Navigating the world of negative online reviews

March 7, 2014 | by Alicia Kelso

With the staggering shift to all-things-digital, restaurant owners now more than ever are forced to learn restraint, especially if a customer posts an online complaint for the public to see.

That's why it's important to develop a "neutralizer."

"A good approach when reading these reviews is to build a mechanism of not taking it personally. You need a neutralizer. Strip off the personal stuff and get to the nuts and bolts," said Dan Simons, partner at the Farmers Restaurant Group. "It's important to not be defensive, but rather how to be prepared and respond."

Simons, along with Adele Cehrs, CEO and founder of Epic PR Group, and attorney David Wachen, shared some tips on how to be prepared for online attacks during a National Restaurant Association webinar presentation Wednesday.

Top 10 online complaints

Simons broke down the top 10 online complaints about restaurants, which include:

  1. Something was wrong with the service
  2. Something was wrong with the food
  3. You suck because ...
  4. It was too expensive/too little food for too much money
  5. It wasn't worth the (___)
  6. I can't ____ and you didn't support me
  7. I felt ____ by your employee
  8. It was so loud I couldn't hear myself eat
  9. I saw a ___ in my food
  10. ____

"Since social media gets into hot topics, you get really specific complaints," he said. "And you wonder who has time to write such a long review. But those Yelpers are really valuable to your business."

Murky legal territory

Although you may feel defamed if a negative online comment is posted to a busy site, that doesn't necessarily mean you have a viable legal case against the poster. Wachen said there are a lot of grey areas when it comes to online speech and very few lawsuits brought on by a business have been successful.

He suggests adopting a social media policy that makes it clear who is supposed to speak for the company and who is not. Also, if a news organization has picked up a story based on negative posts, don't ever say "no comment."

"The piece is going to run anyway, so you may as well have a voice in the article," Cehrs added.

Wachen said that if suing is not the best option, there are other avenues to take. Getting your attorney on board early and perhaps issuing a cease and desist letter are two such resolutions.

"Suing is usually the last choice and often we don't get there because it's difficult to win cases with  protected opinion versus defamation. If someone calls your service 'lousy,' you can't prove that. It's an opinion," he said.

Managing SPIKES

If negative comments really spiral out of control, a business can be faced with, what Cehrs calls, a SPIKE moment — Sudden Point of Interest that Kicks up Exposure.

"SPIKES are when the whole world stops and everyone starts paying attention to your brand," she said, pointing to examples such as Amy's Bakery and Susan G. Komen. "You can't prepare for everything. What you can prepare for is where you're the most vulnerable, and you get that information from online reviews."

To take advantage of that information, be sure to avoid spending too much time hashing out why the negative comments are unfair. Cehrs said time wasted having such a conversation would be better spent responding and resolving the issue.

Also, gather all of the information so you know exactly what's going on, and assign a person of action to respond on your company's behalf.

Importantly, hire someone to monitor online chatter about your brand.

"If you tell me it's not in your budget to hire another person, I will tell you that you can't afford not to," Simons said. "Whether you have one, 50 or 1,000 restaurants, this is scalable."

The person in charge of navigating the conversations should also be tasked with responding quickly.

"People like it when someone engages them. They may start off angry, but that will turn around so fast if you respond to them directly," Simons said. "You want to drive the momentum."

Final preparations

Here are 10 suggestions from the panelists on how to be best prepared when inundated with negative online posts/comments or reviews.

  1. Complaints should be resolved with a quick, personal response. "Denying that it happened is wrong. Take responsibility," Cehrs said.
  2. Make your response public. "Tell them you want to meet with them. Put that out there so that everyone reads it. And do it fast. If you are the 75th comment, you're dead," Simons added.
  3. In today's digital world, online visits should be treated as significantly as table visits. It is valuable paradigm to handle negative online comments in the same way you would handle a negative comment at the table, Simons added.
  4. Get out in front of the issue. Use Google alerts, monitor Yelp's business owner section, etc. "Know these tools and have your radar out there," Simons said.
  5. Determine your voice. Train employees to have a uniform voice. This may take time but it's worth it.
  6. Establish your guidelines. "Ours is every response is customized," Simons said. "Get engaged."
  7. Drop the review through your neutralizer filter and don't get defensive. "Coming out strongly against the original critique can sometimes make the problem worse," Wachen said.
  8. Before drafting a social media policy for your staff, consult your lawyer to ensure the policy is legally valid and will achieve your goals without violating the National Labor Relations Act.
  9. Check to see if complaints are happening in patterns. "Sometimes complaints can tell you where you are weakest from a customer service perspective," Cehrs said.
  10. Finally, answer as specifically as possible and only use positive tone/words/language. If they persist with negativity, Cehrs said take the conversation offline by suggesting they call you directly. "You don't want to have a public debate," she said.

Photo provided by Wikimedia.

Topics: Customer Service / Experience, Marketing / Branding / Promotion, Online / Mobile / Social, Staffing & Training

Alicia Kelso
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with, and has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, and Franchise Asia magazine. View Alicia Kelso's profile on LinkedIn

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