5 Steps to Respond to a Negative Online Customer Review

Updated on December 17, 2019
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As a small business owner, you put your blood, sweat, and tears into your company. You’re working holidays, spending long nights away from your family, and constantly prioritizing your business over other commitments in your life.

It can be hard work, but it’s worth it because you’re doing exactly what you love.

So when you discover a negative review online, it can be extremely frustrating. It’s hard not to take the review personally and keep re-reading the harsh criticism. Since your small business is a reflection of who you are, the words a disgruntled customer posts online can make your brain start racing: “Did I do something wrong? Is this negative PR going to hurt my bottom line? Will my reputation ever recover?”

As time-consuming and mentally exhausting it can be to deal with a disgruntled customer, it’s an essential duty of your job. Choosing to ignore and move on from a review might seem like the easiest solution at the time, but in the long run it can seriously hurt the reputation of your business. Especially when you consider that 94% of consumers have avoided a business because of a negative online review.

So what are you to do when you receive a bad review?

Start here — we’ve got you covered with everything you need to know. By following these five easy steps, you’ll be well on your way to strategically preserving the reputation you’ve strived to build for your business.

Step 1: Take a deep breath.

The first step after receiving a bad online review (as simple as it sounds) is to relax and collect your thoughts. Negative reviews are a natural part of doing business, and even the most perfect, customer-oriented entrepreneur will face bad reviews at some point. Once you realize that, you’ll be in a more cognizant mindset to reply to a harsh review.

You should also remember that reviews aren’t a personal attack, and don’t necessitate a heated reply. Your reply, just like your reviewer’s initial account on your business, is powerful.

Be cautious with jumping to a brash reply outright denying their claim or saying something off-hand like “this person is an idiot.” Writing how you actually feel may be great at the moment, but you could create an unintentional marketing fail for your brand.

Step 2: Investigate the issue.

After you’ve collected your thoughts and calmed down, it’s time to start investigating the source of the review. In short, you’re going to want to check that the online review about your business is substantiated.

If your run your business off a CRM, do a quick search for the customer that left the online review. In the case you find a match, you’ll want to gather as much information as you have on the customer—and if there’s an salesperson or other team member assigned to the account, you’ll want to talk to them. Try to see if you can use your customer interactions and internal data to see if the customer’s story has weight.

If it’s not easy to identify a customer (for instance, let’s say you own a restaurant with a lot of walk-ins), your examination might be a tad harder. Start talking to your employees and your business partners about the purported claims in the review. Ask them, “Did you have any interactions in the last month that could have caused someone to review us badly?” or “Do you have any idea of who said this (repeating the review)?”

To encourage your team to speak up, reaffirm that you’re not looking to punish anyone, you’re just looking for the root of the negative review. Chances are there is someone in your organization (maybe even you) knows the reason why the review was left.

Note that there is also a slim possibility that the review is completely fraudulent. If you’re confident that the review is spam or not about your business, follow the proper channels to take it down. Here is how to challenge a review on the big online review sites:

Negative Online Customer Review

Step 3: Reach out offline.

If during your investigation you find the individual who left a review, it’s time to reach out and mend the situation. You can reach out directly if you have the contact’s email or phone number—but be cautious. During your communication you’ll want to be truthful, transparent, and customer-focused.

Listen more than you talk, don’t try to deny what happened, acknowledge your errors, and most importantly, apologize. It’s a hard thing to do—but we guarantee this can help repair a tarnished relationship.

Your customer will appreciate the level of service you provide and your willingness to admit fault. It shows both character strength and a customer-focused mentality.

Finally, during your call or email with the disgruntled customer, offer them an opportunity to try your product or service again. Provide the person a discount, a free item, or some other form of goodwill to help bring them back in your good graces.

Step 4: Respond with a public apology.

The rationale for starting with an offline communication is to help create an opportunity where a reviewer may voluntarily remove their review from a site like Yelp, Google, or Facebook. If they go ahead and remove their review after talking with you, you’re able to skip this step. Your job is done—congrats.

If they don’t remove their review or you aren’t able to find the reviewer via offline channels, it’s time to respond publically. This is a big moment.

It’s the opportunity where you are able to share your side of the story with the public.

Keep in mind that anyone that sees the negative review will also see your comment right below it. Be mindful of that fact as you start to craft your message. You’ll want to keep a few things in mind as you craft your message:

Tell the truth.

Be transparent. If you or your team messed up, own up to it. It’s easier for other customers to understand a genuine brand than someone that’s playing dumb and denying that something occurred.

Here’s a great example of this technique from Stefan Debois, the CEO of Survey Anyplace. Note, how in his response, he personally responds to the two-star review his business received online and doesn’t deny anything the customer says.

Negative Online Customer Review

Debois describes his simple framework for approaching customer reviews as:

“Show that you support the customer’s feeling, regardless whether you agree with his opinion. Indicate what you will do to prevent the issue from happening in the future. Conclude with a positive note.”

Offer a sincere apology.

Once you’ve communicated your part of the story, it’s essential that you provide an apology in the mix. The words “I’m sorry,” go further than you think when you’re making amends. There’s a reason teachers make their students apologize to each other when they fight—it’s not only the right thing to do, it’s a psychological way to repair a relationship and the reputation of the wrongdoer.

Move the conversation offline, if possible.

While you want to provide a reply to customers, you also want to move the rest of the conversation offline. In your response, leave an email or phone number to encourage the disgruntled customer to respond to you off the reviews page. It’s especially important because sometimes these conversations can get heated. Communicating via email or phone leaves the resolution offline—away from the eyes of other consumers.

Don’t use a canned reply.

It’s easy to spot a canned response to reviews as you scroll through a company’s Google, Facebook, or Yelp reviews. Taking a few minutes to customize your response and even have the account owner reply can do great deals for your rapport with customers.

Step 5: Build processes to avoid future mistakes.

As a post-mortem on your response to the negative review, you’ll want to ask yourself — “how do I stop this problem from revealing itself at my business again?”

If you can quickly identify a process change (for example, our pickup orders needs to be double checked before leaving the kitchen), communication update (for example, we need to send an email before we renew a customer’s conversion rate optimization software), or something else, you can avoid many of the mistakes that can lead to unwanted reviews online.

It’s also important to check that you’ve set up proper channels for your customers to be able to contact you on your own site. Creating an easy to access contact page and including live chat on your site can make customers give their feedback to you rather than to the whole world wide web.

Another important thing to build into your weekly schedule is to monitor reviews regularly. Google, Trustpilot, Facebook, and Yelp are the most common platforms you’ll receive reviews online. Depending on your industry, there might be more niche review platforms you’ll also want to carefully monitor.

Negative Online Customer Review

Now you’re prepared for negative reviews.

Bad online reviews are not an if for your company, but a when. Your business will eventually face a true test in reputation management, and we hope you now are best prepared to respond to customer queries.

Maybe your most recent bad review was a wakeup call. And that’s a good lesson, especially since 85% of consumers find online reviews an extremely important of their purchase process.

From now on, you can think about how you can more actively solicit good reviews from high-value customers rather than reacting in crisis mode to bad reviews.

Ben Johnson

Ben Johnson is a content marketer at Proof, a Y Combinator-backed startup that provides real-time social proof software. Over 15,000 sites trust Proof to help increase their conversion rates.
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