fight, other quality customers might think you’re just as petty as the complainer.

4. Beg for positive reviews to hide the negative ones.

If you fall victim to “don’t” #2 and ignore a negative, be sure to stay away from “don’t” #4—hiding negative reviews by begging customers to give you positive ones.[2]

First off, the jury’s still out on whether or not you should actively ask for reviews from customers. The best reviews for your business are those written by customers who were naturally compelled to gush about how great your business is. So if you have to pull teeth to get people to say great things about your business, it won’t sound genuine on your review pages. And if you were asking for reviews to hide negative ones, customers will know what’s up. If there are a bunch of fake-sounding positive reviews scattered between genuinely negative ones, odds are the customers will take the negative ones to heart.

The “Do’s” of Dealing With Negative Online Reviews

So, you know what to avoid when it comes to online reviews—that’s the easy part.

Now for what you should do when confronted with a negative online review.

1. Acknowledge the issue and apologize.

Just like in real life, most customers who complain on the Internet simply want to be heard. Before you try to get to the bottom of the problem, it’s crucial to empathize with them and apologize without blaming them. Show that you genuinely regret that a customer didn’t leave your business on a positive note.

And when you do apologize and explain the issue, you might change a customer’s mind and turn the negative into a positive! In fact, 33% of negative reviews on Yelp turn positive when you take the time to respond to the upset customer.[3]

2. Tactfully promote a positive image of your business.

Without sounding like you’re contradicting the guest, convey why his or her experience is rare in sincere and non-condescending language.

If it feels natural, include some of your business’s strengths in your reply. Responses can be a great way to flip the script and frame your business in a positive light—while still making the customer feel heard.

3. Be authentic and personal.

You never want to come off like you’re giving a canned response. You or any employees who respond to negative online reviews should use your real names (or first name and last initial), explain your role in the business and give your direct phone number or email.

When it comes to replying to negative reviews, sincerity is the key. The easiest way to be authentic is to reach out to a customer on a personal level.

4. Take it offline.

To avoid an online exchange that everyone can see, you should always strive to leave a sincere, thought-out public comment and then take the discussion of the issue offline.

Here’s an example of how to respond to a negative online review:

“This is Steve Wilson, owner of S&W Pizzeria [authentic and personal]. I’m sorry you were unhappy with the service you received at our restaurant [clearly states facts without blame]. Our goal is for every guest to leave feeling satisfied with the experience [promotes positive image]. Please call or email me at [contact information] so I can resolve this issue to your satisfaction.”

If it feels right, taking the issue offline shows that you’re fully willing to handle this situation—and you’re not just apologizing for show.

The Biggest “Do” of All

Once you’ve dealt with the situation appropriately, do use negative reviews as a learning experience.

If you consistently receive negative reviews or if a lot of reviews cite the same criticism—such as slow service in your restaurant or poor selection in your store—something’s up. This isn’t just a one-off blip.

Consistently negative reviews mean that it’s time to make a change. Consider it free market research!

Article Sources:

  1. “21% of Americans Who Have Left Reviews, Reviewed Products Without Buying or Trying Them
  2. “The Best and Worst Ways to Handle a Bad Yelp Review
  3. “How to Promote Your Business Using Yelp Marketing


Rieva Lesonsky
Contributing Writer at Fundera

Rieva Lesonsky

Rieva Lesonsky is a contributing writer for Fundera. 

Rieva has over 30 years of experience covering, consulting and speaking to small businesses owners and entrepreneurs. She covers small business trends, employment, and leadership advice for the Fundera Ledger. She’s the CEO of GrowBiz Media, a media company specializing in small business and entrepreneurship. Before GrowBiz Media, Rieva was the editorial director at Entrepreneur Magazine. 

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