The customer is always right. And with the proliferation of online customer feedback in recent years, now he has a big, public megaphone. Positive comments can help drive new business, but the reality is that every company will eventually get slammed publicly by a less-than-satisfied customer and will have to figure out how to respond. A study by Forrester found that many online shoppers rely on the reviews of other customers to inform their purchasing decisions. In analyzing more than 4,000 ratings on Amazon.com, Forrester found that 80 percent of reviews were positive, and the negative reviews were actually constructive and helpful to consumers. Although this data came from one of the largest retail sites in the world, some of the patterns likely extend to smaller sites in a variety of industries.
Whether reviews are positive or negative for your business, they can take on a life of their own online. Because search engines aggregate them, they will show up on Google when prospective customers search for your products or services. Many review sites like Yelp now have search features, both negative and positive feedback is much easier to find. And customers can voice blast their own followings on Facebook and Twitter.
As a responsible entrepreneur, you need to be active about managing your reviews. But how do you deal with negative -- and even angry -- customers in cyberspace? Here are five things you need to know.
1. Even negative reviews can help build customer loyalty. Samara Hart of PIXSYM, a Tehachapi, Calif.-based marketing, brand and design firm, encourages small-business owners not to overreact when negative reviews rear their ugly heads and to actually embrace them as a natural part of doing business. Your customers need to feel encouraged to say what they're thinking, even when that thought is less than favorable toward your company's products or services. Business owners very often make the mistake of posting only positive reviews. Having all glowing reviews will typically make prospective customers suspicious of a business. Negative reviews can actually help build a loyal base of fans in the long run, because they provide businesses with the opportunity to do something special for disgruntled customers -- like offering a refund or another shipment of the same product at no cost.
2. Identify the root problem. Sure, nobody welcomes negative comments, but no business is perfect -- and customer complaints can help you identify weaknesses in your business. When sorting through them, you need to identify what type of feedback you have actually received, because each type requires a very different response. Customer reviews will typically fall into the following categories:
- Clear problems. The customer has a problem with a product or service and has said exactly what that problem is.
- Constructive criticism. The negative feedback comes with a helpful suggestion about how to solve the problem (which can actually be a chance to improve a product or service).
- Justified attack. An angry review may not be exactly constructive, but it may point out a real issue with one of your products or services.
- "Trolling" or spam. A troll is someone who has no reason to be angry but just wants to post negative feedback. Spammers also fall into this category, but will use the comment space to plug their own businesses.
3. Know when to respond. "Not all bad reviews are created equal," notes Lisa Baron, chief branding officer for Outspoken Media, a Troy, N.Y.-based Internet-marketing firm. Sometimes communicating with an angry customer can help make your business better -- and sometimes it can just give attention to someone who doesn't deserve it. She lists five instances in which comments deserve a response from you directly as a business owner:
- You have really made a mistake and actually need to make it up to the customer.
- The customer has the facts wrong and is criticizing your company for something you never promised (or don't even offer).
- The review starts to take on a life of its own on the Internet (even if it's unfounded or insignificant).
- A customer is actually angry with you and not just upset with life in general.
- A bad review is getting other customers riled up.
4. Know how to respond. Once you determine which feedback you must respond to, you have to do it professionally. Baron suggests you read through and understand user attitudes about your company, calm down, then consider the following tactics for response:
- Actually listen to angry customers instead of just reacting. Complaints are mostly about how your customers were disappointed. Read through the "angry" and figure out the problem you need to address.
- Remember, honesty is the best policy. You should be transparent when responding to negative reviews and apologize for mistakes you've made -- then figure out how to make them right and appease your customers.
- Stay cool. If you're a hothead, you probably have no business in social media or running your own business. When you rise to the volatile level of your reviewers, you're just adding more fuel to the fire -- and you'll likely never make amends with the customer who started the "fight" in the first place. Your public display will also make others think twice about doing business with you.
- Be human. Your customers don't care about your business credentials or your corporate speak. You need to get personal and apologize, as you would apologize to a close friend for mistakes you made.
- Make promises to improve. Any response to a negative review should acknowledge your interest in improving your small business for the good of your customers.
5. Encourage your good customers. Susan Emerson of Eying Marketing, a marketing strategy site, ascribes to the philosophy that any good defense starts with a good offense. Negative reviews will have less impact on your business if you have many positive reviews. You should encourage your satisfied customers to post reviews of positive experiences. This will help create very qualified testimonials for your business that will go a long way in helping bring more great customers in the door.
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 6/24/11.