Stylised shot of a businessman punching another businessman in the jaw.

The world of online reviews can be a blessing for small businesses if handled properly. If not, they can become something of a marketing disaster. This is something many small business owners have discovered the hard way, with poorly judged responses to negative reviews going viral. So make sure you learn from the mistakes of these businesses and handle negative reviews in a professional and courteous manner. Here is what not to do.

DO NOT try to prohibit bad reviews

Two knights dressed in traditional armor stand against a dark sky.

As the importance of online reviews has risen in recent years, so too have reports of small business owners going to extreme measures to stop customers leaving negative reviews online. By that we do not mean extreme levels of excellent customer service so good that nobody could bring themselves to leave a bad review. No, they just threaten to charge them lots of money instead.

The Union Street Guest House in New York recently made headlines around the world for threatening to charge customers an extra $500 for any negative review they posted about the hotel online. The company’s Yelp reviews page was already littered with 1 star reviews from dissatisfied customers (with no response from the owners) but once the internet got hold of the story this naturally brought a flood of thousands more reviews berating their horrible policies. Many of those reviews have now been removed, but a quick online search for this business will show any potential customers a raft of scare stories. Despite the owners later apologising and trying to pass the policy off as a misunderstood joke, the damage had already been done.

They are not the only company doing this either. In 2012, Virgina resident Jane Perez was slapped with a $750,000 lawsuit for daring to leave a negative review of Dietz Development following unsatisfactory work the building contractors carried out on her home. Dietz disputed claims of potential theft in the review, and Perez then took umbrage to accusations of untruth. In the end both parties were found guilty of defamation and no damages were awarded to either side.

In June 2014, online gadget store Klear Gear tried to implement a ludicrous $350,000 “Non-Disparagement Fee” on a couple who left them a negative online review following an order which was never delivered. As the condition appeared in the company’s terms the dispute was pushed all the way to court before common sense prevailed and Klear Gear were actually ordered to pay $306,000 of damages to the couple instead. So take those lessons – trying to blackmail customers out of honest feedback will probably only make things worse.

DO NOT argue with the customer

Close-up shot of a bearded man with a zipper superimposed over his mouth.

Any business owner knows that the customer is not always really right, but they should always feel like they are. The golden rule of dealing with negative reviews is to not tell the customer they are wrong. You should accept they had a negative experience, apologise and strive to rectify the situation while ensuring it doesn’t happen again. Simple, right? You would think so, but some people tend to get very defensive when someone insults their business.

Earlier this year, a Glasgow hostel owner went viral after he did absolutely everything wrong when responding to a negative customer review posted on TripAdvisor. The owner of the Blue Sky Hostel made several spectacular errors of judgement, disputing almost every claim made in the review and labelling the author of the review ‘a retard’. Numerous stories detailing his horrific approach to customer service now populate the first page of search results for his company. Not so clever after-all.

It’s not only business owners who hit back at online reviewers, an excellent recent example of how not to deal with criticism came from a self-published author, Stephen J. Harper,  who went on a spectacular tirade against a review of his latest novel that wasn’t even that negative. Remarkably the author has even taken to the comments section on this article about the incident to further dispute any wrong doing on his part. It’s an incredible display of self-sabotage worth noting as it is only serving to make more of a story.

An extreme example which many may be familiar with is that of Amy’s Baking Company, a cafe in Arizona which appeared on an episode of the reality television show Kitchen Nightmares with Gordon Ramsay. The episode became notorious as a result of the owners combative and deluded attitude which was so bad the celebrity chef was unable to help them turn their business around. When the episode aired, the owners came in for a huge amount of criticism and it’s fair to say they did not handle it well – unleashing a torrent of abuse towards their critics which guaranteed their company name is now synonymous with bad service.

DO NOT take the negativity offline

People having an interesting meeting

A lot of advice for dealing with complaints may tell you to take things offline so you can engage with the customer on a more human level, whether that be face to face or over the phone. If you are striving to fix the situation, that can be a great move, but you should never take your own negative responses offline. One horror story of reviews gone wrong involves a book shop owner from San Francisco who took serious issue with a bad review her company received. So much so that she tracked down the author of the review and attempted to gain entry to his home – a wrestling match ensued and the business owner was arrested by police. Needless to say, the business has now closed down.

HOW TO make light of the occasional bad review

Pop star Jessie J smiles and sticks her tongue out at a gig.

No company is perfect, and it is pretty much inevitable there will be a negative review at some point. As long as you are confident you have done all you can to ‘fix it’ with the customer in question and you are not receiving regular bad reviews, there are ways to make that blot of negativity on your otherwise perfect review rankings work for you. Please note, such tactics are not suited to all lines of business – make sure it is the kind of joke your regular customers will appreciate.

Some restaurants decide to put a bad review on a board outside the front door, essentially challenging people to come in and try it out. Their good humour about the situation gets them plenty of attention online and is usually worth its weight in free marketing buzz. Meanwhile, the Michelin starred Longman & Eagle restaurant in Chicago has even printed their favourite negative review quotes on to snazzy cards to be shown off and raise a chuckle among customers – again, it helped get them noticed online.

There is even a restaurant which has garnered mountains of buzz online by actively striving to become the worst reviewed restaurant on Yelp. The owner of the Botto Bistro is so confident in the quality of his food that he thinks online reviews ultimately won’t damage his business – and so far it seems to be working for him!

By Chris Tapley, Content Writer for 1st Formations.