How to Handle a Bad Online Review

Part 1: Thinking before you act

You run a small business. You have a social media presence with some followers, but you’re not a celebrity with millions of people following your accounts. Your business has a page on a few consumer review sites, like Yelp! or Google Reviews or TripAdvisor. You have a dozen, a few dozen, or a few hundred reviews, not thousands and thousands of them. Your reviews are generally positive, which makes sense because you work hard to ensure your customers have positive experiences and a high level of satisfaction.

So when you see a scathing, one-star review, you’re taken aback. You may be angry or feel attacked. You may be worried about whether anyone else has seen the review and if it’s going to affect your business. What do you do?

There are a number of things to consider before you respond or take any other action. As tempting as it can be to take immediate steps to combat a negative online review, it is important to act thoughtfully and strategically. Before deciding on a course of action, think through the situation.

Step 1: Step back. Walk away. Take a breath.

Do not respond to a review in the heat of the moment, no matter how unfair the review is or how ridiculous it is. Talk with your business partners or staff; consult with an attorney; vent to your family, but do not respond to the review until you have had some time to cool off. The person who wrote the review may have acted rashly in a moment of frustration, don’t respond in the same way.

Step 2: Try to find out who wrote the review.

After you’ve had a chance to cool off, look back at the review and see if you can identify whether it came from a legitimate customer or someone who interacted with your business.

Does the name sound familiar?

Because many reviewers post anonymously or under fake names, don’t stop at the name. Read through the review. Do the events described in the review sound familiar to you or your staff?

If the review does not appear to be from someone who has done business with you, who else might have posted it?

It is not unheard of for competitors to attempt to sabotage one another through fake reviews. Is there evidence one of your competitors did it?

Does it seem like a personal attack? Unfortunately, sometimes people with a personal grudge against you or someone who works with you use review sites to cause harm.

Does it sound like the reviewer might be confused? Maybe your business has a name that is similar to another business or is located near the business the reviewer meant to attack.

Don’t assume the review platform or site is going to help you figure out who posted the review. Most of the well-known platforms are not going to reveal subscriber or user information without a court order or subpoena, and those are not tools you will have access to without a lawsuit. If the review sounds like it could be from an actual customer, assume that it is for the purposes of figuring out how to respond.

Step 3: Determine if the information in the review is accurate.

Some statements are just opinions, like, “I don’t like this restaurant,” or “the doctor here is annoying” or “I hate this place and wish they would close.” You can’t really say if those are accurate or not because they can’t be proven true or false.

If a person says they don’t like your restaurant and describes how the food was cold, the restroom was dirty, and the service was slow, those are all statements that at least hypothetically, could be disproven.

Knowing whether the review is just an opinion and whether it’s accurate or not will help determine what steps you take to address it. You’re probably going to want to approach an honest, but unflattering, review, differently than a review filled with false and misleading statements of fact.

Step 4: Ask yourself, how bad is the review?  

Not all bad reviews are equally bad. With the rise of consumer review platforms came abuses from businesses and consumers, alike. Some businesses, for instance, manipulated their ratings and paid employees, strangers, or actual customers to leave positive reviews. Many consumers have become aware of these and other deceptive practices. Some have come to be skeptical of businesses that have only the highest ratings.

Short reviews and brief opinion statements may not carry as much weight when consumers read through your business’s reviews. They might even help show consumers that your reviews are honestly earned and encourage a favorable impression of your business overall. A detailed review, whether accurate or not, that lists out specific events or reasons to support the reviewer’s assessment may be more likely to give a consumer pause.

A review that is full of hostile and abusive language says more about the reviewer than it does about your business. But it’s still not the type of material you want other consumers to have to read through.

Step 5: Ask yourself, how much does the review matter?

If your business has dozens and dozens of reviews, a negative review here and there isn’t as likely to have a profound effect on your business, or even on your business rating. But if you have only a handful of reviews, even one negative post will stand out from the rest.

Take the time to think through each of these considerations before moving on to the next steps: deciding if and how to respond.

Part 2: Taking action

Whatever your response might be, first consider taking some action to capture or save or preserve the review. There are apps and programs to help, but in a pinch, a clear screenshot will do. If you have any reason to believe the situation might escalate, it is helpful to have documentation showing what happened and when it happened.

Once you have taken the time to consider the review, its most likely author, and the potential effects it might have on your business, you can think about what to do next. Below are just a few of the options that might be available to you, depending on your circumstances.

Option 1: Do nothing.

This is an option to consider if the review isn’t terrible, isn’t prominent, and isn’t likely to have any effect on your business. You are not obligated to respond to every statement every person makes about you or your business. Any action you take in response to a review has the potential to escalate the situation and lead to greater costs to you. Although it may seem like it is important in principle to respond to negative comments, try to think about whether it makes sense from a business perspective.

Option 2: Report the review.

