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Refer to the Reviews: How to Manage Negative Online Reviews

World famous, blue ribbon, best-in-show! There’s never been a shortage of ways to say that something is the best. The proliferation of online shopping brought on by the pandemic has now made 5-star reviews the gold standard. They give companies of any size a way to showcase a track record of excellence, while receiving valuable feedback in a way that’s easy to understand and, best of all, free.

Business owners love positive reviews. They’re easy to respond to and validate the hard work and time spent developing effective processes. No business is perfect though, and everyone has off days. Negative reviews are an unavoidable part of the digital age. A business’ response to a less-than-favorable review makes all the difference in how it affects the company's reputation. In fact, handling them correctly increases the trustworthiness of your business.

Here’s how to handle a negative review:

Don’t take it personally

This is the biggest challenge for most business owners. Negative reviews feel like an attack against something you’ve put your blood, sweat and tears into. Resist the urge to retaliate and step away from the keyboard until you are in a calm mental state and can respond professionally. This is a case where “winning” the battle with a snippy response about why and how they are wrong may cause you to lose the war. A review response is a chance to make a positive impression on potential customers by showing how you react when things don’t go as planned. Most customers won’t go out of their way to spend time and effort writing a critical review just to be malicious. Whether they are right or not, their perception is that they were wronged. By the time they leave a review there is a good chance they are in an elevated emotional state and the review is their last ditch effort to resolve their problem. Even the best among us aren’t the skilled communicators when upset. Look beyond the wording and emotions to identify what problem, or problems, caused this person to feel the need to leave a review.

Look for any patterns

Take a moment before responding to look at your negative reviews as a whole. Is there a pattern developing? Remember that regardless of how inflammatory the review may seem, it likely includes feedback worth its weight in gold. Develop a system for tracking the types of complaints you are receiving and look for commonalities. This is a great time to evaluate your processes and identify weak links. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that your business is perfect and every negative review is someone looking for a freebie. Is there a problem with communication or setting expectations? Are your operations in order and efficient? Is your staff acting professionally and keeping customer facing areas clean? Making a plan to identify and fix issues requires thick skin and concentrated effort, but will ultimately strengthen your company and reduce the number of complaints you will have to deal with in the future.

Respond promptly, addressing the reviewer and their complaint directly

Customers take their complaints public when they feel they aren’t being heard. They expect a response and a negative review is usually their last resort when they are feeling ignored. Don’t make the same mistake twice! Most customers expect a response within a day or two, so respond quickly. Customers can spot a stock copy-and-paste response from a mile away though, so be sincere. Take a moment to touch base with your team if you weren’t personally involved in the situation and make sure you understand both sides of the incident. Most review sites give you the customers name, so don’t forget your salutations and, whenever possible, avoid generic greetings like “Dear Guest” or “Valued Customer”. Your response doesn’t need to go into the granular details of everything that transpired, but be specific enough in your response that they know you took the time to investigate the issue and are taking their concerns seriously. Remember, potential customers will see your response and how your business handles criticism. Show them that you care about your customers and that when they take time to provide feedback, you act on it. This is your opportunity to control the narrative and separate your company from the big box retailers who have become too comfortable with their market share and generally don’t care about resolving individual complaints.

Apologize and empathize

It’s not important to be right. Swallow your pride and remember that YOU are the professional. You are the one who stands to gain or lose the most and, regardless of who is at fault, it is your responsibility to deescalate the situation. Simply put, most people just want an apology. If they are truly wrong, remember what it was like before you became an expert in your industry and really ask yourself if this person has the knowledge to understand why they are wrong, or if proper expectations were ever set for them. Independent retailers have the advantage here over nationwide big box stores because you can have more control over training your staff to prevent common pain points, and you can be involved in creating a satisfying resolution. Keep it simple. “I apologize that we didn’t meet your expectations” and “We’re sorry you weren’t satisfied with our service” are both easy ways to move forward without laying blame on anyone.

Make it right or commit to change, and take the conversation offline

If you can make things right for the customer, do so and give details. Show potential customers that you take care of your customers, even when things don’t go as planned. If you can’t fix what happened, a commitment is more powerful than an apology. Show the reviewer that your business deserves another chance. Again, this doesn’t have to be an exact description, but giving a brief outline of how the company is going to prevent similar situations from happening in the future builds trust in your brand. It shows potential customers that your business is committed to continuous improvement and takes feedback seriously. If this is done correctly most prospective customers won’t hold the review against you and will consider this bad review an anomaly. It’s actually better for your brand to have a few bad reviews with great responses. People don’t trust things that seem too good to be true, and a perfect 5-star rating is no exception. Wrap the response up with direct contact information, like a phone number or email address. Future discussions should happen directly between you and the customer to avoid any further miscommunication, and behind closed doors to minimize outside influences.

Be better

There is an opportunity to learn in any situation. The best responses in the world won’t save your brand if you continue making the same mistakes. Candid feedback from customers is easier to receive than ever before. As an independent retailer you can quickly adapt to feedback and implement change. Make the most of this advantage over big box stores by creating a company with a culture of improvement. The end result will minimize your stress and help your profits grow!

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