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February 3, 2020 Straight Up Advice: How Do You Handle Negative Reviews Online?

negative reviews

They raise your blood pressure, haunt your dreams, and ruin your time off. Yes, we’re focusing on negative online reviews, and how to manage them, in the latest edition of Straight Up Advice.

Considering that 93% of today’s consumers always read online reviews, you can’t ignore the impact that review sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Facebook and Google can have on your business. 

That’s why we reached out to successful bar and restaurant owners. Our goal? To learn how they handle negative reviews. Here’s what they had to say…

Note: We’re about to share candid advice from actual people in the bar and restaurant biz about how to handle negative reviews, but we’ve changed their names and locations so they feel comfortable “keeping it real.”

And Another Note: Don’t believe the hype that “Yelp will go out of business.” Let’s say they do someday, so what? Online review sites aren’t going anywhere, so learn how to handle negative reviews now.

“You have to respond. Fast. But that leaves room for mistakes. So I wrote a checklist of things I need to do when I handle negative reviews.” Andrea F., manager of a restaurant in Huntsville, AL

Andrea shared her (awesome) secret tactic to handle negative reviews. She uses a “cheat sheet” of responses. Andrea was clear that she NEVER cuts and pastes these responses, they’re more like templates which she customizes.

“I did a lot of research. There’s some science and psychology behind certain things you should write. Like, always use the person’s name in the response as it makes them feel important.”

For a checklist similar to what Andrea uses, review the 5A formula for handling negative reviews and writing the perfect response.

“My mother always said, kill ‘em with kindness. That’s how I handle negative reviews – especially the ones that just aren’t true. It’s super hard to do, but the result is that most people change their review. Some even delete it.” Steve R., owner of a pub in Portland, OR

Steve is on point with his advice (and has a 4.5-star Yelp review to prove it). He says the worst thing you can do is to handle negative reviews…negatively:

“My knee jerk reaction is always to fight fire with fire. It’s human nature. But that just makes the problem worse.”

So how does Steve get over those feelings of anger so he can handle negative reviews?

“I wait. I step away from the review and do something else. Once I’m calmed down, I’ll write a rational response that’s really positive, upbeat, and apologetic.”

But it wasn’t always this way. Steve used to ignore bad reviews, and hope that positive reviews would “bury” them. At the time, this tactic was resulting in a 3.5 to a 4-star rating. Once he began to actually handle negative reviews, his overall rating increased to 4.5. He used tips like these 10 strategies for writing positive reviews.

“After I started posting thoughtful and kind responses to nasty reviews, what shocked me was how many people actually deleted their review or at least toned down their harsh words. Sometimes I think these people just want someone to hear them, and to make things right. So that’s exactly what I do. I always invite the customer back in for a second chance.”

“We don’t get a lot of negative reviews. That’s because we try not to let customers leave unhappy. If they had a bad experience, hopefully, they had a chance to tell us in person so we could make things right.” Crissy M., manager of a sports bar in Daytona Beach, FL

The last thing you want to hear is that someone like Crissy doesn’t have to handle negative reviews…because she doesn’t have any! But it’s a great concept: give people a chance to complain before they leave. So, how does Crissy do it?

“Our servers are all trained to ask every table if there was anything they could have done better. If someone says they’re upset with their meal, we have a process for addressing that. Same with slow-ish service. We don’t let anyone leave until they’re satisfied and compensated – whether it’s with a discount, small gift card, or free dessert.”

This strategy for handling negative reviews (by preventing them!) is in addition to a printed comment card that has Crissy’s cell phone number and a short message from her saying she’d love to know if she could have made their experience better.

“Yes, I do get calls every once in a while. I think some of those calls could have ended up as 2- or 3-star reviews.”

“If the review is truly false, and I have proof, I’ve contacted the person directly and mention I may pursue legal action.”Megan V., manager of a restaurant in Farmington Hills, MI

Well, that escalated quickly…Megan is one of a handful of people who said they handle negative reviews by asking the reviewer to remove false statements in their review, “or else I will sue you.”

These managers and owners claim they only do this when the review is truly inaccurate. This tactic for handling negative reviews is controversial, and in some states, it may even be illegal thanks to Anti-Slapp laws that protect consumers’ right to free speech.  

Take a look at the latest laws about suing online reviewers for defamation, then consult with your own attorney before you approach someone who has left a bad review. Handling negative reviews in a litigious manner can also result in some seriously bad PR. Who wants to eat at a restaurant that attempts to sue customers for bad reviews?

“My logic is that bad reviews happen to good restaurants. So I focus on getting as many positive reviews as I can. They offset the bad ones and that’s reflected in my Google rating.” Sam N., owner of a sports bar in Pismo Beach, CA

Ok, so this advice about how to handle negative reviews borders should be taken with a grain of salt. Yes, bad reviews happen to good restaurants but never ignore them! Still, Sam’s advice rings true. Since star ratings are based on averages, the more positive reviews you have, the higher your overall rating will be.

Sam uses a multi-step process for gathering up those positive reviews (and avoiding having to handle negative reviews). First, he offers free wi-fi through Yelp Wi-Fi. To access the wi-fi, guests have to quickly leave a review.

Second, he has trained his staff to offer a $5 gift card to a guest if they post a review while they’re at his sports bar. The important thing is, waitstaff only offer the gift card if a guest has said they were extremely happy with their meal.

It’s worth mentioning here that you can’t give guests a reward ONLY if they post a positive review (if only it were that simple to handle negative reviews). Attorney generals in many states have gone after businesses who try to pay guests for positive reviews. Sam’s team never says “here’s a $5 gift card for a positive review.” They say “here’s a gift card for reviewing us.” The customer has total control over what sort of rating they give.

Finally, Sam has also set up digital signage on TVs in his restaurant. He’s customized the message on the signage so it reads “Show us some love on Yelp!”

Obviously, if you’re getting a ton of reviews saying service is insanely slow or the kitchen keeps undercooking chicken, the best way to handle negative reviews is to first fix the problem your customers are pointing out. Sure, it’d be nice if they brought it up in a less public forum than Yelp or Google, but that’s not the way today’s customer operates. So be prepared with this advice for handling negative reviews. Who knows? The right response just might win you a customer for life.

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