Bad Reviews: Turning a Negative into a Positive

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A positive review can make your day. A negative review can ruin your week. Learn how to manage reviews to improve your online presence and gather ideas for improving your business.

According to BrightLocal, 75% of consumers always or frequently read online reviews when looking at local businesses. They have an outsized influence on the success of your business, so they deserve your attention.

You take great pride in your business, so a negative review can be devastating — especially for new business owners. But positive reviews can be energizing and motivating. It’s important to manage both.

Flagging Inappropriate Reviews

You may receive a review that violates the terms of the review site, so it’s best to report it. The site may remove it, in which case you don’t have to spend time coming up with an appropriate response. The FTC provides these guidelines for getting inappropriate reviews removed from the primary review sites.

For example, Google has seven reasons for removing a review: Off Topic, Spam, Conflict of Interest, Profanity, Bullying or Harassment, Discrimination or Hate Speech, and Personal Information. It’s up to Google’s discretion whether to remove a review, but report it if you believe it falls into one of these categories.

Use this option only when appropriate. Overuse may devalue your responses and cause real violations to be ignored.

Note: Consumers also see a “Not Helpful” option on Google, but business owners do not — probably because they would be tempted to flag every negative review as “Not Helpful.”

Managing the Emotional Response First

The key to managing feedback is to keep it in perspective. Perhaps 1 in 500 customers will leave a review (depending on your business), so consider them to be anecdotes rather than data. For a more comprehensive view of how customers feel about your business, look at your sales trends over time. This is a more healthy and accurate perspective.

Reviews are most valuable when they provide specific feedback — whether good or bad. Be open-minded so you can analyze a negative review without putting up a defensive barrier. Some reviewers just enjoy trashing a business, but there’s often an element of truth in each review. To find this truth, ignore all the emotional words and find the actual critique (if any). There might be some really valuable feedback hidden in there.

For example, let’s say a customer rants, “Worst cafe ever. The latte tasted weird.” You should check your milk products to see if they might be spoiled, and if so, figure out why that happened. If one customer complains about that issue, there might be 10 others who had the same issue and may never return. Be grateful for useful feedback like that — despite the way it was presented.

Responding to Negative Reviews

You should never respond to a negative review while you’re still emotional about it. It’s better to provide a delayed response than to make matters worse by offering an emotional response.

If you start writing a response to a review with a negative, snarky or passive-aggressive tone, set it aside until you’re ready to respond. You’ll be surprised how much a positive, action-oriented response can neutralize a negative review.

Start by recognizing that the primary audience for your response is not the reviewer. While it’s possible to convince a reviewer to edit or remove an inaccurate review, most negative people actively avoid admitting they’re wrong. If you want to go down that path, send a private message like Yelp and a few other sites offer.

The primary audience for your response is everyone else. So respond as if you’re writing to the reviewer, but use it as an opportunity to provide context when everyone else reads the review.

It is typically best to respond to every negative review, with one exception mentioned below. Providing a response, even if it’s just “Thank you for the feedback,” shows potential customers that you listen to feedback and want to continually improve your business. The best response articulates what you’re doing to fix the problem (if applicable).

The one exception is when reviewers discredit themselves in the review, such as a person complaining they couldn’t order a hamburger at a vegan restaurant. Anyone reading this type of review will immediately ignore it, so a response is not necessary. But these are fairly rare.

Just be positive, provide context to the issue, and describe the action being taken to resolve it for future visitors.

Responding to Positive Reviews

There is much debate about whether you should respond to positive reviews. They tend to stand on their own, so additional context is typically unnecessary.

A good rule of thumb is to only respond to positive reviews if you have something useful to add. A cookie-cutter response like “We’re so glad you enjoyed your visit! We hope to see you again soon.” is not useful, especially if it’s repeated for each 5-star review. At a minimum, personalize each response based on the feedback provided. Or don’t respond if there’s nothing to add.

Having said this, if you know the customer who left a positive review, go out of your way to thank them personally. This will help turn them into a loyal, long-term customer.

Encouraging In-Person Feedback

The best feedback occurs when the customer is still in your business. Whether the customer had a good or bad experience, you should provide an opportunity for them to share it in person. You’ll be able to start a dialogue that helps you collect details that make the feedback more actionable. And you’ll likely prevent the person from venting online.

Create an environment that welcomes and encourages feedback. For example, use phrases like “Let me know how you like it” when a customer tries a new product. If they don’t like it, offer something else they might like better. It’s an inexpensive way to gather really valuable feedback.

Next Steps

It’s never easy to receive negative reviews, but focus on the positive aspects of the feedback you receive. Take action that will make your business incrementally better. You’ll see the improvement reflected in your reviews over time.

Also, see Soliciting 5-Star Reviews for a way to gather feedback that leads to more 5-star reviews.

Next Up: A Growth Mindset: Learning from Every Change in Your Business