Are Negative Reviews Really Negative?

This is an interview with Lisa O’Neill, Principal at Breakaway PR.

When you see a negative online review, how quickly should you jump in and respond?

It’s easy to forget that reviews are there if you don’t have it built into your regular operations checklist, every day, or maybe every week or every month. 

The best answer is to respond as quickly as possible, because you don’t know how many of your potential customers are looking at your Yelp page, at your Google My Business page, or any places where reviews may appear. 

And every day that goes by could be an unknown number of potential customers who see that review that that hasn’t been responded to. 

A piece of advice I like to give to business owners is to set a reminder in your calendar either every week or every couple of weeks to go in and check your reviews (if you don’t have alerts set for any new ones that come in).

What if this review is posted in multiple places? Do you need to hit them all at the same time or just do one?

Sometimes, when people are mad, they tend to “spray and pray”, where they will post a negative review in every channel that they can find. And some business owners may say, ‘well, I already responded to it on Facebook. Why do I need to respond elsewhere?’

But think about it, not everyone uses all those channels. They’re not looking up your business on every potential website that’s out there. They may only go to Yelp. And if they see a review that’s not responded to, even though you responded to it on Facebook, you’re missing out on that opportunity to show a potential customer how you respond and how you think.

Very true. So now how do you decide when to respond to a negative online viewer? Which negative online reviews do you want to respond to? Is there a checklist?

Some people think they have to respond to every single review. And the answer is: you don’t! Some are clearly a little biased from the reviewer or they may even be a single word. If they leave a review that just says “SUCKS!!”, there’s not really anything you can do to respond to that. And sometimes people are just venting and there’s nothing you can do to give a good response. 

But for the most part, I recommend business owners respond to every review they can, especially the negative ones, because it’s their opportunity to tell their story. Why do you as a business owner have those policies in place? Why do you train your employees to respond the way that they do? 

These are representative of your core values. Even though you’re responding to that one person directly, what you’re really doing is showing every other prospective customer what you believe in and why you run your business that way. 

These are opportunities for you to show what matters to you as a business. It’s important to respond to as many as you can. Again, unless it’s something where there’s no good response you can create from it.

So what are the key components of a good response to these folks? For some industries, and especially retail, there are a lot of freebies going on.

It’s common with big consumer companies that have a lower-margin product and lots of sales for it to be easy for them to say, ‘sorry, you had a bad experience, here’s 10% off or come in for a free meal next time you visit our restaurant’. 

But what this can do is train people to complain, because then they see they get rewarded for doing so. It’s important for a business owner to stand their ground and say ‘here’s why we did what we did. Here’s what we believe in.’ 

I would only offer a freebie or some kind of incentive if it seems like you can win them back. Someone may have said, ‘I loved the food, but the service wasn’t great.’ For that person, you may be able to ask them to come back and if they get a different server, they may have a better experience. In that case I think it’s appropriate to give a freebie, but I don’t recommend to default to giving something away every time.

How can businesses respond without sounding really defensive or angry?

That can be a problem! It’s your business – it’s your baby. When you see people being unreasonable, if they came into your business and had a bad experience and are only telling their side of the story, we get emotionally involved. 

I’ve spoken with some business owners who have a review that they know they can’t respond to, because if they start writing it, they know that they’ll sound angry or defensive or emotional. 

So what I recommend that they do is to draft their response but reminding themselves that it’s not about winning that one person back. It’s not about arguing with them over  “he said / she said”, it’s about telling your story to future customers and potential customers. 

That layer of removal tends to help the emotional part of it. My other piece of advice is to draft your response and then send to someone else to look at it, like your trusted PR firm. You can even send it to another colleague or coworker to make sure that you’re not sounding defensive because it’s very easy to do, especially when it’s your business and you really care.

If your response isn’t accepted by these unhappy people, it can drag on. How long should you continue to engage?

The answer is that not many people will accept your response. They had their negative experience and they felt strongly enough about it that they went to a website, created an account, wrote a review, and posted it. Most of the time they just want to keep arguing with you. 

The rule that I use is “one and done”. Respond to the review. State your piece. Apologize if you should. Sometimes it’s important to say, “we are sorry that you had this experience, but here’s why we responded the way that we did”, or “here’s the steps we’re taking to correct it”. 

Then if they keep responding, usually what people will do is they will change the topic. They’ll pick out another piece of the story, or they’ll bring up a new detail that they didn’t talk about before. At that point there’s almost no return, almost nothing positive that comes out of continuing to respond. I always recommend remembering “one and done” as the rule of thumb.

You answered, you were respectful.

Yep. That’s all you can do.

On Facebook and Yelp, there are ways for some of the business owners to either block users or remove negative comments. Do you recommend taking that step?

That one’s hard, right? It’s easy to want to remove it, especially if the person’s being unreasonable or it was an exception. 

Online reviews are a great opportunity for customers to tell their side of the story. 10 or 15 years ago, they didn’t have a voice. I think it’s leveled the playing field for both businesses and customers to have more of a conversation and to speak with each other.

Of course, some people abuse that by really trashing a business or going after them, but for the most part, I think it’s important that people are able to voice dissatisfaction with the business, so I like leaving them up. 

It’s important to show that maybe your business isn’t for everyone, or you have specific policies that people may not agree with. 

The only time I recommend removing a review is if they’re posting multiple times, over and over again, or inviting their friends who weren’t involved to pile on and add additional reviews. 

But think about this, too: if you’re looking at a business and evaluating if you want to go there and do business with them, and there’s nothing but positive reviews. 

It really triggers something in our brains where we think this isn’t as legitimate as I thought, or that they’re hiding the negative reviews. Having one or two negative reviews on your profiles can actually help because it seems more legitimate and more real. 

It again also allows your business to explain to prospective customers why you have policies in place and how you do business, and why. 

That makes sense. Because as a user, I would be wary of total positive reviews across the board.

Yep. Having all five stars just twinges a bit in your head.