Bad customer reviews can and will keep business owners up at night. Just ask the owner of the Union Street Guest House in the city of Hudson, New York. The Union Street Guest House was a small inn that would sometimes host wedding parties and other event attendees.
Was being the key word.
Apparently, some wedding guests had not only found the hotel's self-proclaimed "vintage" look a lot more run-down than charming, but they had also experienced some uncommonly rude customer service. The Union Street Guest House was so terrified by the thought of bad customer reviews that they took a proactive approach — warning couples or attendees that if anyone in their party left a bad review, they would be fined $500 until it was taken down. This didn’t prevent negative reviews, however — it went viral and led to 3,000 more! Eventually, they had to close up shop due to the bad publicity.
How much does a bad review cost? It depends on your response. Bad reviews should be embraced as an opportunity to apologize for the issue and to show your potential customers what kind of service they can expect. In the case of the Union Street Guest House, they could have learned from their bad reviews and found ways to improve. But they didn't.
Let's take a look at why reviews are so important, how to grow your positive reviews, and finally, how you should address negative reviews.
Why do you need customer reviews?
“So, how was it?”
“What did you think?”
“Would you use them again?”
Before the worldwide interweb was created, we typically asked these questions of friend or family member who:
- Ate at the hot, new Italian restaurant in town
- Brought their kid to that trampoline park where everyone keeps getting hurt
- Used that auto repair garage on the corner of Main Street
There’s a marketing term for this type of advertising: word of mouth.
And without question, it’s the single most effective form of advertising in the history of marketing. Why? Because it’s honest and authentic. It’s when a person – just like you – went, consumed, judged, and then shared their experience.
Couple this with the fact that marketers are just above politicians on the “ladder of trust,” and it’s not hard to see why the majority of buyers feel they need to read 4-6 customer reviews before they can trust a company.
But here's the bright side: while you have little control over traditional word of mouth (except for giving great customer service), you can reply to reviews and show other people how you respond to issues.
Consumers want to read reviews because they're real
A few years ago, Christopher Ryan, CEO of SIX Marketing, was interviewed by the Saratoga Business Journal. In the article, "Business Marketing Plans Should Include Strong Website Content and Social Media," he said,
People want to see real... They want testimonials. They want reviews. Reviews are probably the biggest thing that any small business could start to work on and make a dramatic impact on their growth.
Think about how you shop online and your process (a.k.a. your buyer's journey). You determine the product or service you need, then search for your options. You scour the internet for the best price or the most popular company. Then, you read reviews to see if it's a good choice. Are the reviews mostly positive? Are there any red flags? Once you receive validation, you make your decision.
People don't just want positive reviews, however. Too many positive reviews can be a red flag (think about that Union Street Guest House policy). "I think the stat is that a 4.3 to a 4.7-star review sells significantly more than a 5-star review," Ryan continued in the interview. "Every business gets a bad review. You can’t be perfect all of the time. And if you get a bad review and you just respond to them in a professional manner, other people will see that conversation."
Too many 5-star reviews looks too good to be true, but a negative review with an apologetic response is authentic. Use your reviews to build trust and assure your future customers that they're not only purchasing the right product or service, but also that they're purchasing it from the right people.
How to grow your positive reviews
A major reason why many business owners are terrified by the thought of customer reviews is that they cannot control what someone is going to say about them. But they actually can — by providing excellent customer service. Customer reviews are nothing more than a report card. If the business owner puts the customer first, they will receive glowing reviews.
The easiest way to gain a review is to ask for one. It seems simple yet horrifying, I know. But if you are going above and beyond for your customers, they'll gladly write you a review. You just need to ask.
If they say yes, ask them to submit a review on whatever platform you prefer (Google, Yelp, Facebook, etc.). Keep in mind that the more reviews your business has, especially Google reviews, the better it will be for your local SEO. And don't forget to respond to the positive reviews to say thank you for their business and the time they took to leave a review!
To gather more reviews, you can also give incentives, such as discounts on future purchases. For example, I recently came across a car dealership that offers you a free oil change if you review them on Google. This is a great way to gather more reviews from your average happy customer. Organic reviews (or ones you don't ask for) tend to be written by customers who feel compelled to share their opinion, and those customers are usually either extremely happy or extremely unhappy. Asking for reviews can help you gather more reviews that represent a typical customer experience.
Requesting a customer review also presents an opportunity to prevent a negative one. If you ask the customer directly if they’ve had a pleasant experience and they say no, it's a chance to nip the issue in the bud and resolve it right then. However, some people will flat-out lie and tell you their experience was just swell, possibly fearing confrontation. Then they'll turn around and absolutely eviscerate you in their review. But that's okay — because bad reviews can be great opportunities.
