Reputation Management: Should You Respond to Negative Reviews?

Reputation management is key to defending the brand you’ve worked so hard to build. The most visible aspect of reputation management is how customers see you respond to negative reviews and comments.

Responding to negative online reviews is one of the more nuanced and, at times, nerve-racking challenges of a successful social media program. Your brand, whether you’re selling confections or construction equipment, ultimately serves customers. Customers are people. And sometimes people are disappointed, unreasonable or just want to get some attention for being the squeaky wheel. It comes with the territory.

In fact, online reputation management was one of the greatest obstacles to traditional companies adopting branded social media as much as a dozen years ago. One high-profile CEO with an expression of horror asked me, “You mean anybody can say anything they want, even if it makes us look bad?!”

As reassuringly as I could, I told her, “Yes. They can. And they will.”

Fast forward a few years and having a social media presence is not an option anymore. Even if you don’t own a smartphone or have an Instagram account, your customers do. And platforms like Google, Yelp and TripAdvisor are incentivizing them to share their opinions. If you’re not engaged in reputation management, somebody will do it for you.

Accepting the inevitability of negative online reviews is a great first step in preparing to respond to Google reviews, Yelp comments or Facebook and Twitter posts that may be less than admiring of your product, service or brand. Over the past few years, some brands even have become quite popular for their skill at online reputation management, with some even clapping back at online detractors. Local bars and restaurants have taken to displaying some of their more outrageous reviews ironically as a way to demonstrate their bona fides. Even well-known national brands have gotten into the act. Wendy’s Twitter account, for example, has developed an enthusiastic following for their funny and sometimes brutal roasts in response to unfair attacks.

This works for these brands because it’s both in keeping with their brand character AND they have the talent and resources—especially time—to commit to responding. In general, unless you have a very specific clientele that is attracted to wit and snark, it’s not usually a good idea for your reputation management effort to include aggressive banter with dissatisfied customers. Some are trolls, yes, and while it’s tempting, it’s never a great idea to feed them.

The most successful brands in the social space respond to negative online reviews and comments with sincere empathy. They demonstrate a genuine concern for consumers while making it clear to their customers and others who may be following along that a single bad experience is not typical and not acceptable.

How do smart brands approach online reputation management?

The most important best practice is to respond to all negative reviews. Responding will, all by itself, earn you credit in the community. Imagine you’re out there in the real world and somebody is making a complaint to the manager at some business you patronize. You may have no idea whether the customer is right in the case or not. You may even be inclined to feel that the complaints are valid. But as an experienced consumer, you also know that even in the best run organizations, there can be mistakes and disappointments. Demonstrating your openness to listening to your customers and responding to their comments—positive or negative—builds trust in your brand.

Take the detailed discussion offline. More than anything, people who post negative online reviews usually just want to be heard. They were looking forward to a pleasant experience and something went wrong. They’re disappointed. Hear them out, but not in the public space of an online back-and-forth if it’s at all possible. Invite them to send a direct message with details and their contact information. Or, offer them a dedicated email address or phone number to open up a personal exchange.

Most important, respond quickly. Online and social media interactions are conversations and your brand needs to be present to hold up your end of the dialogue. That means devoting enough resources so that your reputation management team can monitor and quickly respond to questions or comments, positive and negative.

It’s OK to say you’re sorry, even if it’s not your fault. Assume best intentions on the part of negative reviewers. At least until demonstrated otherwise. Maybe they were just expecting something else. Maybe they have your place confused with another business. Showing sympathy for the misunderstanding shows a commitment to service and can only enhance your brand reputation.

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