A Small Business Owner’s Guide to Correcting Negative Reviews Online

Don’t Panic, It’s not the End of the World!

So, one day you decide to Google your business name and lo and behold, there you see, clear as day, a disgruntled customer complaining about something down right insane. Your pulse quickens, you feel a bit defensive and you start to type up a nasty rebuttal telling them it’s all their fault for coming to your business in the first place.

WHOA! Hold the phone (or keyboard as the case may be)… bad idea.

No matter how you try and justify your rebuttal, you are in essence telling potential customers that if they don’t like the service provided — you could care less.

Writing a heated reply to a negative review may or may not be your first reaction, but I can honestly say that all to often, it is this defensive instinct that causes a business to have a negative online perception for many, many years. That’s right, just one negative backlash can in essence give off bad ju-ju to your potential clients for a very long time. You see, search engines have a long memory – they are quick to remember and very slow to forget. A search engine’s job is to gather as much data on the internet as possible and cache it (or store in it’s databanks) as quickly as possible; all of this data is stored across many thousands of servers and kept there until the cached page literally falls off the face of the internet. So, very likely, this one negative review has the potential to show in search engines and across many websites for, well, ever.

In addition to the above, many times, you will have no control over how people are reviewing your business (if you had control over this, it would obviously not be a viable or trustworthy review site). You have to make a decision, not as to IF you should respond, but as to HOW you should respond.

So your business has negative reviews online – now what?

  • Don’t overreact. Take a deep breath and walk away for a bit. If you sit back down at your computer and attempt to reply with even the slightest thought of giving the reviewer a lecture, the third degree or anything else negative, go take a cold shower or a walk in the fresh air – seriously.
  • Assess the situation. Does the complaint look legit (be honest) or does the review look like it was possibly planted there by a competitor?
    • If the review is an honest one: You will need to respond. Use some of the pointers below to help you to respond to the review.
    • If you are you confident that the review is fake or just full of flat out lies (and you can prove it): Start out by contacting the administrators of the review site. Be prepared to prove your case and provide details. Sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor and Insiderpages have been known to remove falsified reviews if there is enough proof to justify its removal. Also see my article on removing negative reviews.
  • Remember the reviewer is (almost) always right in your future customer’s eyes. The negative review may be something absolutely false or sometimes even added by a competitor and there is likely nothing you can do to change that, however the goal here is to change the perception of onlookers to one that shows that you care about your customers.
  • Look at the review objectively. Imagine you are stumbling upon this review as a potential customer and assume the complaint is a valid one. What would you want to see as a response? What would it take to show you that the business has done everything possible to right the matter?
  • Use your real name and provide a way to contact you (if possible). It’s very important that potential customers see that a REAL person is responding to the review. Not only that, but that you are able to be contacted and care enough to allow future customers to contact you if needed. Chances are, that your phone won’t ring off the hook due to this, but be prepared just in case you do receive a call/email here and there.
  • Write your reply with a cool head and in a sincere tone. Start off by offering up your name, position (owner etc.) and a real way to contact you. Tell the reviewer that you would really like the chance to make things right and that they can contact you at THEIR convenience.
  • Write your response with the future in mind. As I mentioned above, search engines will keep this review and you reply for a good, long time. Be sure that what you write as your company’s official response is one that will stand the test of time and public perception. Write your reply in a way that shows you are not only interested in making things right, but that you are happy to do it.
  • Don’t get into finger waggling, employee blaming or “well you shouldn’t have…” If you feel the need to explain publicly, accept responsibility for the problem. If it was an employee who wronged the customer, remember that you hired the employee and they are a reflection of you and your business. If you are explaining anything, explain how you have changed things to ensure that the problem won’t repeat itself.
  • Don’t make promises you aren’t willing or able to follow through on. If the reviewer responds to your reply on the same site as if they want to hash it out publicly, be sure that you don’t make promises you can’t keep. Offer a full refund if necessary, but don’t offer anything you aren’t willing to actually follow through on.
  • Be proactive and try to contact your reviewer via email or their profile on the review site. This part sounds painful and maybe it is, you may hear things about your business that hurt, but take this as a learning experience and use it to improve upon your service. This is also an opportunity to make an unhappy customer into a happy one. There is always the possibility that the customer will update their review to explain how you made things right for them.

