NEW YORK — Brad Schweig thought he had a satisfied customer when a woman who bought outdoor furniture in March 2017 posted a five-star review online. Less than a year later, it was down to one star after a squirrel chewed a hole in one of the cushions.
Many business owners have faced the same uncomfortable situation since the advent of online review sites — a negative review, out there for potential customers to see. Schweig, co-owner of Sunnyland Furniture in Dallas, did what marketing experts recommend and tried to make amends in an online response.
"We apologized, and said, 'we'd be glad to work with you on a replacement at discount,'" Schweig says. "We explained, 'this can happen with nature.'"
Negative reviews are likely inevitable for many companies, especially those that cater to the public. Even a company whose customers are almost universally happy will be panned by someone who wound up with a defective product or had a bad experience or misunderstood a situation. Marketing consultants and owners themselves say the best way to handle these reviews is to acknowledge that the customer is unhappy and offer to discuss the problem offline, either on the phone or via email.
The malcontents who are easily angered and impossible to placate tend to be rare, says Ryan Goff, chief marketing officer at MGH, a marketing firm in Owings Mills, Maryland. Most negative reviewers respond well if a company is sincere in trying to right a situation, he says.
"I would say, 'we understand completely you had a negative experience,'" Goff says. The next step: "We are going to do everything in our power to address this, and we want a full understanding of what happened."
If the customer is eventually satisfied, owners should ask for an amended review or to have the angry one deleted.
Schweig never heard back from the customer, whose review said the outdoor furniture "should withstand a squirrel." But he believes his was the right response, not only for that customer, but also for potential buyers.
"It might not make the reviewer change their mind but we know others are reading it and can see that we either care about resolving the issues, or it can make them realize the skewed ones aren't as they seem," he says.
Companies that post on social media need to be vigilant about checking for replies, and not just from unhappy customers, says Hank Yuloff, owner of Yuloff Creative Marketing Solutions in Sedona, Arizona.
"You have to scroll down and look at the comments being made and answer all. Even if they're positive, say 'thank you' and build relationships," Yuloff says.
Some owners may encounter reviews they believe are libelous or false.
"If it's outright slanderous and untrue then you can reach out to the platform where the review was published and see if they'll investigate it and potentially take it down. It could also be the basis for legal action," says Rex Kimball, owner of marketing firm Mirex Marketing, based in Gilbert, Arizona.
Many of the negative reviews Todd Fetterly's three mobile phone stores have received had nothing to do with the phones he sells. Instead, customers often are unhappy with phone service providers but vent at Fetterly and his staff. Still, Fetterly, whose Cell Phone Centre stores are in the Ottawa, Ontario, area, responds immediately.
"Because we are in such a commoditized market, customers have choices of where to go to purchase their devices," he says.
Most reviewers don't get back to Fetterly, so there's no opportunity for their reviews to be amended or retracted. So, he works to counter the negative postings by encouraging happier customers to post reviews — staffers routinely ask them to give positive feedback online. The strategy also includes using a company that solicits reviews. If a review is negative, it's not automatically posted; Fetterly can contact the customer and try to get it changed.
A negative review posted 10 years ago is still reverberating at Mary Nisi's company, Toast & Jam, which supplies disc jockeys for weddings and other events. While the company has hundreds of five-star reviews on several websites, Nisi still is asked about the customer who said Toast & Jam canceled less than a month before the wedding; Nisi says the couple never signed a contract or responded to her emails.
"The worst thing you can say about a wedding vendor is they canceled two weeks before," says Nisi, who's located in Chicago.
When couples ask about the review, she notes her ratings at or near five stars, and says, "if we canceled all the time, that would be coming out all the time in our reviews."
Franchise companies must be proactive about bad reviews because a complaint about one location can have a negative impact on others. At Children's Lighthouse, an early education company with 49 locations, the home office in Fort Worth, Texas, monitors and responds online to reviews for the entire chain.
"We apologize and say, 'please call the office. We'd like to talk to you directly," Marketing Director Monica Brown says.
If customers are satisfied after discussing the problem with staffers, the company asks if they're willing to delete the review.
"Most of the time they do take it off," Brown says. "It's mostly that they want to be heard."
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