Why a negative review can be a great thing for your business
Of course, mistakes happen and every once in a while even a 5-star company will earn itself a bad review. And there will always be the occasional tough customer who will write an angry review no matter how well you treated them or how profusely you apologized. And your potential customers know this.
It's how you respond to those bad reviews that matters — because your potential customers are paying attention. In fact, 73% of consumers say they always or regularly read the responses to reviews.
Years ago, I was trying to make money while in college by waiting tables. One night, I was caught off-guard by a huge amount of people who came in at an hour when we were typically dead. I was the only waiter in the entire restaurant. Scrambling, I ran around trying to handle more tables than I ever had in my life — I was, as they say, "in the weeds."
My tables couldn’t have been more empathetic; they all had a front row seat to the circus of which I was the ringmaster. They could see I was having a rough night. Well, except for one customer. He absolutely lit me up. And of course, he was loud enough that every other table overheard him.
I apologized profusely. Not only on my own behalf for not living up to his standards, but on behalf of the restaurant. Offering all I could to make his dining experience better for him. I killed him with kindness. Instead, he brooded and ate his deliciously delinquent meal.
Meanwhile, all the other tables took notice. They complimented me on how hard I was working and how well I handled the upset diner. Loudly enough for him to hear, of course. And then they left me massive tips. All of them.
If someone leaves you a negative review, for the love of everything pure and holy, respond. Respond directly but respond openly and honestly. Kill them with kindness.
How to deal with negative online reviews
When you get a bad review, reply to them quickly and in a professional manner. Apologize for the issue and, if possible, offer a way to make it better. You will likely never get a response back from them, but that's okay — other people will see that you honestly tried to make the customer happy. If their complaint was that your company has poor customer service, your review needs to prove otherwise to potential customers.
Furthermore, if you address negative reviews in a courteous, professional manner, you may turn the situation around. If you're able to fix the issue, the unhappy customer may very well turn around and start telling people how well your business took care of them. How yes, they had a bad experience, but you went above and beyond to make sure they were happy in the end.
Responding to reviews and resolving issues helps to build your brand's reputation. Other people will see you care about your customers and that if something goes wrong, you'll do your best to fix it.
Side note: The diner who chewed me out that one night not only left me a massive tip, tomato red-faced with embarrassment — he came back multiple times, addressed me by name, and was always gracious with his gratuity.
How to respond to all customer reviews
To summarize, you should always:
- Respond to all reviews in a timely manner.
- Respond to positive reviews and express your appreciation for the customer. Thank them for choosing your company and for taking the time to write a review.
- Don't post canned responses. It's hard to come up with dozens of different ways to say "thank you for your nice review!" but it's easier if you reference something they mentioned. If the reviewer loved a particular item on the menu, had great customer service from an employee, or appreciated how quickly they were served, acknowledge it in your response (e.g. "We always strive to provide prompt service, so I'm glad to hear you were helped right away!")
- Respond to negative reviews, apologize for their bad experience, and, if possible, offer a solution. If needed, give them contact information to discuss the issue privately. Don't blame any employee by name and don't blame the customer for anything. Be professional and approachable. It should go without saying that your response should not be canned.
- Report false reviews. If you know for a fact that the customer is lying (or was never a customer at all), you should be able to report or flag the review. Do not abuse the system. The ability to report reviews is usually reserved by platforms for particularly damaging false statements or irrelevant/inappropriate comments, and if you're just reporting bad reviews, the platform will likely penalize you. If the review isn't removed by the platform, respond calmly and professionally but explain the situation so others can read both sides of the story.
In conclusion: value your customers & turn them into brand advocates
The Union Street Guest House thought they were above reproach. They believed they were entitled to only positive reviews. They believed their customers needed them more than they needed their customers. They didn't understand the importance of the customer's voice. They did not fully comprehend that those who had yet to do business with them were paying attention to what previous customers had to say.
Anyone who has been in the service industry knows that the customer isn't always right but that they have to be treated that way. Sometimes businesses make mistakes and sometimes customers make mistakes. But the customer must always be valued and treated with respect.
If they form a bad opinion about your company, prove them wrong through your actions. If they were rude, kill them with kindness. Show anyone who might be watching that, at the end of the day, your company is respectful and respectable. Don't think you're above reproach like the Union Street Guest House, but do strive to be above reproach.
Don’t tell people why they must do business with you. Nobody likes being told what to do. Instead, show them why through your actions and through your reviews. Let your current customers speak for you. If you encourage customer reviews, if you respond to each review, and if you embrace negative reviews as opportunities…
Customers won’t just be customers…
They’ll become your fanbase and your greatest advocates.
P.S. Like this blog? Feel free to write us a review on Google. 😉
[Editor's note: This article was originally published on April 11, 2019 and updated on January 18, 2022.]