Negative Consumer Reviews: 5 Times It’s Okay to Push Back

By: Marcus Varner | August 30, 2016 (Edited July 7, 2017)

negative consumer reviews

Warning: This post is going to seem contrary to many I have posted previously, but it's not.

I've written a lot about how companies struggle with how to respond to reviews, both positive and negative. I've also offered countless tips on how to safely traverse the challenge of responding consumer reviews, whether they be on review sites, social media, or your own site. Some of the basics include:

  • Respond quickly
  • Be courteous and in control
  • Listen to their concern before reacting
  • Look for opportunities to win the reviewer over

The overarching message when it comes to addressing reviews, especially negative ones, is, take a deep breath, play nice, the customer is always right. What I worry about with these kinds of tips is that companies are bound to get frustrated, feeling like they're playing the role of punching bag while abusive reviewers run rampant, and simply give up on what seems like a losing game.

But, while I still fully support a positive approach to reviews-one that prioritizes customer relationships over saving face-today I want to talk about when it's okay to drop the sweet talk and push back on negative reviews. Yes, there are certain types of negative reviews that require a tougher response. If you encounter one of these five types, the time for you to get real with a negative review has arrived:

negative consumer reviews

1. When the review is a fake from a competitor

If you've suspected that certain reviews about your company were not real at all, but thinly veiled attacks from a competitor, there's good chance you were right. We all know that companies push their employees to post fake positive reviews about their brands, but the same is true of negative reviews about competitors. As far back as 2012, cases of these competitor generated fakes were just as numerous as the positive ones.

Competitor-generated fakes are recognizable mostly by their tendency to stick to company messaging, to care about things that only companies (not customers) care about, and to lack specific details about when, where, and how things happened.

How to respond: The best part about this type of negative review is that you don't have to hold back on delivering a strong response. And feel free to expose the competitor's trickery for all to see.

[Quick note: it's important that we take a moment to define exactly what constitutes a "strong response." As with any professional communications, this never means that you allow your response to become personal or driven by emotion. The best, most powerful way to put down a fake review is to deploy your best, most damning evidence-not to turn your exchange into the online equivalent of a fifth-grade shouting match.]

negative consumer reviews

Of course, to spare yourself any unnecessary guilt, apologizing, and image triage, don't do any of this until you are at least 80% sure that the review is indeed a fake created by your competitor.

2. When the review is a paid job

Allies of paid reviews grow fewer and fewer by the day. More than a year ago, online retail giant Amazon very publicly declared war on people who write fake Amazon reviews for pay and those companies that pay them to do it. Since then, Amazon has sued literally thousands of fake reviewers in their crusade to rid their marketplace of this menace. Yes, Amazon hates fake reviews. Shoppers hate fake reviews. The FTC hates fake, or even just incentivized, reviews.

consumer reviews

It's widely known that most paid reviews are positive ones, about someone's products or services. Amazon vendor pays a fake reviewer to post a bunch of positive reviews about his fig jam. Fig jam shoots up on Amazon rankings, greatly increasing the vendor's fig jam sales. But, although it's less common, companies can also hire fake reviewers to post disparaging reviews about their competitor's products.

These fake reviews are recognized by their extreme language (Ex: "OMG! THIS IS THE WORST FIG JAM I'VE EVER HAD. DON'T EAT IT UNLESS YOU WANT TO DIE!!!!!") and their suspicious lack of detail about their experience with your company.

How to respond: When you discover such a review about your company, first verify, to the best of your ability, that the review is indeed a fake. Once you are reasonably sure, treat the review like you would a competitor-generated negative review: expose it for what it is and don't hold back.

3. When it's just a troll

negative consumer reviews

They're everywhere, including review sites, social media sites, and your site, and they delight in saying mean things, unprovoked, about everyone and every brand. Reviews by trolls are easy enough to spot. They tend to outdo even fake negative reviewers in terms of negativity and extreme language. Sometimes their comments have nothing to do with your product or service.