Most major review sites have community standards and terms of use that users agree to in connection with using the site. There is often an option to flag or report the review if it violates the site’s standards. If the review is abusive, threatening, or offensive, it could be removed for failure to meet community standards.

Keep in mind review sites are not typically in the business of determining who is right and who is wrong. They are concerned with whether the content, on its face, is offensive. They are not concerned with whether the content is offensive to you personally because you believe it is inaccurate and misleading. If the review’s language contains threats of violence or extortion, curse words or slurs, or discriminatory or abusive language, flag or report the review. It may lead to the review’s removal.

Additionally, if the review isn’t about you—if it’s a review about a different business, or if the review is not from an actual customer of yours, those can also be reasons to report the review. Some, but not all, review sites may investigate and potentially remove the review in response.

Option 3: Respond offline.

If you know who posted the review, if the review is accurate, and you have a means of contacting the poster, you can consider responding offline and asking what you can do to make the situation right. You do not have to offer a refund and should not offer an incentive to remove the review. This option is just a way to reach out and address the person’s concerns without the rest of the world watching. This step is not likely to be effective if the person is irrational, if they lied or exaggerated in their review, or if they have behaved in a hostile or aggressive manner toward you or your staff.

Option 4: Respond online.

Most review sites also allow businesses to respond to the reviews they receive. If you are thinking about responding in this manner, it is important to consider whether you can respond and what you should say.

First, you may not be able to respond. Many businesses are obligated to keep customer information private because of state laws, federal laws, or a business’s policies and procedures.

If your business is a medical practice, for example, and you respond to a review, you run the risk of confirming the reviewer is a patient of yours.
Unless you have consent from the patient, you could breach your legal duty to keep some information about the client confidential by commenting on the information in the review, even though the information was voluntarily disclosed.

If you are unsure about whether you are within your rights to respond to a review, consult with your attorney or with an attorney who has experience with privacy and confidentiality requirements.

If you can respond to online reviews, what should you say?

It depends on whether your goal is to be right or to be effective.

Because consumers are more accustomed to seeing negative reviews than they may have been in the past, a negative review on its own may not be as influential as the business owner’s response. A response that indicates the business values feedback invites the reviewer to discuss their concerns offline, and compassionately corrects inaccuracies may not only negate the effects of a negative review, but enhance the business’s overall reputation.

A response that only points out the inaccuracies and chastises the reviewer may increase the believability of the review and detract from the business’s reputation, even if the business owner is completely in the right. 

Facts are important. But how the facts are presented can be even more important.

In general, try not to let your first negative review be the first time you respond to a review. Many businesses make a practice of responding to all their reviews, positive and negative. While that may not be feasible for your business, regularly interacting with reviews may let consumers know you are engaged and care about your customers’ opinions.

Option 5: Ask the reviewer to edit or take down the post.

Many review sites allow the person who posted the review to edit or remove the review. Some sites, however, do not. Before considering asking the reviewer to remove their review, find out whether that’s an option on the particular review platform.

If an edit or removal is an option, you can consider contacting the reviewer if you have a way to contact them. You can address the reviewer’s legitimate concerns, correct any inaccuracies, and ask them either to remove their review or at least edit the review to make it accurate. You can undertake this step on your own or contact an experienced attorney to help you.

This step is less likely to be effective if you demand money from or threaten the reviewer or if the reviewer is not rational. If the reviewer is convinced that they are in the right, or if they believe they have a responsibility to warn other consumers, they are less likely to remove or edit their reviews voluntarily.

Consult with an attorney if you are unsure if this step makes sense in your situation.

Option 6: Sue.

If a reviewer has made provably false statements of fact about you or your business, you may be within your rights to sue them for defamation or related claims. Litigation, however, should never be the first step to resolving a possible consumer dispute.

Some reviews can cause an immediate and lasting impact on your business. If a review is causing substantial and provable economic losses to you and other methods for addressing the situation have failed, litigation may be an option you’ll need to consider. Litigation can offer tools, such as subpoenas, that may help you uncover the identity of an anonymous poster. Additionally, some review sites will only remove a review after a person has sued, prevailed, and obtained a judgment determining the statements in the review were defamatory or unlawful in some other way. In those situations, litigation may be the only way to have a review removed. But litigation carries many risks and both personal and financial costs.

Consult with an attorney before deciding to sue because there may be other alternatives for you to explore.

The options above are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It is possible to do nothing for a time or report the review then reach out to the reviewer and also respond to the review online and, then, if none of those actions achieve the result you want, to sue.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to handling negative reviews. Take the time to consider your goals, your options, and the potential risks before deciding on a course of action, and consider working with an experienced attorney to identify the steps that best fit your circumstances.

By Alexandra Tracy-Ramirez, HopkinsWay PLLC. | © HopkinsWay PLLC 2019. All rights reserved.

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