August 20, 2014

How to Handle Bad Online Reviews for Your Small Business

bad online review

A good reputation is vital to the success of a small business. Today, with so many customers researching businesses online before they decide where to buy, a bad online review on sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Foursquare, Google Places, and even your own social media pages can do some serious damage to your reputation. In some cases, these bad online reviews can end up on the first page of results when people search for your business.

How should you respond if your reputation comes under fire and you receive a bad online review?

The tips below will help you perform damage control the right way, and even turn negative experiences into a positive influence for your small business. But first, let’s take a look at what you should not do because there are steps you can take in response to a bad online review that will only make things worse.

What Not To Do When You Receive a Bad Online Review

Deny the Problem Exists

When a customer has a complaint, insisting that they’re wrong in a public forum is a big mistake. Even if you’re convinced that the problem was on their end, you should acknowledge the issue.

Argue with the Reviewer

It’s only natural to feel hurt or angry when someone posts negative criticism about your business. But responding in anger could cripple your reputation permanently because information stays on the Internet forever. In other words, never do this.

Game the System

Some business owners, faced with multiple negative reviews, have paid people to write positive reviews and counter the impact. This is not only a bad idea, but also comes with the very likely possibility that you’ll get caught. Some consumer review sites, like Yelp, have systems in place to warn readers of suspected paid reviews.

Do Nothing

While a few negative comments are obviously the work of people who just like to say nasty things, for the most part, ignoring bad reviews in the hopes they’ll go away is a poor strategy. It sends a message that your business doesn’t care when people have negative experiences.

What To Do When You Receive a Bad Online Review

In order to take action against negative online reviews, you have to be aware of any that exist.

It’s important to monitor your social media pages and respond to concerns there. But you should also check out major consumer review sites like Yelp to see what people are saying about your small business. The simplest way to do this is to set up a Google Alert for your business name. You can also use a free tracking tool like Social Mention to keep up with online reviews.

If you find any less-than-stellar reviews:

Take an Objective Look

If the review or comment is obviously not serious, or if the poster is using anger and abusive language, your best option is probably to ignore it. If possible, have it removed. Most consumer review sites offer a way to flag or report reviews that violate their terms of service.

Respond with Tact

 When addressing a negative review, keep it professional. Passive-aggressive or sarcastic comments will only fuel the flames. You can choose to respond privately (useful when you disagree with a reviewer’s take on a situation) or publicly, which helps to demonstrate to other readers that you’re addressing the problem.

Apologize and Ask for Input

Most often, the best response to an upset customer is to say you’re sorry without qualifying the apology to redirect the blame toward the reviewer’s feelings. Admit that a mistake was made, and ask what you can do to resolve the situation.

Most importantly, keep it consistent. When you actively respond to negative online feedback about your small business, other potential customers can see that you’re engaged and that you care about your customers.

With a consistent response policy, you can turn a bad online review into a positive outlook for your business.

Dislike Photo via Shutterstock

47 Comments ▼

Megan Totka


Megan Totka Megan Totka is the Chief Editor for Chamber of Commerce. Chamber specializes in helping SMB's grow their business on the Web while facilitating the connectivity between local businesses and more than 7,000 Chambers of Commerce worldwide. Megan specializes in reporting the latest business news, helpful tips and reliable resources and provides advice through her column on the Chamber blog.

47 Reactions

  1. What terrific advice — simple, sensible, and effective. Small business owners can turn a potential disaster into an opportunity to make a stronger connection with prospects and customers.

  2. Oh that is hard. It is easy for people to feel offended when someone says something bad about their product or service. While you can be nice, you still cannot deny on how a simple negative feedback can impact your future sales.

    • Aira,

      Yes – that would be difficult to recover from. Although we can definitely turn those bad reviews into new opportunities like Ms. Cottrell suggest, what we need to deal with is the “footprints” of the bad reviews.

      So the emphasis should be on how to respond to those negative reviews in the right way AND how to “push” negative responses down from the search engines using proven online reputation management techniques.

