No one likes to have their work criticised and as a business or professionals, we want to maintain positive reputations. I’ve always been a particularly sensitive person by nature. However, the rise of online reviews has made it more complex to control our reputations. Dealing with a negative review has become an important component of any public relations or marketing strategy.

Recently, I met with a highly experienced medical specialist. She is renowned in her field, intelligent with a very kind, nurturing mannerism which no doubt serves her well as a doctor. She had received positive reviews online but there was one which was particularly negative.

“I can almost pinpoint the patient and why it happened,” she told me. “They wanted a treatment which I just didn’t think was indicated and upsetting for them to hear.”

The patient wrote a review criticising this doctor for being rude and not listening to their needs. The review was unsettling for the doctor, even though she had tried to put it in perspective. I have given keynotes to doctors on medical marketing and social media. Dealing with negative reviews dominates discussion afterward.

A friend of mine, who owns a successful food eatery was asking my advice too recently on a long walk. In their many years of operation, they hadn’t received a negative review so a harsh one about coffee being cold and their food menu hit hard. My friend was upset and said it had given her an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach.

She had her suspicions the anonymous review came from someone connected to another eatery, which had opened nearby. Whatever the reason, a mistake, miscommunication, even unfair attacks by a competitor, at some stage you’ll get a negative review. However, how you handle that review will be a sign of your character as a brand or professional and further affect your reputation.

‘The Economy of Trust’ & power of online reviews

We’re living in an age and marketplace fuelled by reputation and trust. Rachel Botsman, an academic and writer focusing on how technology is changing the way we work and consume, uses the term “Economy of Trust”.

In a now famous TED Talk, Rachel speaks about the shift of trust from corporations or governments to people. This new era of trust, which Rachel terms reputation capital is transforming how we do business. At the centre of this Economy of Trust is online reviews.

BrightLocal, a reporting platform for SEO professionals needing local SEO data, shows just how powerful online reviews are in their recent study on the subject.

Key findings include:
• 85 per cent of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations.
• Positive reviews make 73 per cent of consumers trust a local business more.
• 49 per cent of consumers need at least a four-star rating before they choose to use a business.
• Responding to reviews is more important than ever, with 30 per cent naming this as key when judging local businesses.
• 79 per cent of consumers have read a fake review in the last year, but 84 per cent can’t always spot them.
• Yelp and Facebook are the most trusted review sites, followed by Google & BBB.org
• Consumers read an average of seven reviews before trusting a business – up from six last year.

The Power of online reviews study reveals a one-star rise on review site Yelp leads a to a 5-9 per cent increase in business revenue but one negative review can cost you up to 30 customers.

No wonder many business owners and professional service providers are particularly nervous about online reviews with such statistics. In this fast-paced digital world, the speed at which information and content can spread including reviews is phenomenal, meaning it’s important to implement a strategy to monitor and respond to reviews.

My policy is to ensure clients have a crisis management plan (see earlier post) in place because at some stage they’ll be involved in a situation that could potentially impact their reputation, operations and financial stability. Managing reviews is part of this plan because people have many avenues to express their grievances and with more intensity than ever before, severely damaging targeted organisations.

However, the impact of negative reviews on reputations can be minimal if handled with professionalism. Indeed, a negative review handled well can even have a positive impact overall on a reputation of a business or professional service provider.

One of the first points I try to make to clients is to try not to panic about negative online reviews, as they are just a part of a digital economy and often all positive reviews about a business are not good anyway.

Typically, users want to see a mix of good and neutral reviews when researching a business or service because all five-star reviews on a site look a little ‘contrived’.

I’ve even seen a business owner respond well to a bad review from a disgruntled client and turn them into the greatest evangelist for their business.

Nine steps to deal with a negative review

1. Stay calm and don’t respond hastily.

You work hard in your business or profession and a negative review will, of course, stir up all sorts of emotions, including anger, frustration and disappointment. However, you should remain calm and avoid these emotions showing up in your response.

Look upon a negative review as an opportunity to further build your reputation. If someone is critical, don’t react with haste or be rude in response. A negative review will hurt but are an inevitable part of doing business. As the old saying goes: ‘You can’t please everyone all the time’. By having a review strategy in place, this will guide you towards a calmer, consistent approach.

