When it comes to being a business owner, your company is your world. You have put an unimaginable amount of time, money and heart into something that you truly believe will help the masses. When managing online reviews, customer complaints can cut – and cut deeply. 

What may seem to be one little negative comment in a sea of positive ones could sway a future customer (or ten) from your business. Anxiety kicks in: you worry that these potential customers could go to another small business. From there, who knows what the impact could be a year from now.

In this moment of emotional anguish, you could easily respond in all caps and say something along the lines of “I DIDN’T NEED YOUR BUSINESS ANYWAY.” While this seems to be most instinctual way to defend the honor of your business, it’s not exactly your best bet.

Before we talk about what to do, let’s talk about what not to do.

Don’t Buy Positive Reviews

This should be common sense: companies like Google and Yelp have set up elaborate systems to allow genuine users to give their opinions on services and businesses. When businesses attempt to “game” the system by buying reviews, it obliterates the original intent of the system. Harvard Business Review estimates that approximately 16 percent of all Yelp reviews have the potential to be fake. Google and Yelp have been paying attention and have updated their systems accordingly.

Yelp describes their recommendation system:

Yelp introduced their recommended reviews system in 2013 (see above) to promote genuine, real reviews to their users. By using their proprietary system, they can tell when reviews are potentially fake and can “hide” them, removing them from calculating total review scores. Google has a GSRank that, through software magic, can spot even the most elaborate fake reviews. There’s a legitimate way to deal with online customer complaints; this is not one of them.

Just saying “you’ll get caught” isn’t enough; it’s the premise behind buying positive reviews that is flawed logic. Spending your money on promoting your Google My Business page or Yelp page is a legitimate way to manage online reviews and gain more positive ones. Consider signs, stickers, after-sale flyers, email follow-ups, callouts on your website way before actually buying the reviews.

Don’t Sue the Reviewer

This is the most extreme extension of the above that 99% of businesses would never pursue. That’s exactly what a San Francisco Chiropractor did: after a disagreement over billing, Chris Norberg gave a detailed review of his issues with chiropractor Steven Biegel. As a sponsored advertiser, Biegel stated that Yelp traffic plummeted after the customer complaint "unjustly characterizes me as unethical and dishonest." A lawsuit ensued, seeking damages for loss of reputation and business.

While the case was settled and never made it to trial, this was a PR nightmare for the chiropractor. The story made it to major news outlets, effecting the chiropractor’s business in ways that were completely out of his control.

The lawsuit was supposed to give Biegel control, but unintentionally did the exact opposite. Approaching the situation with open and honest dialog with the customer could have avoided all the negativity surrounding the business post-lawsuit. For this business, it would have been smarter to kill ‘em with kindness and not a lawyer.

Don’t be Impolite

This should be self-evident advice, but many business owners inadvertently destroy their own business by having no filter or game plan when responding to negative customer complaints.

While it may feel good to blow off some steam when a customer leaves a bad review, don’t be provoked into an online flame war; let cooler heads prevail. Customers won’t completely write off your business for one bad review – especially if that review is clearly an outlier from a stellar track record. A genuine, human response to a negative review can be more impactful than the review itself.

So how exactly do you manage your reputation online? Just how Psychology Today says there is three parts to a great apology, mitigating negative customer reviews is much the same:

1. Acknowledge the Problem.

First and foremost, it’s always good to acknowledge the problem before responding. Your prospective customers reading along to this review want to know that you’re not just turning the other cheek on a job that was not done up to expectation. Realizing what the complaint is about could actually help to jog your memory about the job at hand. Maybe you were late to the job a few too many times? What about when you forgot a piece of equipment and just worked with what you had? We’ve all been there, and sometimes it helps to raise your level of awareness going forward.

2. Apologize. It Doesn’t Matter Who is Right.

Following that, an apology should be doled out. If you know with certainty that you put your heart and soul into a job and this customer still isn’t thrilled with it, then apologizing may seem difficult. However, sometimes it is just what people need to hear to move on and initiate next steps. An “I’m sorry that you feel that way” and an explanation as to what your intentions were is a great route to take. To make it feel more genuine, provide a plan as to how you will make it up to the client. Bonus points if you can project this to the prospective clients reading your response on your reviews page.  

3. Take it Offline. Make it Right.

If this customer is still fuming and not interested whatsoever in hearing what you have to say to diffuse the situation, take the conversation offline. Give them a call or shoot them an email to further discuss, rather than have more obscenities smeared across your pristine Google or Yelp reviews page. An upset consumer could cause more of a ruckus with the whole Internet as an audience than by just talking to you one-on-one.

You don’t have to bribe them (remember, buying reviews is bad), but bringing the customer back to your business for another try essentially gives you a “do-over.” Service wasn’t great the first time? Invite them back in on-the-house and make sure service is top-notch. Issues with the bill? Give them a discount to try again. No matter the business or the complaint, a genuine “let me try again” can turn a negative review into an overwhelmingly positive one.

Most importantly, learn from it. As a small business owner, you have the luxury of dealing with things firsthand and are then able to avoid comparable situations in the future. As the old saying goes, “you can’t please everybody”. While this may be true, you can definitely try. Knowing that you did everything possible to please a client and have this reflected in your response does wonders to proving yourself to future customers for years to come.

Use Google Reviews to your small business’s marketing advantage, whether it be sharing your past clients’ praises or setting the record straight for future ones.