      • Agreed on both counts! The key is handling bad reviews tactfully yet effectively, and then shifting the focus to positive press. Thanks for reading, guys.

  3. Perform damage control the right way over time may bring clients’ trust back to your business, but once the negative review was done either by a dissatisfied customer or jealous competitor, a good reputation is already destroyed.

    • Hi Diana,

      I agree that negative reviews can cast a shadow on a business’ reputation, but I believe that by handling them properly and responding in the right way, the business can recover.

      Thanks for reading!
      Megan

    • You might experience a “shadow” for a while, but I don’t believe you’ll be destroyed. In fact, a couple years ago, someone posted that we were unresponsive – didn’t answer our phone, didn’t return phone calls, etc. This person basically said we were horrible business owners and are not to be trusted. Our business friends immediately came to our “rescue” and posted rebuttal type of comments, stating that we are extremely ethical, always respond quickly, and are proud to be clients/referral sources for us. We didn’t ask for this type of response; what we did was send a link out to let people know what was being said. They took it from there. A few days later the person who posted the complaint apologized on the post (very professionally), stating that he had the wrong phone number. Had we not monitored our social media, this could have been huge. Instead, it was huge in a positive way and brought a lot of attention to our business!

  4. Don’t forget to always be attentive. You cannot avoid negative reviews, but you couldn’t ignore them either. These explain your business’s weaknesses, and how you identify them is essential to build your business to a greater level.

  5. Hey Megan,

    Negative online reviews are a big threat on the internet for small business. But the ways you have shown to handle the negative review is really great. I am very much impressed with your last point to approach the customer. Thanks for Sharing :)

  6. Also remember that many negative online reviews stem from a situation where the customer didn’t feel heard or acknowledged in-store.

    On a recent trip to Red Robin with my wife it took them over an hour to bring out our meals (burgers & fries, no special instructions). The whole time I was sitting there seething and was going to blast them online when I got home. However, the manager came and spoke to us once our food had arrived, gave us the meal for free, and defused the situation BEFORE I went home and wrote an immortal, bad review somewhere.

    So make sure your handling customer issues at the moment they pop up and you may be able to prevent bad online reviews.

    • Robert, thanks so much for sharing your story. You’re right, that manager handled the situation beautifully. So much better to address issues head-on rather than giving them a chance to simmer.

  7. Always best to keep a calm head, even if it’s sooooooo tempting at times to lose it. A business consists of humans after all (some might argue that’s not the case for some businesses!), so I can understand the temptation to respond in kind.

    How the review is handled/responded to is key.

  8. I’ve been reading about how nasty folks are using bad reviews and negative SEO to bring down their competition.. and I can’t imagine how anyone can have so much time doing that when they could have used it to improve their own brand. Human nature, I guess. Your advice makes sense though. Thanks for sharing!

    • Shaleen,

      This is why I teach, do not use review sites period. Most business owners do not have the time to manage their business let alone try to even keep up with what is happening on the social scene. Many business owners created or claimed accounts thinking that it would be a positive move for business. Most do not realize the negative impact till it is too late. “FacePalm” on desk….”why did I even sign up”.

    • Thanks for reading, Shaleen! Best of luck to you.

  9. Megan: Thanks for pointing out that you should “Take an Objective Look” on situation!

    I will tell you someday about the H&M “t-shirt review” fiasco…

  10. I think it’s actually important to respond publicly in some sort of way. Even if you want to take the conversation private, a simple “Hey, I read about your issue and would love to talk more about this. Can you e-mail blahblah@blah.com so we can continue this discussion?” If you respond directly to the bad review, it eases the impact of the negative footprint. You go on Yelp and read a negative review but see that the company immediately tried to resolve it. Maybe you ignore that negative review and focus on the positive ones.

  11. I worked for Wiebe Corp back in my engineering days. Mr. Armstrong, our Senior Project Engineer told me once “You can get 100 attah boys but if you get 1 ahhh..poop, it will cancel your attah boys”.

