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Behind the Review | A playbook to navigating negative reviews

“I learned all about Yelp because of a negative review.” That’s Nic Faitos, founder of New York City’s Starbright Floral Design. In the early days of Yelp, he was notified that someone had left him a negative review. “When I first discovered it, I said, ‘Holy mackerel, what is this?’ And my Mediterranean temper took over.”

While he clearly wasn’t thrilled about it at the time, he later sat back and thought more about what reviews actually represent—both positive and negative ones. 

“Everybody who writes a review… we take the approach that they care,” Nic said. “They care because they want to praise and amplify the business that did the right thing, or they care to relieve some inner frustration that they may have had as a client. Put personal feelings aside—nobody should be offended by a bad review. We use them as a teaching moment.” 

As New York City’s leading florist for the past 27 years, consistency and brand authenticity have been key elements to the business’ success. In this week’s episode, our featured business owner Nic (and first-ever guest on the show) shares his step-by-step playbook for upholding those values and addressing critical reviews. 

“There’s a consistency to my story and that has been built into the brand and everything that we do,” said Nic. “We survived that 1-star review, and I’m thrilled about that. But more importantly, it did teach me a lesson, and I said, ‘Okay, what is Yelp? How does it work? How do I study it?’ I want to learn about it. And then I started realizing that, hey, Yelp might be a good thing.”

Throughout his decades of experience, Nic acknowledges that critical reviews aren’t always bad for business. If you post a public response online and explain how you resolved it, it can even be good for business because it shows your dedication to high-quality customer service—and since no business is perfect, it makes your business look more “real.” Nic and his Starbright team align themselves with this motto: “If there’s anything that went awry, please tell us right away, and we will correct it. If you love what we do, please tell the whole world about it.”

And the world surely has—Starbright boasts 4.5 stars out of over 330 reviews. Nic says they only receive one 1-star review every couple years. And although emotions can run high in those instances, he never responds to a critical review impulsively or negatively. Nic first takes the time to analyze the situation. What caused this to happen? What did they do as a business? Did a part of their system fail? These questions are discussed in staff meetings and conversations. Then, a resolution is proposed depending on the situation. 

He also strategically lets negative reviews sit for a day or two, allowing time for emotions to cool. He always drafts his responses first, then he’ll read, review, and make edits before posting his official response to the review online. Additionally, Starbright always tries to contact the person via phone or email to offer a resolution at a personal level.

“The key words to us are, ‘We hope to make amends,’” Nic said. “To apologize and say ‘Hey, I want to make this right.’ To ask them what we can do to correct the situation.” The more sincere your response, the more understanding the customers will likely be.

Here are some additional key takeaways from this week’s episode: 

  • Negative reviews can be educational. While they sting, critical feedback can actually be used to improve parts of your business. At Starbright, Nic dissects reviews based on feedback in the following areas: quality of service, quality of product, presentation, and what they did every step of the way. From there, they can identify where the problem occurred, respond to the customer accordingly, and improve their business operations. 
  • Don’t impulsively respond to negative reviews and be sincere. It can be tempting to respond sharply, but try to let it sit for a moment. Nic takes the time to draft his responses separately within a document that can’t be accidentally posted online. Once he’s crafted and posted a calm, sincere response, his team also reaches out to the customer directly to apologize and make it right. “At the end of the day, sincerity is what it’s all about,” Nic said. 
  • Offer a resolution. Negative reviews have the potential to turn into a positive customer experience if you follow up online with a resolution. Share how you tried to solve the issue and what you might be changing operationally to prevent it from happening again. Sometimes reviewers will even update their review to show that things were made right.
  • A healthy mix of reviews shows that your business is real. If you’ve been in business long enough or have enough volume, you’re bound to have a few negative reviews sprinkled in. And everyone knows that not every person nor every business is perfect.
  • Assume every customer will write a review. Although not every customer will actually post a review, operating under this assumption trains you to always be at the top of your game and give the best service possible.

Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Nic, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers.


Behind the Review, episode 31 transcript
The playbook to negative reviews

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every week I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur and the reviewer about the story and business lessons behind it. 

This week I’m doing a deep dive episode with Nic Faitos, our first-ever guest on Behind the Review. During episode one, we heard from Nic’s reviewer Marla who had been in the hospital and received multiple floral arrangements from family and friends. Starbright far outshined the other bouquets and that was for many reasons. Check out episode one to learn more! But today, we’re talking about a super important topic: negative, or critical, reviews. Nic admittedly doesn’t get a lot of them when you consider how many years he’s been in business and had a presence on online review sites. But, he has dealt with them. And his years of experience and perspective can help you become wise beyond your reputation management years. Let’s jump right in.