A strategy doesn’t mean using the same response to every review as each should respond on its independent merits. However, you will have guidelines and a system in place to follow.

2. Have one senior person investigate & respond.

Online reviews and reputation have become an important component of ‘The Economy of Trust’. It’s therefore, crucial to treat these reviews and responses seriously. To maintain consistency in messaging only the business founder or authorised person should respond to the reviews. I’ve seen the mistake where juniors or marketing people are often in charge of monitoring and managing social media or reviews because the business owner thinks they have more understanding of the technology.

Often, the business owner isn’t even aware of negative reviews or responses issued. While a junior person or marketing people may alert you to a negative review and have good suggestions for a response, it should not be their responsibility to respond without your input.

3. Respond promptly but thoroughly investigate first

If you take too long responding to a negative review, it may look like you’re trying to ignore your unsatisfied client or customer or hoping it will go away. However, while responding promptly demonstrates your responsible and attentive, you should investigate the circumstance of the complaint and not respond with haste.

Work to obtain as many details as possible about what happened leading up to the negative review. When you have gathered as much information as possible about the situation, then write out key points you don’t want to forget to start formulating your response.

Work towards taking an impartial approach to your investigation. People who write a review will honestly feel their complaint has a basis, while your employees will, of course, be defensive. Try to maintain a balanced middle ground in analysing circumstances surround the negative review. It may highlight a problem with your business or service, which you should work on overcoming in the future.

4. Prepare for further attacks.

When you’ve gathered as much information about the negative review as possible, you may feel you have a comprehensive understanding of what happened. However, until you’re able to discuss the complaint with the reviewer, you don’t have the complete story. You must plan for both your online and offline response to the negative review along with any further attacks by them upon your reputation. There are some important points to remember including:

5. Use an empathetic and personable tone.

When writing a response validate the negative reviewer’s feelings and feedback in a way which shows you are genuinely respectful of their experience. Don’t lose control of the conversation. No matter what your opinion is on the situation acknowledge and validate their concerns and don’t get into an argument.

6. Offer to discuss the complaint privately

Avoid arguing on the review site. Have a response on the public platform which includes an offer to discuss the feedback privately, for example, please contact us to organise a time to discuss your concerns.

While in the public domain, responding to a negative online review isn’t all that different from handling other conflicts you may experience in your business or profession. Be prepared and remain authentic to your professional or brand voice.

7. Try to drown out the negative review with positive ones
Encourage clients and customers pleased with your service to provide a review, which can push the negative review further down the feed. NOTE: This doesn’t mean getting your family and friends to write reviews or having fake reviews. Australia, like many countries, has legislation to protect consumers from misleading or fake reviews, see ACCC online review guidelines.

8. Request a site remove a review

Most review sites have a Terms of Service, where they list all things allowed or not allowed on their site. If you believe a review is in violation of a site’s Terms of Service, then you may have grounds for it to be taken down.

9. Seek Legal Advice

If you feel the situation surrounding the negative review is complex and could have further repercussions, then seek further advice. This can be important legally, especially for professions such as health and medicine. If you feel a review is defamatory then consult a lawyer, legal action may also be able to be taken. Unfortunately, I think the international nature of digital media and rapid changes in technology means the law is still lagging to catch up. However, there have been cases of successful legal actions taken in regards to negative reviews which have damaged reputations.

Conclusion

For most people, it can be hard to deal with criticism. It’s important not to blame yourself but at the same time be accountable. Investigate what happened to see if you can prevent such an incident happening in the future. Sometimes, what happened may not have been preventable and perhaps you did everything by the book but still got a negative review. As mentioned you can’t always please everyone and you may not even know who wrote the negative review. If you have mainly positive reviews, then this will read well overall. Develop a mindset where you every negative review becomes an opportunity to improve your processes and practice public relations skills.

However, if there are quite a few negative reviews and especially if there is a common problem then perhaps it’s time to look at your processes. Take control, recognise and accept the problem then work towards improvement. There have been some great success stories of businesses turning around dramatically by learning from negative feedback. Negative reviewers may even remove their reviews and replace them with a positive one.