10 Tips Small Business Owners Should Know Before Responding to Negative Online Reviews

Today’s consumers are more connected than ever, and if there was a digital equivalent of a megaphone for word-of-mouth, it would be online review forums. Customers are going to leave reviews whether you ask them to or not, perhaps on your own website or more likely on social review sites like Yelp.

Unfortunately, negative reviews are common if not inevitable, depending on your industry. After all, no matter how solid your business model, high-quality your products, or exceptional your customer service experience, you can’t always please everyone.

If you haven’t experienced a negative review yet—congrats! But because online reviews are an important tool to customers who are researching or considering different brand offerings, knowing how to respond to negative online reviews is important. In fact, it’s a critical part of reputation management.

You may think a particular review isn’t legitimate, but if you don’t treat it seriously or ignore it entirely, you run the risk of legitimate customers taking notice. That’s why we’ve put together this brief guide to responding to negative online reviews. Read on for seven small business marketing tips to learn how to respond when they happen, plus three more tips about how to prepare for and avoid those reviews in the future.

Tips for Responding to Negative Online Reviews

1. Decide If It’s Worth It.

Obscure sites and personal blogs aren’t necessarily the right place for you to step in if you happen to find negative comments about your brand. Instead, focus on reviews on established public forums, especially trusted sites such as Yelp, Yellow Pages, Angie’s List, TripAdvisor and others. Be sure you’re performing social listening—platforms like Twitter and Facebook are places real customers go to complain about an experience.

2. Always Be Professional.

You want to resolve the situation as constructively as possible. Upset customers may be rude or even inappropriate, but if you allow them to provoke you into a response that’s angry or aggressive, then you’re not doing much to reposition your brand in a positive light. Polite courtesy is a must, but you also want to make sure you don’t seem disengaged. Be clear, help them feel heard, but ultimately, respect your own boundaries as well—escalate the concern or bring in another team member if you need to.

3. Do Your Homework.

You can’t address a problem you don’t adequately understand. Be sure to review any negative submissions carefully and look into whatever records you can to understand what happened. This may require asking the customer for more details, or following up with staff.

4. Consider the Customer’s Point of View.

With negative reviews, the customer is having an emotional response to a situation, so it isn’t just about the facts. Whether or not your business can take any action beyond fully discussing the problem, the customer needs to feel that you understand where they’re coming from. Once the complaint is resolved, you want the customer and anyone reading your response to the review to feel better about your company in the end.

5. Don’t Make it All Public.

You want to provide a public response to show that you’re on top of things and listening, but if back and forth is necessary to reach resolution with a dissatisfied customer, it may make sense to move things offline. Instead of having a full conversation within the review site thread, reply there that you hear their concern and will be in touch to resolve the issue. Then take it to email or, even better, a phone call. Make the conversation one-on-one where possible, to protect and respect both your company and the individual’s privacy.

6. Make Public Responses as Quickly (and Briefly) as Possible.

It’s important for review readers to understand that you’re making an effort to resolve issues, even if the process for resolving the issue might take place in private. When appropriate, you can add a new comment to outline how the problem is being (or was) resolved. Even if you start the resolution process privately (like through Yelp’s business dashboard), you shouldn’t wait a long time to post a public response to the review. The affected customer may be aware of your efforts, but none of the review readers will know that you’re trying to do anything. Remember, this is about managing your reputation, and these kind of efforts can go a long way in turning a negative situation into something positive.

7. Be Careful with Recovery Offers.

If you offer a discount, refund, or special deal in resolving a customer complaint, be careful what you make public and how. You don’t want offer opportunities for review readers to take advantage of a situation.

Preparing for Negative Reviews

8. Develop a Documented Strategy.

Responding to negative online reviews is a process that deserves to have a structured strategy in place, just like any other form of risk management. Develop a plan that identifies who is responsible for monitoring and responding to reviews, as well as the extent or limitations of what they can offer to customers to rectify mistakes or resolve complaints. In cases where a procedure broke down (e.g., service providers weren’t contacting customers about running late), there needs to be a process in place to notify the right people to take action.

9. Always Be Sincere.

The point of responding to reviews is to prove to your customers that you hold your business accountable to their needs and expectations. The strategy you develop can’t rely on canned, automatically generated responses. These do nothing to meet customer needs and can make negative situations even worse.

10. Encourage Positive Reviews.

One of the best ways to manage your company’s reputation and combat negative reviews is to earn more positive ones! Reach out to your best clients or, after a positive interaction, ask happy customers if they would leave you a review to help spread the word about your solutions.

When handled poorly, your response to negative online reviews can take a situation from bad to worse. Keep these tips in mind to take the right action if a negative review comes in. With the proper reply and enough positive reviews, you can turn things around and avoid problems in the future.

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