There is no such thing as a squeaky-clean online business reputation; every business will have its critics at some point. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can swiftly become critical if you don’t approach it with a positive and well thought-out strategy.

The public is surprisingly forgiving. They are also more discerning of online criticism than you might imagine.

One negative review is not the be all and end all; customers understand that there are occasions when some people aren’t happy with the service they receive and that this is not necessarily an accurate representation of your business.

What’s more, negative reviews and comments can sometimes be a good thing (in moderation, of course).

That’s the real danger of the negative review - it can prompt you to react sharply and without due consideration. - Highlight to share -

Think about it – isn’t there something a little suspicious about a business with universal online acclaim? Doesn’t a negative review here and there serve to lend an air of credibility? And, when dealt with correctly, don’t such comments give you the opportunity to present your business as fair and customer-focused?

What customers will be much less willing to forgive is a business that deals with online criticism in an intractable and impolite manner. That’s the real danger of the negative online review; it can prompt you to react sharply and without due consideration. That will just leave you vulnerable to further attack and reputation damage.

To avoid getting caught in a dangerous spiral of negativity, here are some of the key things you must not do in the face of online criticism:

1. Simply ignore it and hope it will go away

No matter how tempted you are to bury your head in the sand, ostrich-like, you mustn’t. Your rationale for politely ignoring the complaint will probably be ‘it can’t make things any worse’… au contraire, it could make things very much worse indeed.

Your customers will assume that if you say nothing, you don’t care. Apathy to such a high degree can only ever create a cynical and disagreeable image of your business.

Ultimately you risk making a fairly minor issue into a raging great mess of a problem… better to meet it head-on and demonstrate how seriously you take customer concerns; regardless of how unfounded they might be.

Here is an example of how failing to respond to a customer complaint can quickly escalate:

Hasan Syed complained via Twitter that BA had lost his father’s luggage. He paid to promote the tweet and British Airways customer service failed to respond for eight hours. In the intervening time, the tweet had gained over 70,000 impressions and whipped up significant online attention. It even spawned a new hashtag #complainvertising. Even Mashable picked it up.

It eventually got a response from BA:

2. Be dismissive until they give in

Is there anything more sickeningly unjust than when your legitimate concern regarding a service is brushed off by the provider and branded as untrue or ridiculous?

A business that is dismissive of concerns comes across as arrogant, and, in a time when customers have more options than ever for where to spend their money, this can have a real and lasting impact on your business.

Consumers now diligently search to assess the legitimacy of reviews and comments they find online. - Highlight to share -

It is an incredibly difficult thing to do, especially given how ‘candid’ some customers can be in their online expressions. You can feel as though the comments are a personal attack on you and, therefore, you must defend yourself.

Take a step back and never begin a conversation in haste.

3. Prohibit negative reviews

Quite simply, the business that tries to prohibit negative reviews is the business that has reason to fear them.

Not only is it ‘bad form’ and cynical, it is as good as an admission of guilt in the eyes of the customer, who will see only a business trying to manipulate and engineer their online reputation.

This kind of evasive tactic might have worked five years ago, but such is the level of trust now placed on online reputations, that consumers are hyper-sensitive to such blatant trickery.

Over the past few years, they have listened with interest to tales of business owners banning negative reviews and even suing their writers for libel or defamation. These stories, whilst relatively rare, have stuck in the minds of consumers, who now diligently search to assess the legitimacy of reviews and comments they find online.

They may be the most disagreeable fuss-pot, but you must treat them as you would any other valued customer. - Highlight to share -

A hotel in New York state recently took the prohibition of negative online reviews to an entirely new level, by informing guests that any such activity would result in a $500 fine, charged directly to their credit card. Would-be critics received this communication from the hotel management;

“If you have booked the inn for a wedding or other type of event and given us a deposit of any kind . . . there will be a $500 fine that will be deducted from your deposit for every negative review . . . placed on any internet site by anyone in your party.”

Needless to say, outrage ensued, with major publications including the New York Post and Business Insider picking up on the story… and you can just imagine what effect that had on the business.

4. Argue or engage in tit-for-tat

The person with whom you are dealing may well be the most disagreeable fuss-pot to ever darken your door, but you must nonetheless treat them as you would any other valued customer.

Incidentally, this is not because you can reasonably expect them to ever avail of your services again (they probably won’t), but because other eyes are watching, and what you say or do may well impact their decision on whether to do business with you.

You see, they have probably experienced a time when a business treated a legitimate concern of theirs dismissively or argumentatively, and your reaction to the situation can either bind you to this negative association or place you above it.

Your tit-for-tat might make you feel vindicated for a time, but this will be short-lived and may have a longer-lasting negative impact.

5. Use an automated reply

This customer tweeted his criticism at American Airlines and they proved that they don’t listen to their customers.

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Negative reviews are an easy way to give your business a human face. It’s easy – just breathe in and out and, above all, don’t give in to the temptation of reacting to disgruntled customers in a disgruntled fashion.

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5 no-nos when it comes to negative reviews