How a small business should respond to negative online reviews

When Amazon last month sued the administrators of 10,000 Facebook groups for allegedly posting fraudulent reviews in exchange for money or free merchandise, the news brought front and center a pervasive and damaging issue for businesses.

But here’s the thing.

You’d be hard pressed to find a small business that could afford to take legal action when hit with a negative review — warranted or not.

“Trying to defend your honor and your quality online or through legal channels can put an entire small business under,” said John Kabateck, president of Kabateck Strategies, whose company represents the California division of the National Federation of Independent Business. “It’s not so easy for your average mom and pop and, frankly, it ends up being more costly.”

That’s left small businesses to find their own ways to deal with the issue.

Facing the unavoidable

“It almost feels like that necessary evil,” said Forrest Manning, owner of Double Rainbow Café in San Rafael. “It’s also something that isn’t going anywhere. There’s more and more sites popping up that are essentially rating systems.”

Besides the obvious places people go to post their experiences — Google, Facebook and Yelp — there are a growing number of industry-specific sites that can be just as harmful such as Airbnb, Tripadvisor, OpenTable, Zillow and Healthgrades, among others.

Manning’s shop currently has 243 reviews on Yelp, with an average rating of four “stars” out of five, which he said amounts to about 85% of positive feedback.

The impact of even 15% of negative reviews, however, can be damaging.

“In a service business, sometimes you don’t know what’s going on in other people’s lives,” Manning said. “They may have just gotten some bad news or something just happened right before they walked in. I think we’ve all been in that position.”

Manning said he tries to make things right when his store gets a bad review by thanking the reviewer for taking the time to comment and asking for a second chance, such as by offering a free dessert.

When reviewers criticized a product, such as stating the ice cream was too soft, Manning said, he will take that feedback as a teaching moment.

“You don’t want to get a bad review but, more importantly, if one person left a review saying that happened to them, in my mind, I (wonder) how many other people were thinking that,” he said. “They might not have written anything, but they also might not necessarily come back. So, responding to reviews, whether they’re good or bad, is pretty important.”

Take the criticism offline

Manning’s is the right approach, said Andreas Mueller-Schubert, co-owner and chief marketing strategist of Napa-based WSI Next Gen Marketing, a full-service digital marketing provider that has both regional and national clients.

“Try to answer every review,” he said. “It’s a sign for someone reading it that the business takes online reviews and customer feedback very seriously. And it’s a great marketing opportunity.”

On the flip side, when responding to negative reviews, Mueller-Schubert advised to proceed with caution.

“It’s really important to take the discussion offline” and not get into a back-and-forth with the customer who wrote the review, he said.

Otherwise, the business owner is at risk for a disastrous outcome.

“Google will pick this up as a very popular post, and you might have a one-star review ranking very high because there’s lots of traffic on it,” Mueller-Schubert said. “That’s the last thing you want to have.”

Take a step back

“When you’re a small business owner, you take everything so personally,” said Shana Bull, a digital marketing expert and book author. “And that’s good, but it’s hard.”

That can make it difficult to refrain when a negative comment shows up about your business.

“I always tell people to wait. Wait a little bit before you respond back so you’re not doing it when you’re angry,” Bull said. “It’s good to answer people back with a clear head because you can do some extra damage if you respond harshly.”

Sometimes, however, it can be hard to hold back.

Manning has had to ask customers to leave his store for loitering, asking other customers for money and for harassing young female staff, who are predominantly between 16 and 22 years old.

“When they get attacked like that, it’s beyond frustrating, but it’s definitely my role to be protective about that in any and every way I can,” Manning said. “And when I get those reviews … then comes the frustrating part of trying to have them taken down.” Manning was referring to Yelp, which he said can take a long time for them to remove an unwarranted review.

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