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What’s in a 1-star review?

Photo by Wryon A

Since the dawn of civilization, people have loved to complain by leaving negative reviews. The oldest known form of writing—cuneiform—dates back to around 3200 BC, so naturally, the oldest known scathing review surfaced a few millennia later. 

In 1750 BC, a man named Nanni wrote a harsh complaint to a copper merchant named Ea-nasir, claiming the merchant had shorted him the amount of copper he paid for and supplied—in his opinion—poor quality copper. Considering cuneiform writing was a very labor-intensive task, requiring the author to carve into clay and then allow it to dry, Nanni must have really wanted to make his complaint known. 

Today, it is much easier to leave a bad review, especially on online platforms like Yelp. And while more than half of Yelp reviews are 5 stars and nearly 70% are 4+ stars, as human beings, we tend to focus more on the negative than the positive. This is especially true for small business owners—it can be easy to take each review personally because you’ve invested your heart, soul, and sometimes life savings into your business.

Krisi Hora, owner of Peg Leg Vintage outside of Washington, D.C., said of her first negative review: “The first bad review you get is like your first boyfriend breaking up with you. It’s terrible. It’s just like, ‘Oh my God, how can they say this about your store?’ It’s the worst thing in the world.”

What motivates customers to leave negative reviews?

People typically leave negative reviews for one of three reasons:

  • To help others make good buying decisions
  • To help a business fix a problem of which they might not be aware
  • To point out an instance of expectations that went unmet

“For negative reviews, the type of feedback I offer or try to offer is, ‘Here are what my expectations were and how they didn’t get met,’” said Yelp reviewer Shelby F. “Because if anything, when people write reviews, they’re not telling you what’s wrong with you. They’re telling you about expectations they had about your business that were somehow missed.” 

What do reviewers expect?

Customers who leave a negative review might not expect anything at all. And while most don’t expect a public response, they’d certainly appreciate one. Three out of four reviewers polled by TrustPilot said they would at least like a private message in response to their complaint, and 61% of reviewers said they would like the company to publicly respond to their review. 

Contrary to popular belief, most reviewers don’t actually expect any form of compensation for their negative experience, unless they have specifically asked for it in the review. In that same TrustPilot survey, 88% of people who leave a negative review just want their issue acknowledged and fixed. Interestingly, consumers with higher annual income tend to feel more entitled to compensation or free merchandise in response to their negative review. 

Why should you respond?

There are a number of reasons you should respond, but the biggest reason is financial: It costs 25% more in marketing and advertising to acquire a new customer than it does to keep an existing one. So if that negative reviewer leaves your business altogether, it will cost you quite a bit to replace that customer, and that directly impacts your bottom line. 

When customers feel they’ve been acknowledged in an appropriate way, more than half said they’d frequent that business again. And two in five customers said they’d edit their review to reflect the response of the small business, turning it into a positive review.

“If you listen to [reviewers], you can tailor your business experience so that people know what to expect when they walk through the door, and they get that experience and more,” said Shelby F. 

In fact, a quarter of reviewers said that the way a company or business reacts to a bad review can turn them into a promoter of the company, instead of a detractor, and as many small business owners know, word-of-mouth marketing is one of the most valuable ways to build trust and boost your reputation. Customers who are considering leaving a bad review might think twice if they notice a business owner responding to past reviews, especially if the complaint is minor. 

Customers who have not yet frequented your business will look at reviews first—not only to see how many positive reviews your business has, but also to see how you responded to negative reviews before making a decision to call your business or request a service. 

Can (and should) you avoid a negative review?

Chances are you cannot completely avoid a negative review. Some people just like to complain and be heard—and it might actually be a good thing to have a few negative reviews under your belt. An online profile with only 5-star reviews may come off as a warning sign to consumers. In fact, 30% of consumers suspect reviews are fake when they are all positive, and 95% of customers get suspicious of a business if it has zero negative reviews. 

However, you can avoid negative fallout by responding appropriately. Quality customer service and outstanding products and services will also help you avoid negative reviews. If your business provides exceptional service to head off problems before they happen, customers will have fewer complaints in the first place. Setting clear and concise expectations for customers up front also helps stave off negative reviews.

Hora of Peg Leg Vintage said her first bad review was a matter of unmet expectations from the customer. The reviewer assumed the business was a thrift store, instead of a vintage boutique that adds value to recycled clothes. “Her main complaint was that she thought prices were way too expensive,” Hora said. “She didn’t really understand the model of the store, where we take pieces and we refinish them. So I think really that wasn’t necessarily a bad review. It was just a person who was not as informed about [our business].” 

Don’t panic when you see that first bad review on Yelp. Every business gets one at some point. Instead, take a moment before responding—but definitely respond. Make sure you’re responding appropriately to that particular customer based on how they left the review, what they discussed, and the kind of language they used. All of those are clues to the kind of response that customer expects from you. 

And remember, you’ve been in good company since at least 1750 BC. 

Historians never did find out how Ea-Nasir responded to Nanni and his complaint about the quality of the copper. But if he’d used some of these tips, his copper business would have likely thrived and maybe even earned the cuneiform version of 5 stars.

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