It’s bound to happen: a bad review on Yelp, the omnipresent guide to restaurants, shops and all things local. Even the most perfect retailer or restaurant-owner has a bad day. Or, perhaps the customer’s expectations were out of sync with the style of the restaurant or shop. (We’ve even seen angry reviews from patrons at fondue restaurants because “they had to prepare their own food.”) Negative reviews — especially if they’re mean-spirited or misguided — may feel like a punch in the stomach, meaning you may want to punch back. But DON’T. Instead, here are some suggestions (some from Yelp, themselves) for handling a negative review.

First, take a look at Yelp’s rules

Look at Yelp’s Terms of Service and Content Guidelines to familiarize yourself with the rules for reviewers, business owners and managers. Many of the things that may anger you could be covered by these terms and rules. Rather than respond to a review that clearly is not allowed in the guidelines, the best first step may be to flag the review so that it can be checked out by a Yelp administrator.

We’re all human beings

Everything that Yelp advises starts with the importance of thinking about the customer or patron as a human being, not a faceless transaction. You, too, should respond in a way that displays your humanity. You may not convince an angry customer to change their opinion, but others will appreciate your attempt. Unlike a large corporation, when you respond as the owner or manager of a small business, people will recognize you as a neighbor, not some far-off, faceless corporation.

Re-read the review

You need to take a deep breath. A lot of nuance is lost in Internet communication. The customer may have been trying to say one thing, but the way it was written may sound like the opposite. Humor doesn’t work when a reader doesn’t recognize what you’re saying is in jest. Re-read the review and take some time to process it before responding. Talk with others, both workers and customers, before you respond.

Don’t verbally attack a reviewer, ever

See the first piece of advice: “We’re all human beings here.” However, we know this about the reviewer. They know how to make their opinions public on the web, so don’t assume they’ll remain silent if you resort to attacking them for their review. Don’t even respond in a way that may be interpreted as an attack. Some reviewers may be versions of what Internet forums call “trolls” — people who are merely trying to encourage a negative reaction to their intentionally inflammatory comments. They are the underbelly of all that may be good about the internet, but the worst thing you can do is get into a war with them. They often have friends who will join in on the “fun.”

What if the review is from a disgruntled former employer or a competitor?

These cases are a clear violation of Yelp’s terms of service (see above), which do not allow reviews from people who have such conflicts of interest. Before doing anything else, flag the review and a Yelp moderator will investigate it.

What is the best thing to say, in general?

Apologize, then thank the customer for their patronage and the time they took to provide feedback. According to Yelp, the act of humanizing yourself — particularly if you can come back and let the person know you have fixed the problem, or make it up to them in some way — goes a long way in repairing the relationship. “We’ve heard lots of success stories from business owners who were polite to their reviewers and were accordingly given a second chance,” Yelp writes.

Responding to legitimate complaints

All reviews should be treated as legitimate, at least from the point of view of the reviewer. But as long as what they’ve said doesn’t conflict with the terms of service and content guidelines of the site, and clearly shows a low point in your company, you have to accept it. So what should you do? Here are the steps Yelp recommends:

  • Admit your mistake. If you failed in some way, just come clean. The truth heals faster than denial.
  • Devise a solution and implement. Then let everyone and their mother know about it.
  • Seek advice from the customer and/or employees. Not only will this go a long way in building loyalty with the customer, it will aid in strengthening relationships within the company, as well. Employees sometimes see what you can’t, and therefore have great insight.
  • Keep a positive mindset. Negative reviews aren’t problems, they’re areas where you can become stronger. See them as opportunities, not hindrances. As great as your company may be, it can always be better; sometimes the best growth happens after loss.

In a future item, we will explore more issues related to negative reviews on Yelp and other sites. However, the most important thing you can do is to claim your business page on such sites and, while you’re not supposed to encourage people to write positive reviews about your business, it’s okay to say to customers, “Check us out on Yelp.” (That’s what Yelp says, at least. Common sense might lead you to suggest that to some customers, while forgetting to mention it to others.)

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