Best Practices for Dealing with Negative Customer Reviews

By John Garvey

Whether you’re a retailer, restaurateur, tour guide or museum director, your first negative review can make you feel like a donkey kicked you in the stomach. Don’t go all Chicken Little on us, though—The sky is not falling! Before we get to how to deal with negative customer reviews, we’ll point out a few benefits (yes, benefits) of negative reviews:

Man in Suit giving thumbs-up

Despair not!

According to Hubspot, five times as many buyers seek out bad reviews as good reviews. That’s because they want to make an informed purchase, weighing the credibility of negative and positive reviews. Rarely are they looking for reasons not to buy.

In fact, Reevoo, a brand management and market research firm, reports that 19 out of 20 customers become suspicious when they see only positive reviews. An occasional negative review lends credibility to your positive reviews by showing that you aren’t gaming the system.

A mature, helpful response to a negative review that shows you aren’t squeamish about negative feedback boosts your credibility and may generate sympathy for your brand.

Finally, “Customers who have their complaints satisfactorily resolved tell an average of five people” according to Colorado State University marketing professor Douglas Hoffman. If you win over a dissatisfied customer, they’ll be a stronger advocate than a customer who was happy all along. That’s because, done right, resolving a complaint shows an unusual level of commitment and maturity.

In short, a negative review creates the chance to turn a small loss into a big win.

Hopefully, having provided some positive perspective on negative reviews, we’ll turn our attention to how to manage negative online and offline reviews. There are four cornerstones: Initiative, Vigilance, Empathy and Process.

We’ll end with a few SEO tips so hang with us!

Initiative: Be proactive.

The most important foundation of managing negative reviews is taking specific, customer-centric measures to prevent them in the first place. There’s no foolproof method to stop all bad online reviews, but there are established ways to reduce their likelihood.

  1. Convenient sounding boards. First, make sure there’s a convenient resource such as a physical or online “comment card” available to customers to voice complaints and provide testimonials. It’s far better for them to complain directly to you than to many prospects via social media. Customers given a convenient sounding board will often be more candid, focusing on the substance of their complaints rather than speculating about the “why,” which may amount to an unwarranted attack on your business culture and motives.
  2. Follow up quickly on offline complaints. If not acted upon promptly, offline complaints become public. A slow, inadequate or non-response adds to a customer’s frustration, making it more likely that he’ll flame you on Yelp, Facebook, OpenTable or Google.
  3. Email tags. Every employee using a company email should have links to your site and social media accounts below her signature, not only to grow your social presence but to make it easier for customers to post reviews.
  4. Soliciting testimonials. Finally, remember that the point of sale, when the customer is excited about a new purchase, is the best moment to solicit reviews. A simple URL on the bottom of a physical receipt, a link to a super-short survey on a mobile or email receipt, or even a physical comment card will generate more reviews than a suggestion that they visit Yelp or TripAdvisor.

Vigilance: Keep your ear to the ground.

  1. “Social never sleeps” is an unofficial mantra in social media marketing and public relations. Make the rounds regularly: Yelp, Facebook, Google, Zomato (previously UrbanSpoon), OpenTable, Twitter, Glassdoor and so on. Know the most important review sites for your industry and pay lots of attention.
  2. Set up a Google Alert for your business so that when it’s mentioned online you receive a timely notification in your email.

Empathy: Feel their pain.

  1. Own it. Own up to your mistakes, even when it’s uncertain where the blame lies. A non-response to a negative review will compound the problem almost every time. It shows apathy. It shows that you aren’t on top of your game. In one way or another it validates the complaint.
  2. Civility. Even a justifiably defensive response to an unfair review will be perceived negatively by customers, who may sympathize with you privately but still be put off by drama. If it’s a case of a false statement, be candid yet civil.
  3. Judgement. On a similar note, use good business judgement. Don’t be overzealous when appeasing upset customers with compensations and never throw your employees under the bus.
  4. Authenticity. Why are authentic apologies necessary? Consider the following:
    • According to Lee Resources, a consulting firm, one complaint implies there are another 26 quietly dissatisfied customers (who are likely complaining to other people).
    • According to Bain & Company, one of the big three consulting firms, customer acquisition is 6 – 7 times as costly as customer retention. So try not to lose ‘em.

Woman writing in a notebook

Process: Have a checklist of things to do and avoid.

  1. Make it easy for customers to deliver feedback and testimonials. Encourage candor by not requiring them to provide more personal information than absolutely necessary to follow up, and by expressing your commitment to customer service with words and actions.
  2. Run each response by a trusted colleague with some emotional detachment before posting.
  3. In your response, make sure you direct the customer to someone who can help them resolve their complaint. Make it a direct line or email rather than a generic address like “” While easy to overlook, this detail can help bring about a speedier resolution and may result in the customer amending their review to a more positive rating.

What other lessons can you bring to the table based on experience? We’d love to hear your stories.

Bonus: SEO Tips!

  • When responding to a negative review, don’t use the name of your business or search keywords. Doing this will improve the search engine ranking of the review itself. With positive reviews, the same principle applies in reverse. Use your company name and relevant keywords to bolster the review’s ranking.
  • Freshness is one factor in how Google ranks content, so all things equal, new content outranks old content. The wake of a negative review is a good time to put up positive or helpful content you already have in the pipeline, or to increase your content marketing efforts.