Working to improve the social and organic online reputation of restaurants, B&Bs, hotels and private car services in the past year has brought to my attention that those who have direct contact with clients, consumers or buyers have as a primary weakness the ability to comfortably and successfully resolve a customer complaint or bad online review.
Proactive steps to avoiding bad reviews
0. Prediction, consequences and value
What is done now will create ripple effects into the future. The ability to predict future consequences is commonly avoided in the fast-paced hospitality business, online product sales, airlines or anywhere else where people come and go over short periods, where there is little time to create strong, personal relationships.
Included in this is the common problem with business owners and managers of getting a junior employee to understand the value of each customer. And staff dealing with customers may view one person as “just another item on the assembly line”, thereby devaluing the business and potential future referrals this single client may bring. So step 0 of reputation management is within the business structure itself. It is ensuring that those dealing with your clients understand prediction, consequences and client value.
1. Making good on a valid mistake
Imagine this setting. A restaurant owner is having to deal with 50 to 300 customers a day and something goes wrong; uncooked pasta, hair in the soup, waiter spills the wine… good lord! The guest and their companions expect immediate attention but the waiter or owner doesn’t give it but instead justifies the mistake or worse, visibly rejects the guest. This usually comes about from from ignorance of point #1 above; Understanding client value.
The obvious (but never-practiced-enough) response would be to resolve it fast and courteously. A polite apology, making good on the mistake, providing a service or complimentary item equal to or beyond the value etc. These things make for quick repair of what could lead to a sour-faced client.
Such a simple gesture usually costs a business very little compared to what damage can be created by an upset client. With online review websites abound, let alone word of mouth, omitting this step can start a downward trend in business. Reversely, when handled well, such a gesture can also lead to a good review or favorable response.
Resolving existing bad reviews
When working with the national manager of a chain of restaurants earlier this year he insisted that the internet was a formidable and untouchable area. Specifically, “what was done was done and there is nothing I can do about it now that they have put it online”. The first thing to understand in handling bad reviews is that they can be handled and taken offline.
2. Responding to the bad review
Though this step requires some knowledge of what the complaint is about and perhaps understanding of what went on which resulted in the bad review, there are certain guidelines to follow when responding to bad reviews. Google covers the etiquette well in their page on resolving bad reviews on Google Places pages. There is more to this than just manners though:
3. Legal action against bad reviews
Legal action against bad reviews can be a very difficult and expensive process. In the US, for example, there is not much precedence for such cases and most review websites such as Yelp, TripAdvisor etc are protected from lawsuits against them by the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Section 230. This law basically says that online service providers are not liable for the activities of their users.
There are circumstances which can make a law suit against a review poster (not the website itself) a strong case and these are:
- If the review was posted by a competitor.
- If the review is an outright lie (fake reviews) from a person who has never had contact with the company.
Both would require evidence through online forensics or legal discovery first.
However, legal can have some great benefits if used intelligently. See #4 below.
4. It’s time to get aggressive
There is key law which needs to be understood. Any good PR who knows this is worth their weight in gold:
When you cannot resolve an antagonistic person with great PR, then that person or group has other agendas or ethical issues.
This is a powerful law in PR and though contented by those who can not observe the obvious, it opens the door to a real solution to resolve online attacks. Good people are willing to resolve matters of upset and are not interested in communication warfare. Those who insist with such vile and hatred and are unable to be repaired really are involved in something which would make ol’ gran-mama turn in her grave.
Have you ever tried to calm an unreasonably antagonistic person with great attention to calm and common sense and it didn’t get you anywhere? Then that person is up to something else which you don’t know about it.
The person trying to get a refund and keep the product. The guy who has a grudge and wants to see you fail. The ex-employee who stole from the office and wouldn’t remove that fake review if it was his last dying breath. These are all people who, when the above steps don’t work, need a more aggressive approach.
Here are some options:
- Investigate the matter and find out who the person is, what naughty things they are up to and use it as muscle to force them to remove the bad review.
- If it traces to a competitor, threaten them with extreme legal and investigatory action.
- Find out who they might listen to or depend upon, appeal to them for help, expose their activities and explain the legal ramifications. This could be their employer, a family member or other.
Note: This step should be done by your lawyer, a cyber forensics expert or online reputation professional. It is not recommended you do this without attempting 1-3 above.
Your last option is to just get it sorted out with an online reputation firm. Ideally, you would be working with one already, but if not, getting support from specialists in review removal may be your best bet. The results can be quite startling.