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Businesswoman reviewing negative customer reviews.
Running a business

How to handle disappointing customer reviews

A negative review isn't ideal for any business owner—but it is, arguably, inevitable. You can’t please everyone all the time. 

How you respond to a negative or disappointing review, however, isn’t a given. As a small business owner, your response to a negative review can vary, particularly based upon your business’s industry or service. But there are some general guidelines worth following. We spoke with a public relations professional and small business owners to gather the best practical tips to handle disappointing online reviews.

Learn from the feedback

Even if it's hard to see it in the moment, “A negative review or comment is often an opportunity,” explains Brett Bruen, president of the PR firm Global Situation Room. “It’s a chance to lift up your quality, your values, your team. Yes, maybe an individual underperformed. Perhaps the client is being unreasonable. In either case, showcase what you deliver daily.” 

It's easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to a negative customer review. But there's often a takeaway that can help you improve your business

“There’s usually an element of improvement possible in that negativity as well. We have only had a couple of bad reviews, where people just railed on us,” reflected Melissa Skaggs, owner of a nonprofit cafe and one of QuickBooks’ Small Business Heroes. “After about a week, when I could look at them calmly, I looked for the little nugget of information there that we needed to improve on and use it for an opportunity for improvement.” 

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There’s usually an element of improvement possible in that negativity as well.

Create a positive experience

When it comes to a negative review, it isn’t necessarily just about acknowledging or offering a discount for a critical customer. Bruen expanded on this idea. 

“Contextualize what happened or what they say happened with a very visual illustration of your standard for service. Then, give them that experience. Not a small discount or a promise to do better. Give them a do-over. The short-term price may be a bit higher, but the long-term value will be worth it,” Bruen says. 

The key when it comes to negative reviews, Minneapolis- based restaurateur Steven Brown explained, is to “always respond with kindness.” 

“Thank them for the feedback, casting it as productive," said Brown, mentioning that most unhappy guests say nothing, never to return—or worse, tell a lot of friends their nightmare story. By leaving a review, they're providing actionable feedback and an opportunity for you to change the negative experience into a positive one.

Entice the customer back 

Ultimately, the goal is to respond to a negative review in a way that might prompt customers to return to your place of business and give it another shot. 

“We try to respond in a way that entices the negative person back to our cafe, and even offer to give them a complimentary cookie on their next visit,” cafe owner Skaggs says.

Like Skaggs, Brown notes that his restaurants often offer an incentive, like a "gift card or other perk—not as a make-up, but as thanks for using their valuable time offering this important feedback that we can use to better serve others immediately. I have even offered a gift card to their place of choice," he said. "Yes, we put it on that thick.” 

Bluntly, Brown added, “No one wants a bad Yelp review.”

Acknowledge your mistakes

When you've made a mistake, it's crucial for a business owner to acknowledge it and take responsibility. 

"We have to be able to say sorry, we have to be able to own our mistakes," comedian and entrepreneur George Lopez said to small business owners during a QuickBooks roundtable event. "And we have to be able to understand when we've received a lesson and to be thankful for the lesson.”

This opens the door to the possibility that the less-than-satisfied customer will return and, hopefully, have a better return experience. It also sends a signal to other potential customers that you're operating an authentic, caring business and that you take their feedback seriously to make sure mistakes don't happen again. 

When to let a negative review be

There are some negative reviews that aren't worth engaging with. 

“As a company, we have a policy of not responding to take-down Yelp [reviews] or other anonymous online reviews. People have gotten in trouble responding [when] the nature of these seems to be baiting,” Brown notes. 

When it's clear that a customer is complaining simply to complain, take a breath. The key is to keep a level head—even if you might feel an overwhelming desire to respond immediately. It's normal to be concerned about your reputation and the reputation of your business, but in these cases, the best response is often no response. If you do choose to write back, keep your response factual and short. 

Skaggs has adopted a similar approach to Brown's restaurants in dealing with overly negative comments. 

“If the negative review is a novel of bad—goes on and on about a minor deal—we just let it be. We don’t respond to those,” Skaggs says. “It’s a hard call for me." 

If a negative review isn't just a troll, treat it as an opportunity for growth. Respond with kindness and appreciation for the feedback. You never know who you might convert into your business's next superfan.

Find more resources for your mental well-being on the QuickBooks Blog.

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