The Art of Owner Response to Online Reviews

Long before the Internet age, business owners understood the value of happy customers and the potential impact of unhappy patrons. A happy customer can be expected to share his positive experience with five friends. Roughly half of them are likely to try your business out. If they are happy, they’ll each tell five of their friends, and so on until you’ve established a loyal customer base. On the other hand, an unhappy customer is likely to share their bad experience with more than five friends, keeping the echo chamber going, as well. This phenomenon was and still is called “word of mouth” among marketing gurus. Today, word of mouth is expanded exponentially through online reviews seen by thousands of strangers and friends in an instant. A business owner who fails to properly manage his online reviews may not be a business owner for long.

You Can’t Afford to Not Have a Good Review Response Policy

It doesn’t matter if you are running a farm to table eatery, repairing wrist watches or cutting lawns. Investing time and money into training, good hiring practices, good materials, honest policies, advertising, research, and marketing are all good for your business. Your customer review platform, and how you manage it, is one of the most important tools in your toolbox. It’s how you establish, develop and protect your brand. It’s essentially free advertising and publicity. And with a few exceptions, it’s forever. The ultimate echo chamber.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

It’s great to get those five-star reviews (The Good). You can expect the occasional three-star review (The Bad). Even worse is the one-star (The Ugly). How you respond (if you respond) to each of these reviews matters. It requires far more than a simple “thank you!” or a “terribly sorry.” Here are few simple rules to follow for all three:

  1. Be genuine.
  2. Be polite.
  3. Be concise.
  4. Be gracious and say thank you. Yes, even with bad reviews
  5. Be original, don’t cut and paste.
  6. Acknowledge a Job Well Done.

If a customer took the time to write you a glowing review, a simple, but original, acknowledgement does a lot to continue her appreciation for your business and whatever you are selling. Even more so, it shows the reviewer and potential customers that you care about customer satisfaction. Having said that, this is not an appropriate platform for offering incentives, or engaging the reviewer in another sale. You don’t want to sound like a sales person, even if that is exactly what you are. Offers of gift certificates, mailing lists placements for discounts, or coupons might appear to others as if you’ve “bought” the good review. I’m not saying to write them a book, but if the reviewer wrote a freeform note in the “other remarks” section, acknowledge it with a short personal response. Something like, “I’ve passed your comments on to Stacey. She very much enjoyed getting to know you and your grandfather.”

Reversing a Bad Tide

No one likes bad reviews. Remember word of mouth? Before the Internet age, all it took was one unhappy customer to poison your well. Without ever knowing what went wrong, you wouldn’t be able to fix it. You’d just watch your business dry up. In this day and age, bad reviews provide a golden opportunity to improve your business, hang on to customers, and show your willingness to improve. Bad reviews can even bring in new customers who believe they will have a better experience than the previous reviewer.

Lukewarm reviews are also opportunities to get another chance if you can correct the negative aspects of your customer’s experience. Be genuine when expressing your regret and acknowledge that the experience was not great. Say, “I am sorry that our service was slow.” Be sincere and don’t downplay or counter the customer’s problem by saying “I’m sorry you felt your service was slow.” Don’t make excuses or say “You’re server is new.” Acknowledge their experience and show them that you have a plan to correct the problem, “We’ve established some new protocols that will expedite food service.”

Don’t get personal or blame the customer, even if the customer was at fault. “The package did not arrive on time because you provided an incorrect address.” You don’t have to ignore that the customer was mistaken, even if their mistake contributed to their unhappy experience. Simply say, “We’ve modified our shipping address page to provide customers a chance to review their information for accuracy.”

Ugly and Downright Nasty

If an awful review comes from an existing customer, respond in the same way as you would to a lukewarm review. Don’t write them off as impossible to please. Keep in mind that even though they may have had a bad experience, they also took the time to write you a review about it. This could mean they are willing to give you another chance. Truly unhappy customers usually just never come back and don’t care to tell you why.

But don’t jump to respond immediately. Replying to a review well requires finesse and information or it could backfire. That one-star review almost certainly is detailing some serious problems with your business. Do some research first and find out why and how you failed this customer. It’s a teachable moment that you can’t afford to let slip past you.

Some ugly reviews may not come from real customers. A disreputable competitor or someone with a grudge, like a disgruntled former employee, can easily leave a fake review. You’ll need to learn how to tell the difference. There’s a right way and a very wrong way to deal with a fake review.

If you’ve done some research and determine that it is a fake review, the best course of action is to NOT respond at all. If someone is purposely trying to tarnish your reputation, you have recourses, but only if you don’t shoot yourself in the foot in the process.

You can report a fake review to the social networking provider that supports your reviews. If you can prove it’s a fake, they can delete it. Depending on their rules and guidelines, some networks allow to you flag it. But you might not want to go that route immediately. In some cases, you may have legal recourse and should consult a lawyer who specializes in cyber law. Any response you make, even deleting the fake review, can harm your case in the end. Don’t go it alone. Don’t look to SEO experts for legal help. And don’t take it lying down.

Responding Takes Time You Might Not Have

Regardless of the size and scope of your business, reading and responding to every review, good or bad, takes time. Time you may not have because, let’s face it, you’re running a business. While responding to at least some good reviews is always recommended, don’t feel the need to respond to every single one. Most marketing and social networking experts say responding to 10% of good reviews is a great amount to shoot for. If you reply to hundreds of reviews a month, you can end up sounding robotic. Some companies actually utilize robotic software so that they can respond to everyone. Don’t be a robot. Your customers can tell and it won’t do you any favors. You may be able to delegate your responses to a staffer, but make sure that staffer fully understands the tone and voice of your business and the guidelines you want followed.

Every successful business, large or small, needs to put customer care at the forefront. Online customer reviews give you insight into your consumer base and can be the most important tool you have to establish, grow and improve your business. Knowing how to effectively interface with your customers by responding well to their reviews is the best thing you can do for your business. You can’t afford not to.