“I run a service business in a small town where everybody knows everyone else. Recently someone posted a review of my business online, anonymously, saying I provided lousy service and that he would never deal with me again. I was shocked as I wasn’t aware I had any unhappy customers.
I had my computer person look into this, and the e-mail address of the person who posted this review was registered to a person with the same last name as one of my local competitors. I’m thinking it may be one of his relatives posting a false review just to give my business a black eye.
I’m afraid people will see this review and think I really do provide lousy service. What’s the best way to handle this?”
Thanks to the Internet, we can find out with a click of a button if anyone has had a bad experience with a product, a service, a small business or a local professional.
A number of websites have sprouted up to provide a forum for online reviews. Some, like Angie’s List (www.angieslist.com), charge users a small fee in order to weed out bogus reviews. Most of these sites, however, including Amazon.com and Yelp.com (www.yelp.com) are free, which encourages anonymous postings. While most of these postings are valid and genuine, there’s a temptation for people with an “axe to grind” to post false reviews knowing they cannot be tracked down.
The worst thing you can do is to overreact, according to Josh King, General Counsel of Avvo, Inc., a leading medical and legal website where consumers get their questions answered by a community of rated doctors and lawyers (www.avvo.com).
King admits it’s hard for small business owners to be objective when dealing with a hurtful review, but he says you have to calm down and ask if there might be some merit to the review, regardless of its origin: “You should never assume that a negative review is bogus. You have to ask, is this a possible blind spot? My employees are very good at ‘managing up’ to me, but maybe they’re being surly to the customers and this is the first inkling I have of that.”
But what if you have a strong suspicion that a negative online review is bogus – for example, because it isn’t worded correctly, doesn’t sound familiar, or ties in a little too closely to the message that a competitor frequently uses?
King again warns of overreacting, citing the “Streisand Effect” (so called after an incident involving the singer Barbara Streisand), by which bringing a lawsuit over an online posting creates exponentially greater attention to the posting than it would have received had it simply been ignored. “The truth about online postings is that there is a big difference between reviews left on sites heavily used by consumers – like Amazon, Avvo or Yelp – and postings in the vast underbelly of the internet” says King, explaining this is especially true of blog entries, “tweets” on Twitter.com, and other “ephemeral” postings.
According to King, there are three ways you should never respond to a negative online review:
- by threatening to sue – most reviews are merely people’s opinions, and therefore not actionable as “libel” or “slander”;
- by posting a bunch of overly positive reviews – this is called “Astroturfing”, and can get you into legal hot water for false advertising; and
- by posting a detailed version of “your side” of the facts – “this makes you appear defensive”, says King, and especially if you are a professional, can open you up to charges of disclosing a client’s or patient’s confidential information.
So what is the right way to respond to a negative online review you think is bogus?
First, says King, you should contact the website where the review appears and let them know your suspicions. Most social media websites have “community guidelines” for people who post reviews, and will investigate a possible violation of those standards if brought to their attention.
Second, if the review is truly damaging, post a short response saying something like “I’m sorry you have had a bad experience with us; please contact me personally at the following e-mail address and I will do everything I can to make this right.” This shows that you really care about your reputation and customer service. If the review really is bogus, the poster won’t contact you.
Lastly, encourage your happy customers to post positive reviews. Send them an e-mail with a direct link to a place where they can say something great about your business.
Negative reviews can actually enhance your reputation in the marketplace. “Everyone knows nobody’s perfect, and that there are some crazy customers out there whom nobody can satisfy,” King says, adding that “you really don’t want 100% positive reviews because nobody will believe it. They will assume you’re gaming the system.”
What about making your customers sign a document saying they won’t criticize you online before you will do business with them? A New York City dentist tried that and is now facing a multimillion dollar lawsuit in federal court for violating her patients’ rights to free speech.
Cliff Ennico, a leading expert on small business law and taxes, is the author of “Small Business Survival Guide,” “The eBay Seller’s Tax and Legal Answer Book” and 15 other books. (www.succeedinginyourbusiness.com)