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Responding to Negative Reviews: Can You Hear Me Now?

Posted on 12.11.2011

When the modern consumer wants to voice an opinion about something, they have no shortage of tools at their disposal. From personal blogs and social media profiles to dedicated review sites and online forums, they can quickly and easily share their experiences with a few taps on a keyboard or smartphone.

So, how can a business manage this ever-expanding, uncontrollable element of its public image? What new opportunities do online customer reviews present? What are the risks and how can they be managed?

Reviews do impact business
There is an old adage that says a customer who has a good experience will tell one person, but a customer who has a bad experience will tell ten. I’m not sure if the ratio holds these days, but the numbers involved have certainly increased dramatically.

Google and other major search engines actively seek out customer reviews when returning search results. If there is even the hint of buying intent in your query, you can bet there will be some user-generated reviews on the first page of results.

Bing highlights goods and services recommended by your Facebook friends, while Google has invested heavily in Places, its growing directory of local businesses where customers are encouraged to comment publicly on their experiences.

So, the visibility of customer feedback is now dramatically greater than the days before search engines and user-generated content. And it seems it’s also having an impact on purchasing decisions, with people more likely to buy from brands their Facebook friends recommend and even negative reviews helping to drive sales, as long as they are well-written.

From my own experience, I know that my wife, who has found some fantastic hotels for us to stay in over the years, swears by TripAdvisor, the hugely popular hotel review site. A spot among the most highly recommended places to stay in a given location is better than any advertising money can buy. But negative reviews can have an equally telling impact.

There’s a case going through the courts in the U.S. right now involving a hotelier who is suing TripAdvisor after one of his establishments was named the dirtiest hotel in America. The claim for $10 million in damages gives some indication as to the power of reviews and the sites that publish them.

Whatever the outcome of this particular case, it would seem fair to assume that a series of bad reviews, prominently displayed when someone searches for your brand, could make people think twice about doing business with you. The really tough part is that you can never really know how much business it has cost you.

Suggestions for responding to negative reviews
Another classic proverb is that you can please some of the people some of the time, and however lofty your ambitions may be, this surely applies to customer service. If you deal with enough people, you’ll get someone who’s unhappy with their experience, maybe unhappy enough to blog about it or seek out your industry’s TripAdvisor equivalent.

Assuming you decide not to ignore negative reviews, here are three suggestions for taking action:

Do better
It sounds simple, but bad reviews can sometimes highlight something you hadn’t noticed or didn’t realize that people cared about quite so much. Successful businesses understand what their customers perceive as valuable and give them more of it. You may think your restaurant is packed because of the great food, but maybe your customers think the food is nothing special and keep coming back because of the location and friendly service. It might take some negative reviews to pick up this insight.

Bad reviews can also flag situations where you simply got it wrong. Maybe your delivery team missed an appointment or your customer-support staff made a bad call in response to a legitimate complaint. A bad review gives you a chance to reach out publicly and make it right. A series of bad reviews tells you something isn’t working and needs to be fixed, perhaps providing the impetus you need to drive change in your organization and raise standards of service.

Engage actively
Even if negative reviews don’t require big changes, you can gain a lot from actively engaging with people who have taken the time to share their experiences. Responding publicly to a complaint can be great PR. Even if the customer is still unhappy, showing that you care and that you want to fix problems will look great when that forum string turns up in a Google search.

A lot of businesses allocate resource these days to monitoring social media channels for mentions of their brands, actively seeking out opportunities to offer solutions to problems. In fact, customers and the mainstream media will often look to social media for an indication that a serious issue has been noticed and is being investigated.

There was a good example of this recently when BlackBerry users suffered a major service blackout. RIM, the Canadian firm that makes the BlackBerry, has drawn more criticism in some quarters for its slow response to the wave of Twitter and Facebook complaints than for the outage itself.

Make some noise
The third and final offering is to be proactive when it comes to producing and sharing original content. Search engines can only return what’s there, so if the only activity around your brand is a couple of customer complaints in a two-year old forum, then they’ll get a prominent position in the search results.

By investing in useful content that you control, you can ensure that your brand is well-represented the next time someone Googles your business. On the corporate level, you might want to consider a blog or news page that’s updated regularly and features articles about important issues in your industry rather than just product announcements.

Getting active in social media will not only give you more search results real estate, but will also provide the ideal platform to respond to what your customers and other stakeholders are talking, asking or complaining about.

About the Author: Adam Barber is a director at Castleford Media, a custom news and content agency based in Sydney, Australia. Castleford works with a broad range of clients, supporting their Web, social media and email campaigns with tailored content marketing solutions.

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