The anatomy of a bad review

Love it or hate it, peer-led reviews still carry a lot of influence when it comes to informing consumer choice. Whatever sort of business you run, people will always make their voice heard if they’ve got a gripe.

In Wes Anderson’s 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel, (if you haven’t seen it yet, do), the leading man, a hotel manager, advises his young protégé that ‘people are only rude because they’re afraid they won’t get what they want’.

He’s absolutely right – but that consumer fear can have a damaging and lasting impact on your business.

The first thing we do as consumers is read reviews. Cash is tight, and we don’t want to waste it on something or somewhere that’s already got a bad rap. We rely on reviews before booking restaurants and hotels, visiting tourist attractions, going to shows, buying our next shampoo, choosing our pension provider, finding a reputable plumber and everything in between.

Even when consumers don’t actively seek reviews, Google presents them in search results alongside your website.

Businesses with exceptional products and services have little to worry about, because when excellence is truly embedded in a company’s culture, it becomes standard – leaving very little room for complaints. But few of us are perfect, and it’s often simply the case that you can’t please everyone, all of the time.

So how should you respond to a bad review? Should you even respond at all?

In short, yes. Always.

As a manager or proprietor, your response to bad reviews and complaints – both in public and private – can play a huge role in either elevating or further harming your reputation.

Getting the tone right

Owners who jump on a bad review with a scathing and overly defensive attack – and refuse to take on board the reviewer’s comments – rarely seem to realise that it reflects much more unfavourably on them than on the reviewer.

Trip Advisor is obviously a prime example; when I’m looking for somewhere new to eat, I not only look at their reviews, but how they respond to negative feedback. If the owners are aggressive, defensive or accusatory, it’s a direct reflection of what their customer service – and therefore my experience – will be like.

There’s a local pub in my area that’s guilty of this, and their caustic comebacks to some perfectly valid complaints have lost them my regular custom. Well, that and the dreadful food and service, of course.

Here’s a common review I come across on said pub’s Trip Advisor page: “It was a special occasion so we were looking forward to our visit, but we waited over an hour for our meal and the quality wasn’t good. We complained, but they didn’t care.”

And here’s a typical response from said pub: ‘I’m sorry you didn’t manage to enjoy your meal. Everyone else who dined with us that night really enjoyed their food and we always get amazing compliments about it so I don’t know what your problem is.‘ etc.

This kind of response utterly baffles me.

Why put customers off forever, and scare away prospective customers, when you could seize the opportunity to turn them into loyal patrons?

Ignoring their comment completely can be just as damaging; if someone’s taken the time to share honest feedback, whether positive or negative, you should always acknowledge their comment. Ignoring bad reviews makes it look as though you don’t take feedback seriously – or care what kind of experience your customers are having.

Complaints on review sites

I know I’ve heavily referenced hospitality here, but the same advice applies to almost every industry. When you get a bad review or complaint on a public platform, the correct course of action from a reputational standpoint is:

  • Don’t take it personally – even if the issue they’ve had is with something you thought of / oversaw / created / developed, remember that it isn’t about you as an individual – it’s about the experience they had with your venue, product or service.
  • Avoid rash responses – if a review has made you angry, or you know the commenter has been sparing with the truth, avoid the temptation to jump on them with a swift and searing reply.
  • Don’t insult them – don’t make it personal to them either. It’s not a professional way to respond, even if in some cases it’s true. You have to rise above it. Remember that it looks worse on you than on them.
  • Address factual inaccuracies – if they’ve claimed something happened which you know for a fact didn’t happen, do correct them – but do it diplomatically, politely and firmly – not rudely. For example: “We’re aware of the issue you refer to, and on that occasion we actually did X, Y and Z to try and solve the problem.” There’s no need to go into extensive detail though – keep it succinct and concise.
  • Always end on a positive – thank them for giving you feedback, apologise that their experience hasn’t been up to your usual standards etc, and encourage them to return. If you’re at fault and they’ve had a particularly bad experience, ask them if they’d be happy to email you directly – then offer them a small discount on something as a ‘goodwill gesture’. In hospitality, a simple £10 voucher or free bottle of wine could yield hundreds of pounds of custom each year, which would otherwise have been lost to you. If you don’t want that particular customer to return, simply thank them for their feedback and note that you’ll take it all on board.

Equally, it’s important to acknowledge positive reviews, too. These people are acting as your brand ambassadors, and their review could be directly responsible for hundreds or even thousands of pounds worth of business for you.

Try not to use copied-and-pasted ‘stock phrases’ as this looks lazy and inauthentic. Thank each reviewer for taking the time to share their experience, and address their specific feedback or praise. End by saying you look forward to welcoming them back soon!

Complaints on social media

Social media complaints can be rather a minefield, as negative comments can be published and shared so quickly.

Some companies take the view that if they don’t respond, they look more professional by rising above it. In some cases – especially if the comment is particularly personal or unpleasant – that may be true.

Generally, though, negative feedback on social media should be dealt with the same way any other direct customer complaint should be; with a personal response.

Don’t get into a long and drawn out public discussion – simply say something like: “Thanks for bringing this to our attention – we’re sorry to hear X or Y. Could you possibly drop us a line and we’ll look into it now for you?”

Negative Google reviews

Few businesses Google themselves regularly, but they should, because it’s a way to see what your potential customers are seeing. You might not realise, for example, that you’ve amassed some negative Google Reviews.

As the owner of a business who’s had a bad Google review, you can address it directly (following the protocol above) but you can’t change that review and the longer it stays there at the top of the pile, the more it’ll push your overall score down.

The best action here is to launch an incentive to encourage loyal or repeat customers to leave you a review – and as long as it’s positive, any negative reviews should be balanced out and improved over a short space of time.

Other sites to keep an eye on

For larger companies – particularly those who rely on attracting the top talent in their industry – Glassdoor is a critical but often neglected source of reference.

Past and current employees use Glassdoor to write honest, anonymous reviews about everything from the company’s culture and management structure to personnel issues and pay gaps.

If negative issues keep reappearing on your Glassdoor reviews, it could mean prospective employees think twice before pursuing a career with you – so it’s definitely something to be aware of.

Hope you found that useful! If you’d like any help building a solid strategy for communicating with your customers, or some advice on how to protect your reputation from negative public reviews, do drop me a line.

Lara Page

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