How to fail when responding to negative reviews (and how to do it the right way)

I spend a lot of time reading reviews for service-oriented businesses like restaurants and bars, and it’s reassuring to find businesses with solid positive ratings.  It’s a good indicator that the business is well-managed and customers are treated right.  But I won’t automatically disqualify a business with negative reviews.  On the contrary, those negative reviews, and – more importantly – the way a business responds to those reviews, can be very insightful.

One review I read recently was from a restaurant patron who, according to him, had been wrongfully billed for items that should have been charged to another guest at the same table.  To avoid embarrassing anyone, I won’t post the review here, but the basis of the criticism was primarily the manner in which the incident was handled by the staff and management, which was in my opinion rather poorly.  So, how did the restaurant respond to the customer’s review?  By trying to explain why the customer was treated so poorly. 

That sort of response will go about as well as you imagine.

Instead of apologizing to the customer and offering an amicable resolution, the business owner dismissed the customer’s legitimate complaints, made excuses for the staff’s actions, and then described how hard he works because he owns several businesses.

Now, we can get into the finer points of restaurant etiquette related to splitting checks or making assumptions about who is responsible for paying for what, but that’s a whole other article.  For now, let’s skip over that part and get to what really matters:  Did the business owner make the situation better or worse?

Whether the customer was right or wrong is irrelevant.  What should be clear is that the restaurant’s response did nothing to reassure other customers, though it might have made the restaurant owner feel better.

So, as a business owner, how should you handle a negative review?

For starters, take your ego out of the equation.  Regardless of how hard you work, and how much time and effort you put into your business, you and your business are not one and the same.  Your focus should be on fixing whatever went wrong for the customer, or at the very least, providing a sense of confidence for other customers who might read the review.

Next, ask yourself some simple questions.

  • How will this negative review affect your business?
  • What do you hope to achieve by engaging an unhappy customer in a public medium?
  • Are you trying to salvage your relationship with this customer, or are they gone for good?
  • Are you trying to avoid losing other customers over this negative review?
  • Most importantly, will your response make the situation better or worse?

All of these questions have actual real-world answers, and you as the business owner have the ability to affect the outcome.  That means it’s up to you to determine what you want that outcome to be, and then craft a response that will guide you, your customers, and your business to that outcome.

As a business owner, you should absolutely take pride when happy customers offer positive feedback, but don’t take it personally when unhappy customers are critical, even if that criticism is unwarranted or directed specifically at you.

It’s still just business.