You’ve built your small business with your blood, sweat, and tears. Getting a bad review can feel like the ultimate throwdown—an attack even.
What’s a business owner to do? You could self-sabotage by responding in a way that hurts your business more. Or you could turn that bad review into an opportunity to fortify your business.
Wrangling a negative review starts by understanding why it gets under your skin so much in the first place.
Why do bad reviews get under our skin so much?
Dealing with bad reviews, gracefully and productively, starts with understanding why they affect you. And here’s why: You’re only human. As a human being, you have four go-to responses to conflict and trauma: fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.
The part of your brain that activates to protect you from danger and stress is called the limbic system, specifically the amygdala. Your limbic system constantly surveys your surroundings for danger, asking, “How bad is it?” The amygdala doesn’t differentiate between different kinds of conflict and stress—just degrees. When it senses a threat, the amygdala takes over your brain, launching your fight or flight response. Psychologists call this phenomenon “amygdala hijacking.”
The amygdala’s ancient fear response is helpful when it comes to, say, encountering a bear in the woods. You know, the type of stress and danger our ancestors had to deal with. In modern society, your amygdala can activate in response to social stress and dangers—including negative reviews. But the response that saves you when dealing with a grizzly can often hurt your business.
Fight, flight, freeze, or fawn
You just got a bad review. And it’s a doozy. Three paragraphs long. Well-written. Scathing.
Your amygdala is on it. You feel stressed out and upset by the perceived threat. You worry your business (an extension of yourself) is at risk. We’ve all been there. And we often react by protecting ourselves in four unhelpful, amygdala-inspired ways.
Negative reviews can activate your “fight” response like a lightswitch. Feel the intense desire to sit down at your keyboard to type out a scathing response? That’s your fight response, and it can quickly escalate any interaction. You’ll also risk appearing unprofessional to future customers, even if it’s a private exchange. We live in the digital era, remember?
Dealing with a negative review can be scary. Flight lets you give in to the overwhelming urge to run from the problem. You rationalize that “what’s done is done.” Why bother? Unfortunately, you’ve still got a customer who was upset enough to write a public review. And allowing that bad review to stand without a response doesn’t look great to future customers.
The freeze response is similar to the fight response, taking it a step further. In addition to inspiring avoidance, that upsetting review can throw you off your game globally. It gets stuck in your head. You feel rattled and aren’t sure how to move forward. This often happens in response to a whole slew of negative reviews.
Fawning, the lesser-known stress response, involves an intense effort to “make it all better”—often at your own expense. The fawn response can be deceptive. While many customers will appreciate your efforts to make amends, it disproportionately taps your energy and time.
9 helpful strategies to help you wrangle bad reviews
You aren’t doomed to a fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response. You can add creative strategies to your toolkit that help take the stress out of bad reviews. The more you practice and implement them, the less overwhelmed and threatened you’ll feel.
1. Pause before you proceed
When possible, don’t react to a bad review immediately, especially if you feel upset. Repeat after me: Respond, don’t react. Reacting will add fuel to the flames. That’s the fight response. Responding will actually address the situation. Distract yourself with a routine task or a cup of tea. Then get back to it.
2. Acknowledge your feelings, then bring your logic online
Denial never helps when it comes to bad reviews. Remind yourself that it’s OK to feel upset, hurt, or angry when you get a bad review. Then bring your logic online to respond in a way that will help, not hurt, your business.
If the limbic system is the brain’s ancient motherboard, the prefrontal cortex is the savvy new operating system. The prefrontal cortex is your logic center and regulates language, planning, and decision-making. Count your breaths (four seconds in, four out), meditate, or go for a walk to calm a limbic system in hyperdrive. As your adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your limbic system will cede control to your logic center.
3. Avoid catastrophizing and reframe
Take a second to put the awful review into perspective. How bad is it, really? What is the realistic fallout? What can you do to fix it without setting yourself on fire? Realize that all is not lost. It might surprise you to know that many of my customers who had initially left me a bad review have now become repeat buyers. I treated their feedback with respect and did what I could to solve their problem in a timely manner.
Learn to see bad reviews as tough love: the kind of stuff your real friends will tell you, even if it hurts. Look for the kernels of truth to strengthen your brand or business. Do your best to address the problem. Recognize that all is not lost. Reframing a hurtful review can be a great way to distract yourself from its sting.
4. Empathize and communicate
Look at the review from the customer’s perspective. Put yourself in their shoes and reach out to propose a solution. There’s no need to fall all over yourself or offer the sun and moon. The very fact that you’re reaching out and offering to make it right will go a long way.
Instead of asking for a changed review, proactively address the customer’s issue. You’ll be surprised how many customers will change that bad review on their own.
5. Blow off steam
It’s OK to blow off steam—just not at your customer. If you feel like fighting, write down the response you want to send and share it with someone you trust. Let someone outside the situation validate your feelings, and then move forward.
6. Recognize that sometimes you’re dealing with Oscar the Grouch
Sometimes, no matter what you do, a customer will be angry. That bad review will stand. You’ll get another snippy note in response to your reasonable reply. In this case, cut your losses and move on.
7. Head bad reviews off at the pass
Do everything you can to head bad reviews off at the pass. Make it clear in your emails, purchase confirmations, and policies that you value customer satisfaction and communication. Tell your customers that if there’s a problem, you want to hear about it directly.
Bad reviews often come from customers who feel like they don’t have another avenue to get their needs met or grievances aired. If your business seems hard to reach, your customers may be using their reviews to communicate with you.
8. Create a pipeline of good reviews
Be proactive with other customers. A steady stream of good reviews doesn’t happen by accident. Don’t be afraid to ask for good reviews. A 2019 survey from BrightLocal found that nearly 70% of customers will leave a review if asked. That’s huge.
Frame your request asking for a positive review, e.g., “I hope you enjoy your purchase. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you need assistance or have concerns. And please consider leaving a positive review. It would mean the world to me as a small business owner!”
9. Outsource when possible
Bad reviews feel personal. My small business is an extension of myself. Instead of constantly trying to manage my stress response, I outsource my customer service to a magical human named Leesa. She’s smart, intuitive, and has a background in hospitality. Leesa can handle the drama of bad reviews without feeling attacked. This business isn’t her baby.
Hang in there, tiger
Bad reviews can be intimidating. Just don’t let your amygdala trick you into thinking a tiger is chasing you. Let your prefrontal cortex be your guide and get creative with your response. With your strategies in place, negative reviews can be manageable and even useful for your business.
The next time you see a one-star review, keep calm and reach for your strategy toolkit. You’ve got this.
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