angryface

I estimate that I’ve written north of 800 reviews. Books, vacation spots, restaurants–I just like writing. I like forcing myself to think critically about the things I purchase and experience. I’ve also been involved with businesses and products that have been subject to critique. I’ve written responses to some of those reviews. Recently, I witnessed a public relations nightmare resulting from a company’s inability to deal with a review properly. Having been on both sides of this issue for so long, I’m of the opinion that many business owners still don’t know what they’re doing. These are my tips on how to deal with online reviews.

General Policy

Regardless of how mature a business is and what platforms it may be listed on, one of the first things a founding team should do is create a policy for dealing with online reviews. There are so many scenarios that you probably won’t consider until you’re faced with the situation.

For example, how do you deal with a disgruntled employee leaving a Yelp review? How does that response change if it’s a Glassdoor review?

How do you deal with being accused of violating someone’s Civil Rights (a common complaint against nightclubs)? How do you deal with a review that mentions food poisoning?

What do you do when a single customer posts negative reviews from multiple accounts? What if you’re a small business and legitimately have no record of having done business with a customer claiming a bad experience?

Who from your organization is allowed to respond? What do you respond to? Do you respond with a template? Do you implement a mandatory deep-breath waiting period before taking action?

What if you suspect you can bribe the customer into removing the review? How do you deal with threats?

What if the customer is objectively wrong?

If you run a business and can answer all of these questions, please leave a comment or contact me directly. I’d love to hear what it took to implement such a review strategy. If not, keep reading and I’ll try my best to assimilate all my experiences up to this point into insights you can apply to your own venture.

Written Complaints

When someone contacts you privately with a complaint, it’s your chance to make things right while staying true to your customer service strategy. The truth: many companies will treat private complaints differently than reviews posted publically and thus risk greatly harming their reputations. The analogy I would use is that it’s easier and cheaper to fix a problem on the assembly line than to issue a recall. For one thing, your critical customer might point out a legitimate flaw in your product or highlight a sensitivity to an aspect of the way you do business. Also, angry customers will only get angrier if they have to resort to publically posting reviews to get your attention.

If a customer decides to publically share their negative experience and he chooses to reveal details of your private dialogue including lies, threats, or unprofessional and inconsistent behavior, there’s basically nothing you can do.

Yelp

I look back on some of the Yelp reviews I’ve left and I feel like a jerk. Though the majority of my reviews are four and five stars, it’s become obvious to me how much two and three-star reviews hurt. As a business on Yelp, your problem is embedded in the guidelines provided to those writing reviews. The platform encourages you to be a critic. 75% of the reviews on the site are total garbage. Roughly 90% of the one-star reviews I read are emotionally-charged and suspiciously-selectively-written. Only when the reviews are aggregated and averaged do I feel that the platform is truly useful.

There is no way to win Yelp. People love–love–pouring out their hearts and never looking back. I frequent world-class restaurants that get two and three-star reviews regularly. It’s kind of a joke, but, to a business owner, you can’t afford to look away.

Harsh Yelp reviewers are going to be some of the least mature and informed customers to deal with. My opinion is that the appropriate response should fit the theme, price, and nature of the restaurant. For example, some of the top steakhouses in Chicago have a policy of not responding. Why would they engage someone who complains about “pricey” dry-aged beef or that a medium-well filet with no accompaniments was “flavorless?” A newer restaurant just getting off the ground might offer you a gift card or a free drink to give them another shot. Some of the Greek restaurants in my old neighborhood had old Greek owners who would respond with caps-lock punctuated with exclamation points.

Generally, it’s a cop-out for businesses to hide behind the “We have no record of you being a customer…” defense unless the accusation is egregious. It is, however, appropriate to correct falsehoods in complaints and provide the business’ side of the story in cases where the comments are borderline-offensive. Obviously, making witty quips isn’t a good idea, but replying with a (seemingly-neutral) boilerplate “contact us” template can also be used as ammunition by enraged reviewers. I’ve seen the “they replied with a form response!” complaint over and over again. If you do use a “contact us” template or message users when they raise concerns, you should be prepared to engage them with a reasonable response time.

How much time you dedicate to Yelp is a personal choice. You’ll sleep better at night if you place value on what the real critics think of your work.

Google

Google doesn’t force users to do anything beyond leave a star rating, which can be a huge annoyance. Everything could be going great and then a random user leaves a one-star review with no explanation. The lack of closure can be painful. But you’ll never get closure. Typing a response will be fruitless and will cause you to overplay your hand. It will reveal how overly invested you are in having a high star rating. Thankfully, Google’s support can be helpful in removing fraudulent reviews.

Facebook

Facebook, like Google, also allows drive-by reviews. Meaning, you see the page, click a star rating, and never have to worry about it ever again. On the plus side, people are typically more invested in their Facebook accounts than their Google accounts, meaning they can’t hide in anonymity. When it comes to local businesses, which are most sensitive to Facebook reviews, it can be relatively easy to find a connection with a reviewer and trying to make things right.

This being said, I have probably only ever used Facebook reviews to vote alongside news stories that I’ve read or in support of friends’ businesses. Questionable ethics, but I’m pretty sure that most other people do the same thing. People pay little attention to Facebook reviews.

Forums

Any forum, whether public or somewhat private, is a lion’s den. Examples can be Twitter, Facebook, Facebook groups, Reddit, a user’s own website, and some niche-specific websites. The problem with forums is that you have no control over what gets posted and that, even if you make a reasonable response, you risk getting torn to shreds. Legitimately, totally, and completely lambasted.

The good news when it comes to forums is that things generally only get posted there after a customer has had direct dealings with a business’ management. Even the craziest Yelp reviewers don’t resort to this whimsically. You’re only going to have to deal with these free-flowing negative reviews when someone feels utterly wronged.

For example, I recently saw a local daycare get accused of mistreating children in my neighborhood Facebook group. As you might imagine, this is a topic that causes one of the largest demographics that browses Facebook during the day (new mothers) to get up in arms. The owners of the daycare did respond and seemed to have a few valid points (E.G. the complainant was exaggerated). However, it was an uphill battle from the start, and they responded in such a tone-deaf way that they were mercilessly barraged by angry comments of others, including some customers threatening to pull their children out.

Through the daycare debacle, there seemed to be inconsistencies in the public vs private conversation even after the main bombshell post was made to Facebook. That was a huge mistake on the owners’ part. Also, a promise of a full refund turned into only one-third of the money being returned. Honestly, it was a shitshow. It was revealed that one of the owners was a lawyer and had threatened legal action. Talk about digging your own grave.

When it comes to forum posts, flagging the post or contacting an administrator, depending on what’s being said, are both valid initial strategies. Legal action is a possibility–sometimes–but usually isn’t. In today’s age, it isn’t feasible and will quickly illicit a nasty response from anyone you are dealing with.

Glassdoor

I’ve never written a Glassdoor review because I’ve never worked for a company in which my writing style and experience would carry a semblance of anonymity. I do read a lot of Glassdoor reviews, and my experience has been that it’s hard for companies to respond in ways that are anything but insincere. To respond to every review is just a waste of time. “We’re glad you love working here!”, “We’re sorry there isn’t free lunch!” — Who cares? The only effective approach to Glassdoor is to respond only to egregious accusations and reviews that misstate facts or peddle rumors. Also, trying to track down who wrote reviews is suggestive of a toxic internal culture. Just saying.

Conclusion

The internet is constantly changing, but the way that many customers view the sites above has remained the same over time. Hopefully, this post, which is really more of a thought piece than a tutorial, can help as a primer for dealing with reviews for your online business.

Dealing with Online Reviews