The etiquette of responding to negative customer reviews

We've all heard the saying “put up or shut up” before. There are times when you simply need to swallow your pride and apologise, or at least get your side of the story across, while there are others when it's best to just say nothing at all and continue to go quietly about your business.

These principles are never more apparent than when it comes to customer reviews. Customer reviews play a crucial role in the buying process, with more than 60% of customers on average said to read online reviews of a product or service before they decide whether to make a purchase.

When you're on the receiving end of a good customer review it's pleasing to hear that you're obviously doing something right, and it can be courteous to sometimes leave a small reply thanking the customer for taking the time to leave the review and that you're delighted they are happy with the product or service.

However, when you receive a negative review, thinking about how to deal with it requires a bit more consideration.

On the one hand you want to respond so any potential customers reading your reviews can see your side of the story, while on the other you just want to keep quiet and hope it sinks down the page into oblivion.

So when might it be appropriate to reply to a negative customer review?

When you really were at fault

Customers will appreciate it if you are able to recognise when you are at fault by acknowledging it and offering your apologies – while not forgetting to firmly state it won't happen again so you are putting a positive spin on it and giving the customer reassurances they can still trust you to deliver. By doing this you're showing you are actually human and not just a 'faceless' organisation out to take their money, while also demonstrating the confidence you have in your product or service.

When you think the customer may have got the wrong end of the stick

If you find a customer has left a review whereby it's clear they haven't fully understood a situation, there's nothing wrong with politely butting in to explain it to them and put them right. For example, say if a customer wanted to return a product and your returns team informed the customer that in order to return it and issue a refund they must first authorise their details for security purposes, which they fail to do and then leave you a bad review stating your company is not willing to process the return, it would be careless to leave this be without replying. The chances are they won't have realised their mistake and perhaps missed the correspondence whereby they were told they must authorise their details – while any visitors to your reviews page will be able to see your side of the story.

When the reviewer is bending the truth

Some customers might sometimes change or leave out certain facts of their experience with your business in order to deflect the blame of a situation. You will of course need to be certain this is the case, and when you are, you should reply to once again put your side of the story across. For instance if a customer was to lodge a complaint about something and then leave a negative review stating you weren't willing to help rectify the situation, before actually giving you reasonable time to investigate and amend the wrongdoing, you shouldn't be afraid to step in and emphasise that your team were confident they could have brought the issue to a satisfactory conclusion had they been given the appropriate time to do so.

In the meantime if your team has had the opportunity to investigate the issue it would be worth inviting them to contact you so you can explain this to them – it will demonstrate to other customers that even after negative publicity you're willing to go the extra mile to settle an issue.

When the review has the potential to grow in reach

In these circumstances it's likely to be a case of damaged limitation, as you must be able to identify when a negative review has the legs to grow and get out of control. If you identify the reviewer as having a considerable social presence or they appear to be seen as an 'authority', you need to ensure you swiftly step in to stop it in its tracks and prevent a snowball effect. In this day and age social media gives just about anybody a free platform to broadcast their experiences and feelings, so nipping things in the bud before a wider audience is reached can be pivotal in protecting your reputation.

Final thought...

Fundamentally you should keep responses to reviews of this nature as brief as you possibly can, especially when they're in the public domain because the last thing you want to do is go in with good intentions but then end up adding fuel to the fire.

Negative reviews shouldn't always automatically be perceived as a disaster either, a positive way to look at them – unless particularly damaging of course – are a free means of conducting customer research. Information you gain from these can be invaluable and the best bit is you haven't had to invest any time or work into obtaining the findings. You should see them as an opportunity to gain an insight into what you're doing well, what you aren't doing as well as you can be and how or why you should improve something.