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How to respond to critical reviews



Photo by Clem Onojeghuo

Getting a glowing review from a customer feels amazing. On the other hand, when a critical one comes in (which it inevitably will), it can feel very deflating. When that happens, remember that criticism isn’t always bad for business.

Even world-famous landmarks and scenic destinations don’t always get 5-star reviews. For example, David S. was not impressed with the Eiffel Tower: “The French have certainly pulled the mother of all marketing campaigns to manage to convince the world that this antenna, coloured grey, made out of cast iron, that really has no pleasing aesthetic about it is not only beautiful, but incredibly romantic.” Ken B. left a 1-star review of the Grand Canyon, calling it “a hole. A very, very large hole.”

The truth is, what matters in the long run is how you respond (or don’t respond) to the review. And that’s because your brand is more about the customer’s experience with your business than about your business itself. In fact, your brand is really a “collective set of memories,” said Salesforce.com’s Chief Creative Officer Bruce Campbell. Customer reviews, both positive and critical, are simply an online collection of individual people’s memories of their experience with your business.

Once you get past the initial sting of a hurtful review, start thinking about your next steps. As difficult as it may seem at first, there is usually an opportunity to use it to your advantage. The magic happens when you acknowledge and embrace the customer feedback, and it can actually lead to more positive reviews. A Harvard Business Review study showed a 12% increase in positive reviews when hotels started responding to both positive and critical reviews online. 

Reviews are a two-way street

The customer experience goes both ways, and receiving a review opens up the opportunity for you to connect with the customer. Whether the customer is satisfied or not, this is your chance to participate in shaping the experience not only for the customer posting the review but for all future customers who find your business online.  

Think of customer reviews as free market research. Both positive and critical reviews are a chance to learn about customer expectations as well as an opportunity for you to talk about your business. These reviews (and your responses) will also be seen by potential customers who read online reviews to see what type of experience they can expect from your business and to note how you handle any potential issues. 

Celebrity chef and founder of Momofuku, David Chang, spoke with Yelp Trend Expert Tara Lewis, and he shared that he was initially perplexed as to why his new location in Washington, D.C. wasn’t getting rave reviews. Being a native of the area, he was confident he knew what the regional customers wanted. But after digging into his Yelp reviews, he quickly realized what modifications he needed to make to improve his business.

He used the critical reviews from dissatisfied customers as valuable research to help him identify what his customers wanted, and he was able to make changes to his business to offer more of what his local customers liked and enjoyed.

The silver lining of critical reviews

Positive reviews feels good, and they tell you what is working so you can keep doing more of it. Some businesses even read or post positive reviews in the workplace to encourage and motivate their staff. 

But critical reviews can be a mixed bag. Sometimes they are actually helpful, telling you something you didn’t know. It may be something you can fix that will help you provide better customer service.

Then there are reviews that aren’t so helpful, the content of which focuses on hurtful language rather than helpful feedback. And it can be demoralizing, even infuriating, to read those reviews. But once you’ve allowed yourself to have your natural initial reaction, you can turn it around to your advantage. In most scenarios, you can respond to a critical review in one of three ways.

3 ways to respond to a critical review

1. If you can fix it, let the customer know what you will change and how.

Perhaps it’s a direct compensation to the customer or a change you can make to your business operations—but regardless of how you make it right, make sure you respond. If the customer had multiple complaints (whether they are warranted or not), you don’t always have to address all of them—it’s okay to focus on the things you can and will fix. Consider sending them a direct message to follow up and gather more details on the specific scenario.

2. If you can’t fix it right away but you agree with the customer, let them know you’ve heard them.

Thank the customer for their feedback, and share that you will take it into consideration as you continuously strive to provide a better customer experience. Customers appreciate both being acknowledged and also hearing that you care. You don’t always need to have an answer right away, but if it’s something you want to address in the future, let the customer know you appreciate the feedback. And whenever possible, follow up once a fix is in place.

3. If you disagree with the customer, a simple acknowledgement that you understand the customer’s experience did not meet his or her expectations is enough.

Show empathy without trying to prove the customer wrong. You can’t make everyone happy, and just because a customer had a poor experience doesn’t mean there is something wrong with your product or service. Don’t ignore the review or worse, respond in anger. A simple “I’m sorry our business did not meet your expectations, and we appreciate you sharing your feedback” sends a strong message that while you appreciate the feedback and are sorry the customer was dissatisfied, you stand by your business practices. Remember that everyone can see the way you respond to online reviews, so your response is a representation of your customer service.

A good example of a response to a dissatisfied customer is the reply from Ikeda’s California Country Market to a customer who complained about their high prices and poor customer service. In his reply, the business owner thanked the customer for the feedback, apologized for their unfortunate experience, and detailed the steps he would take to correct the problem.

From the critical review, he also found an opportunity to highlight something positive about his business in a natural way. Ikeda’s hires young high schoolers (which the review pointed out as a fault) because they believe in helping out the local community by providing a high-quality, first job experience and that they are usually—with proper training—very good workers. He ended by thanking the reviewer again for alerting him and promised to talk to the staff.

Whether positive or critical, all reviews are an opportunity to engage with your customers and participate in building your brand experience. Always respond to your reviews. Responding to positive reviews builds stronger lasting relationships with happy customers, which equals repeat business plus new business through referrals. And when it comes to critical reviews, don’t take the blow silently or try to lash back. Instead, use one of the three ways listed above to respond in a way that builds a positive image of your brand even when your customer had a less than positive experience.

At the end of the day, any and all customer feedback is an opportunity for you to develop and improve your brand’s story line: who you are, what you stand for, and what you’re proud to deliver. And when you need a pick-me-up, just remember that according to some reviewers, Mammoth Cave National Park is “cold, dark, damp, and stinky” and Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park is “basically a desert with some dead trees.”

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The information above is provided for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice and may not be suitable for your circumstances. Unless stated otherwise, references to third-party links, services, or products do not constitute endorsement by Yelp.

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