And we’re going to talk today all about negative reviews. I brought Nic on for this, because I think sometimes to have a good perspective on the negative or the critical, you have to have some time under your belt, right? You have to have some of the positive side, but you also have to have some of those moments of critical reviews where it’s a win for the business, there’s a takeaway, or something that is a positive, as opposed to all of the negatives. Nic, to kick us off, do you recall the first negative review you remember or how your approach to critical reviews started as your business began? 

NIC: Hello, Emily. I learned all about Yelp because of a negative review. This is back in the early 2000s in the very early days of Yelp. I didn’t know about the business model, I didn’t know what Yelp was, or what Yelp did. And all of a sudden somebody told me, somebody gave you 1-star on Yelp.

And I said, well, I guess that’s good. It’s better than not getting any stars. It’s like, you know, your kindergarten teacher putting a star on your little drawing there and she said, no that’s not good. And I said, okay, let me take a look at it. And that’s when I, on my very slow dial up computer, looked up that 1-star review, and right below it, there were 3, 4, or 5-star reviews.

It was actually a total of four reviews when I first discovered it. 

And I said, holy mackerel, what is this? And my Mediterranean temper kind of took over and how dare Yelp publish this on me? And who are they and why do they think they can do this? And the next day I was on the phone with San Francisco trying to take the review down. And of course the review never came down. I thought that Yelp was some kind of plot taking over the country and I thought it was nothing but disaster. And, totally not happy about the whole thing as you can imagine. Uh, the review did not come down. We survived that 1-star review and I’m thrilled about that. But more importantly, it did teach me a lesson and I did take a step back at that point. And I said, okay, what is this? How does it work? How do I study it? I want to learn about it. And then I started realizing that, hey, Yelp might be a good thing. 

And so what if I got a 1-star review. And I did not write back, I didn’t reply. I had my own views on the customer, but that’s okay.  And from there it’s been a 20 year run and we average one, 1-star review every two years, which I guess is not a very bad thing. And you know, actually something I’m quite proud of. So that’s where we are. 

EMILY: Honestly Nic, I completely forgot that story about your intro to Yelp. Taking us back to the dial up days, I love it! But in all seriousness, I think your experience is something a lot of entrepreneurs can relate to. Consumers being able to share their opinions, both positive and negative online can feel a little unfair. 

To flip that narrative though and look for the positive, can you share a time when a review may have been impactful or insightful? Whether operationally, about your staff, or the product?

NIC: Well look, here’s the thing, everybody who writes a review, we take the approach that they care. And they either care because they want to praise and amplify the business that did the right thing or they care to relieve some inner frustration that they may have had with an experience with a brand, with a business. And I don’t believe that anybody writes bad reviews to hurt people. 

And if you take that approach, whether the customer behind the scenes is right or not, and of course in the face of the company, the customer is always right, but behind the scenes sometimes, the company might have a little bit of a different view. But that said, put personal feelings aside, nobody should be offended by a bad review.

We use them as a teaching moment. Okay? Not picking on anybody, not saying you caused us to get this bad review, not saying anything of the sort, but always looking at a bad review and saying, hey, what caused this to happen? Where did our systems fail?  What did we do? And fortunately, because we’re a business that gets very few bad reviews, we can afford to take the time to analyze the situation. And to address them properly. Because there’s not that many of them. 

And when they do come up, we bring them up in staff meetings and conversation and we discuss it. And we try to learn from it. And every review that we, and even the good ones, but the focus right now is on the not so good ones, every review is analyzed for quality of service, quality of product, presentation, and every step, what did we do? Well, what caused this to fall apart? And then we’d go from there and try to build on whatever the situation is. 

EMILY: This perspective that every reviewer cares, is something that entrepreneurs have shared with me in the past on the show. You included Nic! Taking the time to write about their experience, especially after spending their hard earned money, gives them the right to have feedback, right? But that doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult. 

Nic, you’re a professional, and you treat your clients with respect and professionalism, but have you ever responded when you were angry or maybe gone overboard? Any moments where you’ve been tempted to react more emotionally rather than rationally? I’d love any advice you have for our listeners on what not to do or what to avoid. 

NIC: Well, on that first review, I got a hold of the office of the president at Yelp. That’s when I lost it. That aside, no. If you have something good to say, say it right away. If you don’t, take a deep breath. And we never, ever have replied to a review angrily. We’ve never lost our temper in that situation. Maybe we’re disappointed. Maybe it’s a situation where we felt like we went above and beyond to help somebody, but the experience did not turn out the way the person expected it to. Those things do happen. But if I’m going to reply to a negative review and by the way, I reply to all the negative reviews personally, it’s not something that’s assigned to anybody. 

