In the age of new media, anyone can be a critic. Review sites such as Yelp, Google, Yahoo! Local, and Angie’s List, among others, can benefit small businesses by expanding their online presence. SEO agency BrightLocal’s 2014 Local Consumer Review Survey states that 88 percent of consumers read reviews to determine the quality of a local business.
Unfortunately, along with glowing praise can come a few disparaging remarks. Consumers will occasionally fire off uncensored, negative reviews of a product or service without considering the consequences. Sometimes, these reviews go beyond critique to hostile, potentially damaging, and factually untrue.
Business owners have multiple ways to extinguish this fire of negativity and foster productive communication. “It’s important to take a step back so that you don’t respond in a defensive or aggressive manner,” says Jim Hunt, partner at New York City-based law firm Slater, Tenaglia, Fritz & Hunt.
Next, find out from your employees if the customer has a legitimate complaint. If so, it’s time to offer an apology. “You have to respond in a civil, professional, helpful manner,” says Hunt. “Depending on the circumstances, if you say, ‘We’ll do whatever we can to make it right. We’ve been in business 25 years, and we’ve never had this type of complaint before,’ you’re reframing it in a positive light.”
If your Yelp page has only a few reviews, casually ask satisfied customers to share their thoughts to garner positive comments. In particularly hostile situations, an online brand reputation company can help clean up your online presence.
Although it’s difficult to convince a site to remove a customer review, it’s still wise to go through the dispute process. “If you can provide proof that a competitor or a disgruntled former employee wrote the review, the site might take it down,” says Hunt. “If you can provide documentary proof that what the customer said was not true, then you have a good shot at getting the review taken down, as well.”
If a customer does make untrue statements or posts repetitive hostile reviews, legal action may be necessary. Opinions (“I think the hamburgers at Joe’s Diner taste terrible.”) are protected under the First Amendment. False statements of fact that harm a person or business, broadcast and published to a third party, can constitute defamation, which is grounds for a civil suit. (“Joe’s Diner failed a health inspection.”)
However, think long and hard, and consult with an attorney, before taking legal action. “Defamation cases are difficult to win, and it’s hard to calculate the value of a business’s reputation,” says Hunt. It’s also expensive. Aside from attorney fees, the business owner will likely spend much of his or her time with lawyers rather than running the business. In the case of the repeat reviewer, consider a cease-and-desist letter before filing suit.
Oftentimes, a hostile review stems from a knee-jerk reaction to a situation. The wise business owner will do the opposite. Keep calm and carry on.
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