There are many milestones of creating and growing a local business. There’s the first letterhead, the first merchant bank account and the first customer who isn’t your dad or cousin. When your business gets large enough to get noticed on Yelp and Google Places, you’ll even have customers giving you reviews about their experiences. Since you’ve been providing such excellent service, you can smile as you see comments pop up on your Yelp page.
However, your celebration may be shorter than you think. While you’ll be happy to see some of your favorite customers write glowing reviews about your business, you’ll also see reviews that are angry, confusing and possibly completely made up.
Some of the scenarios that my business consulting clients run into with review sites include:
- A customer writes a negative review for the wrong business.
- A customer is mad about a legitimate business decision (i.e. not refunding a completely finished meal at a diner) and chooses to make up additional problems to accentuate his point.
- A customer has some sort of psychological disorder or hearing problem where “Sorry, we’re closed” sounds like “Get the hell off my property before I get my shotgun out.”
- A customer is not even a “customer,” but a competitor who thinks mudslinging other businesses is just part of the guerilla marketing game.
Now part of this depends on your geographical area and your industry. For example, there are some cities where bar owners are friends and agree to hold their specials on different nights and some where late night coffee shops try to put each other out of business. Either way, you’ll have to be watchful for the customer reviews that come in.
Here are some tips to help.
1. No customer is your enemy, even if he declares war
Thanks to the current economy, Disney movies and some really nasty labor abuses during the industrial revolution, the business owner (especially a rich one) is usually the “bad guy” when there’s a dispute with a customer.
Because of this, you really can’t win by posting an inflammatory reply on the review site. This will only encourage a flame war, with other customers losing more and more respect for your business as you two shout mean things at each other over the Internet. It doesn’t matter if he’s a liar and it doesn’t matter if he’s completely insane. You have to keep your professionalism and act like he’s a good, honestly mistaken human being.
2. Offer to right the wrong
Even if the customer has no basis for his comments, you can regain your reputation by offering to help out with whatever issue he’s having. Notice I didn’t say “admit you were wrong.” That is a completely different strategy that I suggest you avoid.
Here’s an example of something you can say to a customer who’s written something false and vicious about your business.
“Hi David. I’m sorry you had an unpleasant experience at Kevin’s Diner. We do our best to make sure all fish is properly cooked and we have an A+ rating from the health department. We actually don’t even serve shrimp at this restaurant, so I’m surprised you had an issue with an ‘undercooked shrimp cocktail special.’ I’d like to invite you in to discuss your issue and how we can solve it. Please contact me using the phone number above or just walk in. I look forward to speaking with you. – Kevin”
Sometimes you can reach out to the person privately if you know who they are. If you run a hair salon or similar business, this is a very good reason to keep a file on all your clients and customers. If you just make a phone call and correct the issue, then the person might even remove the review.
One cautionary note here: If you call the customer directly, you have to be even more kind and gentle than you would be posting a reply on the review site. The customer will already be on edge—and maybe a little ashamed—so he will be expecting a confrontation. Instead, be extremely sympathetic and soft when discussing how you can help resolve the issue.
3. Be open to the possibility that your business has a problem
Now, you may have noticed that I haven’t addressed the possibility that the customer might actually be right. It’s a scary thought, isn’t it?
If your customer did have a legitimate complaint, it means two things. First of all, you have to go through the same process talked about above and offer to right the wrong. Secondly, you have to make sure it doesn’t happen again…to any customer.
This might mean retraining your staff or it might mean eliminating a staff member. If your company has low-paying, low-skilled positions with heavy customer contact, you have to be even more careful with management and training. In these types of jobs, you have employees who were very likely unable to find any other employment and are resenting having to speak to your clientele.
There are also possible non-employee issues, such as having a bad food supplier, bad oven, bad plumbing equipment, etc. If employees are repeatedly telling you that their tools need to be replaced, it pays to listen.
One more thing to keep in mind is that it may be possible to get a negative review removed simply by contacting the review site. If you run the Moonlight Bakery, and there’s a Yelp user with the login name “moonlightsucks” that only has one review to his name, Yelp is likely to consider removing him, as it’s obviously a malicious attack.
Also, even if someone does nail you down with an awful review, you can always minimize the effect if you have a ton of very positive reviews on your site. The best defense is truly a good offense, because in contrast, the negative commenter will just look like a bad apple who wouldn’t be happy anywhere. Encourage your happiest clients and customers to leave positive reviews after serving them and you’ll have a great reputation on these sites.