How to respond: It depends on your situation. Some troll reviews are so immature or ridiculous that your best response is probably to just delete the review (if it's on your site) or request that it be taken down (if it's on another site). But what if it's not so ridiculous, just coherent enough to be concerning to you and your would-be customers?

The best brands usually don't have to fight this fight alone: their loyal customers will often come to their defense.

"If you have a loyal online community you may not have to worry much about trolls since the members will monitor themselves," says Forbes contributor John Rampton. "Furthermore, when a troll does appear, your community may take matters into their own hands and drive of the trolls themselves."

If your company does not fall into this fortunate category, Rampton represents that you fight back with facts. This might mean agreeing with the troll where their information is accurate and then correcting their inaccuracies. By being transparent and fact-based, you can effectively neutralize most trolls and at least their influence with other users.

4. When the review is from an insufferable customer

negative consumer reviews

These customers can sometimes be the trolls mentioned above. Why these customers continue to hang around your brand (and they do) when they are so clearly unhappy with it is a mystery? Often, even after being contacted by your company to resolve their complaints, they still come back to dish out more.

How to respond: These customers highlight a truth too harsh for many companies (especially struggling startups): Not all customers are worth holding onto. Some customers complain so much, demand so much hand-holding, and do much damage to your brand that they are literally not worth keeping. This 10% of customers can often suck up 90% of your resources.

In the life of every company, the company has to come to recognize these customers for what they are and formally part ways with them. The customer won't like this, but they they didn't like anything you did.

In a striking example of this, an angry customer left an unsavory review on Yelp about a bustling NY eatery, griping about how unfairly she'd been treated by the staff who made her wait an inordinate amount of time. Instead of reaching out apologize, the manager of the eatery knew what had really happened: the customer had made a reservation for a group but her group had failed to materialize on time.

According to the restaurant's policy, she could not be seated until her entire party arrived. Instead of acknowledging the policy and the failure of her party, the customer chose to throw a fit in person and online and blame the restaurant.

Recognizing a customer she did not want to keep, the manager told the customer on Yelp that she didn't need to visit her restaurant, nor was she wanted. Ouch!

This is a bold statement for any company to make to a reviewer and not one to be taken lightly. But under extreme circumstances, when a company makes a genuine effort and a customer is in the wrong and refuses to come to terms with it, company would be wise to simply and plainly bid farewell to them.

5. When the review is just a misunderstanding

Most experts on the topic insist that the majority of negative reviews fall into this category. And it's easy to lump these reviews in with the insufferable customers or the trolls. But even some of the most seemingly negative reviews can reveal a real opportunity for companies. It starts with approaching the reviewers in the correct light.

"Haters-the people that complain-are not your problem," says marketing thought leader Jay Baer. "Ignoring them is. The people who complain about your business, the people who hate you in public, are, in fact, the most valuable customers...the haters who are taking their time to tell you what's wrong are really the unelected representatives of a larger, more dangerous group of customers, the 'meh' in the middle, the people who are unhappy but never tell you about it."

And then he reveals the opportunity: "You can take these haters and turn them into a volunteer marketing and customer experience army."

How to respond: Often this transformation can hinge on a single experience, often sparked by a single negative review.

Take the case of Craig Jooste, the owner of WOW 1 Day Painting in Seattle. When customer Susan L. left a negative review about his company on Yelp, he responded with an apology and offer to reimburse her, even if he had to pay out of his own pocket. Susan L.'s once-negative review quickly turned to a positive one:

negative consumer reviews

The transformation was instant and complete.

Often, negative reviews are the result of a company's lack of communication, which causes the unhappy customer to assume the worst. Fortunately, companies can easily reverse this chain of events by 1) acknowledging the opportunity the reviewer presents and 2) bringing clarity and goodwill back to the relationship.

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Written by Marcus Varner

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