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Negative bias: Best practices for responding to online reviews (Part 2)

Brands of all sizes are impacted by online reviews. In this second of a two-part series, Anvil Media’s Kent Lewis looks at when and how to respond to online reviews, including negative or undesirable reviews.

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Digital Technology

Negative bias: Best practices for responding to online reviews (Part 2)

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In the first part of my two-part series on online reviews (“Building a framework for the reputation economy”), I outlined how to build a foundational marketing platform to effectively monitor and manage online reviews. In this article, I will cover when and how to respond to online reviews, particularly negative or otherwise undesirable reviews.

Responding to customer online reviews and comments

With foundational marketing in place, a trained team and brand monitoring tools, it’s time to address the elephant in the room: negative reviews. While we will focus on addressing negative reviews, there are a few quick notes worth consideration:

  • Never delete reviews. It’s never a good look for a brand to delete reviews, as it implies there is something to hide. The only exception to this rule is any content that violates legal, ethical or security standards.
  • Never incentivize reviews. Compensating customers for positive reviews is a violation of terms of service for many review sites, especially Yelp! While most sites frown upon back-end rewards for positive reviews, it’s doesn’t technically influence the action or sentiment (unless everyone knows, in which case it could be considered a violation).
  • Always respond to reviews, both good and bad. It’s a best practice to respond to all reviews, as it demonstrates a level of care and commitment to customers that competitors may not share. Responding also provides an opportunity to emphasize company core values, even when responding to bad reviews.
  • There are a few exceptions to the above “always respond” rule. In some cases, responding to a negative review can be counter-productive. Specific examples include: 1) reviews so obviously fake, off-color or otherwise clearly violate the terms of service that they can be quickly flagged and removed, 2) questionable reviews where customers, fans or others have responded and adequately addressed the issue, 3) responding before you have all the facts, or 4) if you’re too worked-up to provide a thoughtful, level-headed response.
  • Take the right tone. Don’t be defensive, demeaning or curt. Be courteous, honest and thorough. Take the high road. Provide facts, not feelings. Wait until you have all the facts and are in the proper mindset to provide an informed, level-headed response.

One common challenge companies face is determining which reviews are fake and which are real (positive or negative). When evaluating reviews to qualify them as “legit” take the following steps:

  • Verify they are real customers/clients based on your internal database
  • Review profile history and other reviews for authenticity (timing, location, language or other odd/inorganic patterns)
  • Look for trends that may indicate they were paid to review by a competitor or other “hater”
  • A profile with very little history is suspect, as is a profile with very little information about the individual and little consistency in types of businesses review or too much consistency

Owning the issue and turning that frown upside down

According to research, a customer that has a bad experience tells five people. If the brand rectifies the issue and satisfies the customer, they will tell 10 friends. That statistic is amplified via social media. As such, there is significant motivation to turn bad customer experiences around. Once you’ve determined a negative review is legitimate, there are steps you can take to maximize the opportunity to turn them from a hater to an evangelist or to at least neutralize the review. Here are my five recommended strategies for addressing negative reviews:

  1. Acknowledge the complaint/issue and apologize. Sometimes, unhappy customers just want to be heard. At the very least, you look good to those reading the response.
  2. Provide contact information to get the conversation offline as quickly as possible. Whether the conversation goes well or sideways, you don’t want customers or competitors seeing the back-and-forth if possible. You may provide a high-level recap publicly, once an issue has been resolved. Since most customers do not update their negative reviews after resolution, it’s helpful to outline the steps you’ve taken to address the issue.
  3. Fix the issue and communicate how you’ve ensured it won’t happen again. Sometimes, customers are more interested in protecting others and are less concerned about their own well-being. Either way, it’s smart business.
  4. Ask what you can do to make it better/make them happy. Always better to ask what would make them happy, as it may not be as expensive a fix as you might expect.
  5. Once you feel you’ve adequately addressed the issue(s), circle back to request an updated review/rating. While I’ve personally updated negative reviews proactively, once a company has addressed any concerns, don’t assume consumers will do it without you asking.

In the end, delighting customers and turning them into brand evangelists is a highly effective strategy to grow your revenue and protect your brand online. For more information on this topic, read this previous post: Online reputation management: going beyond search results.


Kent Lewis, president and founder of Anvil Media, started his digital marketing agency career in 1996. He frequently writes and speaks about marketing and entrepreneurship.