There may be no more sensitive online reputation topic than business reviews and ratings. Companies have threatened to sue customers over reviews and fire employees who get negative Yelp reviews. Michelin-rated chefs have allegedly even committed suicide when faced with losing a star rating.
Because businesses live and breathe based on their star ratings in Google and Bing, here are 10 ideas for turning around collective negative reviews and addressing outlier bad reviews that can tank you.
1. Fix Your Product, Services & Customer Care Policies
Seriously, don’t skip past this idea! One of my largest clients, a Fortune 500 company with millions of customers, completely turned around its toxic online reputation by applying caring principles in dealing with consumers — while I helped the company improve how it looks in search results, the second half of the equation is the generous refund policy and dedication to operating a best-in-class set of call centers!
Part of Zappos’ touted success story was founded on its dedication to customer service — read its employee handbook about its principles if you’re unfamiliar.
The first step for a company that has serious online review problems is: Take a hard look at yourself! Put yourself in the shoes of your clients and try to see things from their point of view — how would you feel and respond if you shared their experience with your company?
Even if you think you’re fair, consider seriously going the extra mile in making things right — the cost is not whatever the current bill for that customer is — this is an investment in your future success and your ongoing reputation. This is an issue of cost avoidance and greater future revenues!
Even if it’s just one crazy/conman customer you’re dealing with, if they tarnish your name online it can have a snowball effect in prejudicing other customers to be critical of your business in a similar way, and it can result in you losing many customers that you’d otherwise have. SO, step one is to address anything that pisses off your customers and FIX THAT THING!
2. Turn Lemons Into Lemonade
When you get a negative review, attempt to contact that customer and see if you can make things right.
I had a client once in the Houston area who provided dinner cruises, and he once got a terrible review on Yelp from a customer who complained about the food and service. My client then posted an owner response to that review, apologizing by saying that their service had been off that night, and that it was uncharacteristic of their business — and he offered to comp another evening for the customer.
The customer took him up on it, and subsequently posted a followup, glowing review, complimenting the business! I’d argue that this story of negative review followed by apology and attempt to make it right, topped off with a positive followup review, was worth more in goodwill to that business than a mere unbroken line of positive reviews.
Fixing what went wrong is a promotional opportunity for you, in some cases. Even if it doesn’t turn out that beautifully, posting a desire to make things right reassures other potential customers that you care about providing a good experience to them.
3. If You Make It Up To The Customer, Ask Her To Reconsider The Negative Review
A customer may choose to post a revision to their review, remove it, or post a followup review that mitigates the original bad review of you. Tread judiciously in these waters, however — if customers are only grudgingly satisfied the second time around, or if they seem inclined to criticize regardless of whether you bend over backwards to accommodate them, then it’s best to just keep silent, stand back, and see how it plays out.
I’ve had customers post positive, unsolicited followups in many of these cases, and those unexpected gifts prove that the good customer service is always worth it. But, in some cases it’s worth asking or reminding them, and if it’s clear that you did the right thing, it will put them in a forgiving mood to where they may seriously contemplate adjusting their original bad review.
As I described in Idea 2, this makes for just about the best story possible, and could be solid gold in terms of promotional value.
4. If You Can’t Do A Make-Good, Acknowledge It
It’s not always feasible to “fix it” for the customer — it may have been a time-based service that can’t be reproduced, the materials or product may no longer be available, or perhaps you’ve assessed that the customer is actually just a conman looking for a freebie and you can’t stomach eating the cost of fixing it for them.
(There are these bad eggs out there, but the vast majority of people expect to pay for what they get — so be sure to reread my first two ideas here and consider following those, even if you think the customer is some variety of freeloader. This is not about punishing a bad guy, but about reinforcing the overall success of your business.)
Even if you can’t make it up to the customer for whatever reason, at least try to publicly acknowledge it, apologize for his or her experience, and promise to review your policies or to do better in the future. When acknowledging, avoid “returning fire” — going negative in your response is almost always a losing proposition.
Be pleasant or at least neutral, honest, self-effacing in your response. This sort of expression in a public forum is valuable because it starts to diffuse their pain a bit — they now know they’ve been heard at least and you showed the customer respect by acknowledging it. It tells the rest of the public that you pay attention to customers and are professional, which is reassuring when selecting vendors.