I can’t say it enough – be enthusiastic and sincere about making things right – Don’t make it seem like someone is holding a gun to your head. Everyone makes mistakes and people do understand that, however it’s the businesses that go out of their way to make those mistakes right that stand out in the public’s mind.

Reviews are all about public perception, whether the reviewer is right or wrong or even a competitor out for blood, you have the ability to change the perception of those that find your business listing in the future, with just a few keystrokes. Fair or not, business listing websites will display reviews for years; now is your chance to make it known that you care about your customers, even if they somehow had a bad experience.

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  • Alicia Hoglund

    Ms. Hart, I’m writing an article on this subject for Eyecare Business magazine and would like to include you as a source. Would it be possible to set up an interview for early next week? If so, please email me: alicia.isenberg@wolterskluwer.com.

  • jaschneiderman

    Hi Samantha. These steps make sense. I’ve found that usually, what you would do in person is what you should do online.

    For instance, a bad review? Treat it like they said it to your face.
    Apologize, offer to make it right. One…. or even a few bad reviews aren’t the end of the world…. maybe not the end of your livelihood, either.

    I believe that persistent negative online reviews can crush a business. A couple other guys and I have been working on a service that asks restaurants’ and day spas’ customers for Feedback. This helps them correct trouble spots and gives customers a first outlet for any venting. Then we push the positive online.

    Before long, old bad reviews are several pages deep, and new ones are overwhelmingly positive. Considering that Google features reviews more prominently than ever, it has made a big difference for our clients.

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  • Hey Samara,

    Nice job laying out these tips. Hopefully most business owners use your common sense approach.

    I’d like to suggest a full-on approach to clearing up negative reviews:

    1) Do as you say – calmly address the complaint head on and view it as an opportunity to create a lifetime customer
    2) Aggressively seek out and put a reputation marketing in plan in place – use email marketing to tell people exactly where you want them to post your review
    3) Since the review is probably having an effect on your business, enlist reputation management services to create and promote positive content about your business and thus burying the negative review so it’s not easily found

    Thanks for letting me add my comment!


  • Great stuff! Bad reviews can often RUIN a company’s online reputation. I’ve found that if company’s respond every once in a while to bad reviews, it usually adds some credibility to the company. Smart people will understand that there are always two sides to a story…but if a company doesn’t respond to a bad online review, customers will only see the negative. However, DON’T respond to each and every review…it will only make the complaints rise in the SERPS!

  • Jill

    Great article – thanks for sharing. Regarding negative reviews, when you have your customers giving a good review or sharing the product with someone else, that takes care of everything. My small business uses OpinionAmp as a proactive way to use real customer reviews to market our product online. Once you put the advertising in the hands of your clients, they’ll sell the product for you. You can’t beat online positive reviews – no better advertising than a happy client!

  • Eleanor Bennett

    typo stating “If you are you confident”

  • Amanda Allen

    I just started a pet sitting business in my neighborhood just to earn money while I await a disability hearing and decision. I just finished up with a client today (I spent 5 nights at her home) where I walked her dog several times a day, fed it twice a day and had to give it insulin shots twice daily twelve hours apart. Yet, when the owner comes back she is angry and said that I did not feed her dog and that I did not care for it. She went so far as to say that I don’t know how to take care of dogs. I have been taking care of dogs for as long as I can remember. (cats also. I have a cat of my own.) My question is this: Should I let this person and their opinion get to me? And how do I stop this from happening to another client? I depend on this to survive. I KNOW that I did my best to care for this lady’s diabetic dog. She even said she was a perfectionist. This is the 2nd mad customer that I have had. Any advice?