How to Handle Negative Reviews: A 5-Step Strategy for Success

Whether or not a customer does business with you can hinge on the quality of your online reviews.

BrightLocal’s Local Consumer Review Survey 2018, authored by content and research manager Rosie Murphy, shows just how important reviews are. The report notes that 86 percent of consumers read local business reviews, and that on average those consumers will read 10 reviews to form an opinion on the business. More than half of consumers (57 percent) will only shop at businesses with four or more stars.

A string of negative online reviews can feel like a sucker punch to your business. But they needn’t be a knockout blow. Here’s how you can successfully handle poor reviews and make negative feedback a positive.

1. Don’t Ignore Them

Hearing someone criticize your business hurts. It can be tempting to close your browser every time you read a bad review, but burying your head in the sand isn’t going to solve anything. Instead, face the criticism head-on and make it clear to everyone that you’re hearing what your customers have to say.

Responding to negative reviews is essential, says Small Business Trends founder and CEO Anita Campbell. “Ignoring a bad review won’t make it go away. On the other hand, responding to customer reviews can result in better ratings and improve your business’ online reputation.”

Campbell points to a recent study in the Harvard Business Review by researchers Davide Proserpio and Giorgos Zervas as evidence. According to the researchers, almost half of the hotels on TripAdvisor respond to reviews. The hotels that respond to reviews see 12 percent more reviews than hotels that don’t, and the responding hotels have a slightly higher rating (0.12 stars) than hotels that don’t respond.

Customers will appreciate you taking an interest in what they have to say, says Yoast CEO Marieke van de Rakt. Even if what they have to say is critical. Responding to negative reviews can also make your brand stand out both to the reviewer in question and potential customers, she writes. Responding to negative reviews in a respectful and thoughtful manner isn’t something that a lot of businesses do.

Of course, you don’t have to respond right away. In fact, content marketer Megan Marrs urges business owners to take their time when responding to reviews. When you rush to respond, it’s often to fight fire with fire. But this will only make the damage worse in the long run. Instead, Marrs recommends coming back to the reviews in several days’ time and responding in a cool, calm and respectful manner. Marrs is talking about Yelp! reviews specifically, but her advice is applicable across the board.

2. Respond Thoughtfully Without Getting Defensive

Coming up with the right response is probably the most important part of dealing with negative reviews. Don’t get defensive, even if you don’t agree with the reviewer’s summary of your business, says the team at Booksy. “Don’t debate the validity of their statements, argue with the reviewer, or respond in an aggressive or combative way. Arguing with a dissatisfied client online makes their original complaint seem more valid, and worse, it makes you look like the bad guy.”

Instead, thank the reviewer for their feedback and offer a sincere apology for their experience. You don’t have to take responsibility, but do show empathy.

Being sincere is key for DealerOn’s Greg Gifford, who advises against just saying sorry for the way a customer feels. “This kind of language is condescending, and it doesn’t address the problem. But keep in mind that an apology goes a long way, and no one’s perfect. Sometimes, it is better to swallow your pride and apologize, but do it in a sincere way or don’t bother.”

Responding to reviews gracefully is easier if you don’t jump to conclusions about a reviewer’s intent. Journalist Erik Sherman writes that these reviewers probably aren’t out to get you. “A customer may have found something to be problematic with your company and might genuinely want to alert others. Chances are slim that they want to destroy you or see your business fail or any of the other assumptions owners might make.”

3. Take the Conversation Offline

Some problems can’t be solved in a public forum, notes B2B writer Elise Dopson. If that’s the case, still respond to the review publicly, but ask the customer to contact you privately with the additional information that you need. This demonstrates to the reviewer and other customers that you are addressing the problem, and it protects the customer’s personal data, too.  

It also makes your apology come across as much more sincere, writes GrowBiz Media CEO Rieva Lesonsky. “If it feels right, taking the issue offline shows that you’re fully willing to handle this situation—and you’re not just apologizing for show.”

You don’t want to air your dirty laundry in public, either, says entrepreneur John Rampton. But you do want to look like you’re taking action. That’s why a brief response followed by a request to take the conversation offline is often the best strategy. The more specific you can be in your request, the better, Rampton continues. Provide your phone or email number in your reply, and let the reviewer know whom they should ask to speak to.

4. Solve the Issue

Once you’ve established a private communication channel, it’s time to solve the problem.

Even if the customer isn’t right this time, going out of your way to resolve the issue may earn you a loyal lifelong fan, says Bikini Luxe founder and CEO Candice Galek. “If customers are happy again, they might even go out of their way to tell others about their positive experience with your company – and that kind of reputation for great customer service will bring you more business in the long run.”

Further, talking solutions reframes the entire customer conversation. “Doing so will shift the focus from how you didn’t live up to someone’s expectations to your ongoing commitment to your customer,” author Brianna Wiest writes. Making something right will also show potential customers that you are completely committed to ensuring satisfaction.

Solving the issue in private doesn’t mean you can’t go back to the original review and provide context for everyone else. Paul Dughi, VP and general manager at WAAY-TV and AudiencePop, recommends responding to a negative review twice: once to address the problem and again to report back on the actions you have taken. Dughi cites a study by the Trust Economy Report that found 15 percent of shoppers are more likely to work with a company that has shown it has dealt with a negative review successfully.

5. Get More Positive Reviews

Sometimes, solving a customer’s problem turns a negative review into a positive one, writes Groove CMO Len Markidan. The team at Groove has found that many customers who have left poor reviews ended up going back and changing or deleting their original comments.

Keep that momentum going. “After all, every positive review takes the sting out of a negative one that you might have,” Markidan writes. “Ten positive reviews and one negative review might give a customer pause; but 100 positive reviews and ten negative reviews isn’t such a big deal.”

Skybell Video Doorbell co-founder Andrew Thomas also thinks the solution to a string of bad reviews is to make customer satisfaction a priority going forward. Thomas writes that it takes 40 positive experiences to make up for the damage caused by a single negative review. Focusing on customer satisfaction will help increase the number of positive reviews that your business receives, and it can also prevent future negative reviews.

You may not even need that many positive reviews, according to local SEO expert Sherry Bonelli. “Our research shows that the vast majority of people only read up to 10 reviews before they make a decision to use a business. With reviews often ordered chronologically, if you keep a steady flow of positive reviews coming in you should soon see those negative reviews move out of the field of influence.”

Putting a Negative Review in Context

G2 CMO Ryan Bonnici even argues that negative reviews can be helpful for a business. For one, a “strong but imperfect rating” appears more believable to customers than having an unblemished record of five-star-only reviews. Customers who look for and consider low reviews also tend to be the best type of customers, Bonnici continues. Finally, negative reviews provide some honest feedback on your product or service.

If the same issues come up again and again, it’s clear you need to find a solution. Receiving a string of bad reviews isn’t going to kill your business, however, especially if you follow these five steps. Ideally, those reviews would help you improve your business.

Images by: Brooke Cagle, Emma Dau, henry perks