First of all, the write back is never immediate. I let it sit for a day or two.  And there are times in fact, just a little hint to the Yelp listeners, there are times when that reviewer might fall outside of the Yelp algorithm and the review may just disappear, because it’s not credible. Maybe the person, it’s the only one review that they’ve written, and whatever the algorithm is that drops reviews, causes that review to fall off. So I kind of wait and hope that happens, first of all. Secondly, I’ll write the reply in, Word—on a document that cannot possibly accidentally be posted. And, I’ll read it, I’ll reread it, and then maybe edit it. Then finally, I will post it. 

If we are fortunate enough and in many cases we are, where we can track this person down to a specific order. Before I even reach out on Yelp, I’m going to send them an email privately if I have their email address, and I will address their disappointment, and say I hope to be able to do something. And the key word to us is, we hope to be able to make amends. That’s really a straightforward way to apologize and say hey, I want to make this right. And throw it in the customer’s hands, ask them what can we do to correct the situation, and if they reply to us and if it’s resolved, without asking, we hope that the review goes down, or we hope that the review is updated.

And we hope that the consumer at that point takes it upon themselves to re-address the issue with what happened subsequent to the negative review. I will parenthesize here for a moment.  I’m gonna say that, oftentimes, a negative review is not bad if it’s followed up online with a resolution and a show of how you resolved it.

So either the customer will take down the review, they will post a follow up with hopefully more stars, or at that point I would step in and write something like, “Thank you for giving us the opportunity to make this right for you. And I hope you have accepted our full refund and the complimentary flowers and you know, everything else that we did for you.” And so we will state our case if they have not. If they have, then we’re going to come back with a humble expression of appreciation. Not over the top, not overly extensive, okay? Humble, positive, and grateful to the person that they said or did what they said and for giving us the opportunity to do that.

So that’s basically the rules that we follow when it comes time to addressing the negative review, and most of the time yeah, it works out that way. I will say that it’s an entire playbook,  on how we go about it step-by-step. And in no case have we ever deviated from that playbook, which of course has evolved over time.

But thankfully, as I said before, it’s not a playbook we need to use very often. Our ratio of good reviews to bad reviews is phenomenal from my standards or the way I look at it. And it makes us look real. There’s nothing fake about our reviews. It’s not, you know, built up. We haven’t posted reviews that shouldn’t be there. So all of that put together, with a healthy mix of reviews across the board, makes us look real. We are real and really that’s what it’s all about. 

EMILY: Yeah, and you and I have talked a little bit before about your belief in those critical reviews in providing credibility. And that’s kind of what you’re saying right now.

There’s almost something about when you do enough business or when you’ve been around long enough, or you’ve got enough volume, you’ve got to at least have a few negative nancies probably sprinkled in throughout there. My last question for you is what do you think other entrepreneurs, no matter what industry, can do to get ahead of critical reviews? Or on the flip side to create that positive experience that instead influences 5-star reviews?

NIC: Every phone call that comes in, every order we get over the internet, I kid you not Emily, the way we address it to make sure that we do our very best, we automatically assume that they found us on Yelp. And because it’s the most popular review posting platform and the most credible, if I may add, Yelpers are loyalists. There’s no other way to say it. If, just like Harley riders, put the Harley Davidson tattoo on their arms, I’m expecting to walk out on the street one of these days and see people with Yelp tattoos. It’s almost at that level. They really are loyal, that’s really good, and I embrace it.

But if you assume that the person that is calling you is prone to write a review, it trains your mind to always be at the top of your game and to always give the best service possible and where an issue comes up to resolve it as immediately as possible. So that the issue becomes a non-issue before it ever really ferments, grows legs, and becomes part of the client’s experience with you. And if you do that and if you do it every single time, no, not everybody’s going to write a review. People are more likely not to write a review than to write a review. But, if they are going to write a review, your demeanor has certainly influenced them. 

And, one of our taglines is if you love what we do, please tell the whole world about it. If there is anything that went awry, please tell us right away and we will correct it. The implication is they’ll give us a 1-star review, call us. If you want to give us a 5-star review, go ahead, tell the world about it. Very subliminal, very subtle, but I believe impactful. And it’s most of all very sincere because when something does go awry, we want to know about it, we want to take care of it, and we want to fix it. And I really believe that that’s what it’s all about. 

EMILY: Nic this has been incredible. I’m so glad you could make the time to join me today. To summarize some of our key takeaways: first, entrepreneurs need to start by shifting their mind set about critical reviews and acknowledging that consumers who write reviews care. Even critical reviews have lessons and learnings in them that can help your business. Negative reviews aren’t always a bad thing! They can even build trust and buying confidence, especially if resolution is shown through things like a public response. 

Nic and his team strive to connect with customers who are unhappy, and they work to make things right. They use the phrase ‘making amends’ and often will ask their customers what they can do to make it right. This engages the customer in the resolution and then they’re more likely to have a positive feeling about the outcome.

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