If it happens on a site where owners can’t really reply to specific reviews, if you’re able to suss out who the customer was, you might be able to send him or her an apology or acknowledgement in a nice written note, or as a message on their Facebook page (avoid being creepy, of course), or something similar.
(*Warning: When I recommend responding-to or acknowledging a bad review, I’m suggesting doing this on well-regarded, upstanding review sites — like online yellow pages, Yelp, the BBB, etc — NOT on the more negative rant sites — like RipOff Report, Complaints Board, Pissed Consumer, or similar ilk. Responding on those sites is often not in your best interest because the names of the sites cast your business in a negative light immediately when they appear in search results, regardless of what the page says about you, and adding comments or updates on those pages can reinforce and build their rankings in Google when your name is searched. They require different strategies.)
5. Make The Pain Go Away!
You may be able to make unfair reviews absolutely disappear. In some cases I’ve worked on, the reviews in question went over-the-top in what they stated, or they broke the rules of the review site where they appeared. It’s unfortunately not unusual for disgruntled ex-employees or ruthless competitors to post false reviews, too.
If you can tell that a review or series of reviews is false or breaks the rules of the site, you might be able to make those reviews totally disappear by contacting the site and requesting intervention.
I once contacted Google about reviews that contained harassing, offensive and racist language for a franchise chain — and all the nasty reviews went away overnight! In one instance, a reviewer on Yelp went beyond the pale by posting photos of executives of one company in his review, calling on people to hound them (he was more than a bit irrational) — once I flagged these images and requested removal based on copyright infringement, Yelp took them straight down.
If you have a situation where the review is abnormal and unreal, take the time to read the site’s policies and if it’s not allowed, contact the site or use its tools to flag the review for administrative attention.
6. Dilute It
All businesses should expect a few negative reviews, but if your overall review profile on a particular site shows these to be outliers and a small percentage compared with mostly positive reviews, then it simply doesn’t damage you in most cases. In fact, when I view a business that has only positive reviews, it starts making my “bullshit meter” go off a bit — having some negative reviews is normal and helps give your company a believable identity on a review site.
Often, customers can read the review and tell that the complainer is crazy or unreasonable, too. These won’t really impact you if you’re overall doing a good job in serving people, particularly if you have sufficient positive reviews.
If you have few-to-no reviews, you should proactively work on encouraging customers to review you. If you have a bad one, encourage more reviews to dilute down the outliers.
You can accomplish this by asking pleased customers to review you. (Note: asking is against Yelp’s rules, weirdly enough, but is OK by most other review services.) Just don’t offer customers incentives to review you, and don’t ask your employees to post shill reviews, either.
7. Leverage Services That Help You Elicit More Reviews
There are a number of companies out there now that provide services that help businesses elicit reviews from their own customers. This is particularly valuable for types of businesses that traditionally get fewer reviews online — such as doctors and lawyers.
Some of the better ones combine customer scheduling and communications along with requesting reviews — so customers might make an appointment in the system, it sends them emails and text message reminders of the appointment, and then follows up by asking them to review the business after their visit.
In some cases, these services enable you to intercept a bad review before it goes public, and you could offer to fix it with the customer, first. Some of the best review-building services I’ve seen include Intuit’s DemandForce, CustomerLobby, GetFiveStars — and there are others.
8. Look Bad On One Review Site? Beef Up Rankings Where You Look Better!
If you’re helpless to fix your reviews on one bad site, you may be able to enhance the ranking power of all the other review websites where you look good, and thus push down the rankings of the one baddie. Who cares if you look bad on one isolated webpage if no one ever even sees it?!?
This stratagem only works if you have just one review site where your business appears less-than-stellar, of course, and it will work best if you have some degree of skills and experience in search engine optimization (SEO).
You can start working on this by linking to the positive review pages from your website, mentioning and linking to those reviews from your social media accounts, and doing a little underground promotion of these sites from behind the scenes such as linking to the positive reviews from your online directory profiles, where feasible.
If you’ve not been doing a thorough job of your SEO and social media to begin with, you may be able to help displace the bad stuff by going ahead and developing your social media accounts, optimizing photos and videos, and introducing other media to accomplish this.
9. Force The Person To Take The Review(s) Down
This is, frankly, an ultra-extreme step to take, and really only to be considered if the review is so over-the-top-damaging, very provably untrue, you can afford to engage lawyers plus go to court, and if you can legally connect the dots.
