How to Handle a Yelp Attack

The right response to a negative Yelp review, whether justified or not, can make all the difference.
Strategic Facilitation & Ideation,
April 30, 2012

A friend of mine owns a small but very successful Italian restaurant near the campus of UCLA in West Los Angeles called Pomodoro. He's been there 20 years. The 45 tables are always filled, the food is always terrific, and he manages to stop by every table in the place at least once during dinner service. Over the years, many people have encouraged him to expand and add locations, but he prefers the quaint, authentic and personal approach to his business.

Recently, he told me that his restaurant was attacked on Yelp by a disgruntled patron who not only gave the lowest possible rating, but also berated both the restaurant and him personally for just about everything, including his operating policy of not taking reservations. What made it worse was that the complaint was lengthy, detailed, and well written so as not to appear spurious and random.

My friend was distraught. He was so upset that he could not figure out how to respond to the Yelp attack without making things worse. He asked me what I thought he should do. I'm no Yelp expert, but I know one. I spoke with Richard Torrenzano, CEO of The Torrenzano Group in New York City, who co-authored a book last year on this very topic, called Digital Assassination

Why You Should Respond

"If you do not respond to these complaints," Torrenzano explains, "or worse, if you respond poorly, then you can further mire yourself in negativity."

For most business owners, though, Yelp is both a boost and a bane. "Some business owners might feel like the existence of websites like Yelp is at best an exhausting annoyance and at worse a serious liability," according to Torrenzano. "Some have even accused Yelp of exhorting ad dollars in order to 'help' business owners overcome negative reviews."

"Actually," he continues, "Yelp has in fact developed algorithms that punish reviewers who appear to have posted on Yelp only to grind their axes. Those reviews are pushed to the bottom of a business's page and are hidden by default. The truth is that overall, Yelp really is a net plus for business owners, because you have an opportunity to turn that negative review into a compelling positive story."

This is exactly what my friend would like to do.

Keeping Your Feelings in Check

Torrenzano says that the main thing to keep in mind when responding to negative reviews is to remain unemotional and businesslike to avoid escalating the situation.

"Responding in all-caps, name-calling, threatening people, and arguing with reviewers are all ill-advised," Torrenzano says.

He adds that every business owner should review Yelp's thorough guidelines for responding to reviews. Here you'll find some useful things to keep in mind when responding, such as:

  • Your reviewers are your paying customers.

  • Your reviewers are human beings with (sometimes unpredictable) feelings and sensitivities.

  • Your reviewers are vocal and opinionated (otherwise they would not be writing reviews!)

  • When responding, listen first, then empathize, and then focus on how things can be different next time.

Making Amends

Coming across as highly impersonal or corporate is also a Yelp no-no, Torrenzano says, as is publicly promising coupons or freebies. Instead you can offer something complimentary by private message if it is accompanied by a sincere acknowledgment of the reviewer's concern.

A "gold standard" example for responding, according to Yelp, is when you assure your reviewer that his or her feedback has in some way helped improve your business or contributed to actual changes.

"As with all social media, claim your piece of the Yelp community before you run into problems," Torrenzano says. "Establishing an active presence on Yelp in advance of any negativity will help generate goodwill that you can draw on when a crisis arises."

I relayed this advice to my friend, who immediately set up a Yelp Business account to interact with his reviewer. He is actually considering a limited reservation process for certain situations, and he will be communicating that in his response.

Has your business been slammed on Yelp? How did you respond?

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