    Review sites are the same. Review sites are a thing of the past. Review Marketing Sites are still marketing to business’s and successfully getting them to upgrade to a monthly plan. You do not need review sites to get visitors to your site, you need highly targeted traffic to a well designed website that describes your products and services.

    Review sites will only contribute to a small percentage of new clients/customers compared to your overall marketing campaigns. My advice, if at all possible, delete all references and accounts to review sites. If a person feels inclined to do business with you, have a nice portfolio with contact information to your clients that will give you an awesome review. That should be offered on your website.

    Sites like Yelp and BBB can kill your business if you do not respond in a timely manner. If you do not have someone that constantly checks and email notifications are ignored, by the time you are made aware, it could be to late.

    For you SEO conscience folks that still believe that having review sites as part of you back-linking strategy….that has changed. Big G wants to see content “relevancy” in your back-linking.

    Char

    • Char, thanks for sharing your input. I do agree that if a business is inclined to create a presence on review sites, due diligence is key. I’d recommend assigning a dedicated resource to monitoring/responding to any logged reviews.

    • Patricia Collins

      Charles and Megan, I am not sure what you mean by ‘creating a presence’ on a review site. I never did sign up on them, but they have me on them. How can I delete my presence? Being somewhat computer illiterate is a problem when operating a small business. This kind of issue I can do without. Thanks for answering.

  12. You can try to counterbalance negative reviews by asking good customers to leave positive feedback for your business on sites like these.

  13. Christine Steffensen

    What a useful guide for all the small businesses. Just be open and honest about how a mistake was made.In addition try to use each negative review as a chance to learn something new.Deal with the issue that’s been raised, and never resort to personal insults or comments.Remember, a customer can easily take your private response and post it online as well.

  14. These are some solid advice. It’s a fact of life, if you have a business, at some point you’re going to come across a customer that is not happy or doesn’t like your business. Even though how hard and hurtful it is to read the negative reviews it is important to deal and handle the problem as soon as possible to limit any damage caused because this has a big impact on swaying people’s opinions.

    • Yes, Rebecca — inevitably, there will be times when someone isn’t pleased… the companies that deal with it the right way can rebound and prosper even after a negative review.

  15. Good points made and picked up a new servile with Social Mention, thanks.

  16. I think addressing the comments publicly especially on social media is one of the best strategies. You want your audience to know that you are listening to them and that you are addressing such problems, an audience always wants to be heard especially if it is regarding a problem

  17. Now a day’s almost majority of the online reviews are scam. You can pay anyone to write a nice review for your product or services. Sometimes even reputed members of any particular website are offered huge $$$ just to write a product review seeing which other members would trust and buy it. So I think it’s better to avoid seeing reviews and buy the product to test it yourself. If you are satisfied, share your thoughts or comments with your friends on social networks pointing them to the product’s sales page. I am quite sure this can bring real sales too.

  18. Hi Megan – this is a very timely piece for me. I just watched a piece on MSNBC’s Small Business show about Yelp and how they filter good review – assuming some are fake. But they let negative ones remain on site. Have you seen this or heard of Yelp doing this?

  19. What do you think about a business owner that comments on bad reviews and has all bad reviews removed by saying they are “revenge reviews” and then the reviews he cannot get removed he makes comments on every single one by calling the customer/consumer stupid, or making ridiculous excuses for what they didn’t like about his business?

    [Edited by Editor to remove personal name.]

  20. Bad reviews don’t always mean bad for our business. It’s how we response to the reviews that matter. When facing with bad reviews just don’t take them as an attack to our business. We can admit if a mistake was really made. We can show that we care about our customers by offering acceptable solutions for them. Internally, we use the feedback for improving our business process.

    • I completely agree that bad reviews aren’t always bad for business. The bad reviews sometimes shed light on something that a business isn’t seeing and can then improve the process for their customers. It’s definitely worth answering the customer and trying to sort out what the issue is.

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