How to respond to negative online reviews

Woman sitting on couch with an opened package typing a review on her computer

It’s happened. Your previously untarnished record of 4 and 5-star reviews has taken a hit after a dissatisfied (to put it lightly) customer left a scathing one-star for all to see. You’ve taken a fall in rankings so you’re no longer one of the highest-rated businesses in search results.

It’s a kick in the guts. And the first thing potential customers will see when they open the review panel. You wonder how much damage this review will do.

Not to worry. No one is perfect and bad reviews happen. People can get emotional and take their frustration out in public ways. But you don’t have to let it ruin your business.

Follow up with a careful and empathetic response that addresses the issue directly and you can avoid things spiralling out of control.

Here’s how:

1. Respond promptly

Don’t ignore the review. Plan to respond as soon as you can after the review is published. Odds are it was written fresh after an incident occurred, so you want to respond promptly to demonstrate that your business cares. If there’s still time, you may even be able to do or offer something to reverse the damage.

Depending on the issue, responding before others catch on and add their own complaints could also potentially avoid a publicity nightmare.

That said, if the review touched a nerve, don’t respond too quickly. Save a draft and review it again before you finally hit publish. You don’t want to say something you’ll regret. This is why you must make sure you …

2. Don’t get emotional

Responding emotionally is a recipe for disaster so take the time to craft a professional response.

If you’ve ever written something to someone in a text message, email or on social media that has been misinterpreted as offensive, then you’ll know that tone is difficult to convey in writing. Something that you feel is innocent could easily be misinterpreted by a reader as something rude – especially when they’re already unhappy.

Get someone else to read your response and give you feedback before you post it.

No matter how malicious and rude the reviewer is, as a business you must take the high road. When met with a careful and kind response, nasty reviewers will appear less credible to other readers if they can see your business took the time to listen and address the issue.

That’s why it’s important to …

3. Personalise your response

Don’t fall into the trap of writing the same form note to every bad review. Write something personalised to their review using a mix of these points:

  1. Thank them for the feedback.
  2. Show empathy for the issue.
  3. Apologise and take responsibility.
  4. Offer to rectify the situation.

4. Be honest and don’t rely on excuses

If something went wrong that day or there was a miscommunication, be honest. But keep it brief and avoid shirking the blame completely. Too many excuses can make it seem like you’re avoiding accountability.

Even if the issue was out of your control or not your fault, accepting responsibility anyway and apologising is often the safest, most mature and professional response.

If what the reviewer said was false, carefully explain your side of the story. Don’t be aggressive or hostile towards the reviewer. Attacking them and calling them a liar – even if it’s true – won’t win you any praise.

Instead, gracefully query where their account is coming from and show that you’re giving them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps there was a miscommunication or they confused your business with another? If that’s the case, a polite response from you is far more likely to convince them they should remove or amend their false review.

5. Don’t engage in an endless back and forth

Request that the person call, email or direct message you to discuss the matter further and try to resolve it privately. Do this in your initial response to them if you can.

Other customers don’t need to see the full argument or negotiation play out publicly in real-time. If you come to an agreement, either you or the reviewer can follow up on the review to clarify the outcome.

6. Try to rectify the situation

If you’re not sure how to fix the reviewer’s problem, ask if there’s something you can do.

Sometimes the customer won’t be interested in a peace-offering. But asking for the chance to remedy the situation shows you’re a trustworthy business that wants to do the right thing and values every customer – even the angry ones.

It might appease the reviewer enough to stop them writing reviews across other platforms or spreading negative word of mouth. And it could go a long way with other potential customers who read your reviews and see that you’re capable of taking on feedback.

7. Follow through on your word

Keep to your promises. Don’t offer something publicly that you can’t follow through with privately.

If you’ve offered a refund, replacement or credit, make sure you’re able to provide it.

If the issue is less straightforward – such as unsatisfactory service from one of your employees or long delivery times – briefly state how you plan to follow up and look at ways to improve.

Be concise but specific. Rather than ‘I’ll look into it’ say ‘I will look at offering alternative delivery methods and update the expected delivery times on my website.’

8. Thank the reviewer for their feedback

It might be hard with some reviewers but set aside your ego and thank them for their feedback.

Not all dissatisfied customers leave reviews so if it’s an ongoing problem that they’ve brought to your attention, this is your chance to fix it before you lose business.

9. See the positive side

Remember that a negative review is not the end of the world. In fact, sometimes it can be a good thing.

No, this isn’t an ‘all publicity is good publicity’ situation – though, on occasion, there is some truth there. But a reasonable negative review can give you something to work on and add legitimacy to your positive reviews.

After all, nothing is perfect or to everyone’s taste. How many times have you read through a stream of glowing 5-star reviews and thought, there’s no way these are all real.

There are so many websites flooded with generic and repetitive 5-star reviews written by bots or paid reviewers that there are now websites and add-ons to help sort the real from the fake. Fakespot has an algorithm that flags suspicious reviews and Removify is a service that attempts to remove them.

Many consumers are wise to the fact that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

And if it’s a particularly malicious one-star review that you’ve responded to with empathy and courtesy, many readers will take the review with a grain of salt.

Often the best way to get a real sense of something through customer reviews is to focus on the reviews with 2, 3 or 4 stars. Those are the customers who likely got the most rounded experience and wrote a review with a clear head.

10. Remember that perfection isn’t the goal

A business owner never stops working on improving. Criticism and negative feedback, while sometimes painful to read, is your chance to show that you’re open to improving your product, service or customer experience.

Nobody expects a business to be perfect all the time. What’s more important than perfection is accountability, transparency and presenting yourself as human-focused and socially conscious.

And while not every issue can be resolved and not every customer will be receptive to your help, sometimes a sincere apology and an offer to address the situation will be enough to win the customer over.

Or for another prospective customer to look past a negative review and take a chance on your business anyway.

Business Victoria

Business Victoria

Business Victoria