In most cases, even if you feel stung by a review, it’s not worth obsessing over because your other reviews will dilute it — or if it’s over-the-top, it may be clear to other consumers that the person who posted it is either crazy or unusually high-maintenance.
Even if you’re in the right, consider carefully whether taking a customer to court will play out in your favor if it becomes publicly known in a news story or if the customer starts painting himself as an innocent martyr being attacked by a bully. (Read how this watchmaker sued a reviewer for defamation but backed down when the Internet responded with outrage.)
That being said, this can actually work, but it’s going to typically be expensive. I’ve worked with skilled attorneys who can assess such an option, and can take it through the court process.
Some sites won’t allow the individual to remove a review once posted, even if there’s a court order compelling the reviewer to do so — but Google at least might voluntarily allow you to remove or suppress the webpage from your name search results if you obtain a court order identifying it as defamatory.
10. Fight Fire With Fire — Or With Humor!
I put this as the very last option because I think it’s the most difficult to do effectively — even more difficult than legally forcing a reviewer to take its bad review offline.
This is just outside the realm of feasibility for the majority of businesses — and even if you’re convinced you’re clever enough to do this, there are two big reasons why you maybe still shouldn’t attempt it: (a) your case may not be as convincing as you think, or if you’re using humor you probably aren’t going to be as funny as you think; or (b) even if your case is good and you’re skilled enough to reasonably attempt it, responding to negativity with either negativity or humor may cast you in a highly unprofessional light for many potential consumers, making them look elsewhere for business.
Humor is fantastic, but most business owners are not good at doing humor. Seriously.
If you’re going to do this, it’s necessary to do it cold — not while you’re still hot under the collar from reading a review that beats you up. Do it cold, and then have about 20 people you know and trust (not just employees who may be driven to be “yes-men”) to proof your response and give you feedback before you hit the submission button to publish.
All that being said, there have been some instances where a business responded back to a negative review that rebutted what was said, and they effectively went on the offensive with negative comments about the reviewer, or they diffused and counteracted the review with humor.
For examples: A restaurateur wrote an epic take-down of an entitled Yelper; a pub owner shamed a Yelper for using his review to get revenge for not serving him alcohol without an ID; and a restaurant exposed a reviewer’s lies on Yelp by releasing video footage of him.
But, I can’t emphasize enough — you’d better hesitate, consider a long while, and be judicious about going on the offensive, because most companies fail when they do this. There are far more cases of businesses responding by melting down, digging themselves in deeper, and making their situations worse when they attempt this.
In the majority of cases, you win by responding politely and professionally. As Mark Twain said, “Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.”
Here’s one bonus idea that technically falls under that last recommendation: You could always declare bankruptcy in online reviews if you just can’t manage your situation any other way!
One San Fran Bay Area restaurant, Botto Bistro, did just that when it got tired of Yelp reviews it deemed unfair and non-applicable — it declared a promo campaign called “Hate Us On Yelp” whereby it’d give any customer that gave it a 1-star review on Yelp a 25 percent off discount.
Its creative response to sometimes-bizarre reviews garnered it tons of free promotional exposure in major media, which likely translates into significant revenue increases. It’s laughing in the face of negative reviews — and laughing all the way to the bank. (It actually has positive 92 percent rating in Urbanspoon, 4.5 stars in TripAdvisor, 4.6 stars in Facebook, and 4.7 stars in Google.)
But, the “Hate Us On Yelp” declaring-reviews-bankruptcy approach is simply not a realistic option for the majority of businesses. Most businesses will need to make a dedicated effort with the ideas I outlined above, starting at the top.
Don’t ignore customer service until your business is circling the drain! You need to be paying attention not just for the lowest reviews but even the average or mediocre ones — this feedback loop is a valuable source of information to help you tune your business until it’s best-in-class and makes your customers absolutely delighted.
So, even though a bad review can be a real gut-punch to you, take it as a wake-up call and appreciate how it may be enabling you to improve.
(For more tips on how to deal with online reviews and other local search marketing tactics, consider attending the Local Search Advantage Workshop on June 4, 2015, in conjunction with the SMX Advanced Conference in Seattle, where I’ll be speaking on “(Re)building Your Online Reputation.” There’s a good chance there may be a similar workshop along with the SMX East Conference in New York in October, too.)
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.