How to Handle Negative Online Reviews
Originally published: 07.01.16 by Daniel Lemin
Price is not always king. Indeed, the future might belong to the businesses that create the best possible customer experience.
"I feel like they've stacked the cards against me."
That's how the conversation started with my friend Bobby. At the time, Bobby ran a popular hair salon in Los Angeles, and he was talking about the frustrations and anger associated with his Yelp reviews. One review in particular reflected a horrible customer that deserved to be fired and booted from his client roster.
He was in the business of cutting hai, of course, but his experience is not unlike what I hear from so many HVACR contractors. It's tough going out there and sometimes, if not often, it feels like customers are out to get you. And if that weren't enough, business owners also get hit up for their lunch money by the very sites that created the problem. Anyone who has dealt with sales reps at Yelp can probably relate to a common refrain of anger. Why should Yelp get any of your hard earned money when they do nothing to help you sustain or grow your business?
I'd like to state clearly that I'm on the side of business owners here, and agree that Yelp and (perhaps to a lesser extent, Angie's List) create a point of friction between the rating-and-review platforms they built and manage, and your business.
But, I also grew up with the values of tough love and also believe this to be true: the problem isn't Yelp, and it isn't your customers. The problem, in most cases as it was with Bobby, was how you deal with their impact on your business, and how you respond to the presence of these sites.
The Code of Conduct
You should pledge to:
Practice good review hygiene every day. Like brushing your teeth, this is a non-negotiable daily practice. Good review hygiene prevents unsightly bad review buildup and brings about good results.
Take the commitment seriously. Although no one ever asked your permission to post ratings and reviews or talk about your business, you have to acknowledge that ratings and reviews are important to your customers. Your customers are important to you, and therefore so are rating-and-review sites.
Avoid taking reviews personally. Separating business life from personal life is hard to do, and it's certainly easy to be offended, hurt or angry at a customer for an angry review. Despite that anger, most of the time consumers are not out on a personal vendetta against your business. They're either trying to help other customers make a good decision or, possibly, trying to alert you to something they see wrong with your business. In either case, you have to respect their opinions and not take it as a personal affront.
Follow the necessary steps and don't cut corners. It is easy to find shortcuts to better online reviews, but those shortcuts are almost always temporary bandages. Many of these shortcuts can harm your business long-term. Do it right the first time, just like you'd do for a customer on their project.
Competing on Experience
The days of building a business with Valpak coupons, mailers or even television ads don't seem that far gone. It's not difficult to remember when those tactics were powerful boosts to a business.
The internet changed things for just about every business, no doubt, but it's impact is beyond just the obvious. It also deeply affected consumer behavior. More than anything else, the internet has created a consumer that is empowered by knowledge they find online, be it truly trustworthy or completely fake.
What that means for business owners, particularly those in service businesses like yours, is price no longer is the primary factor for many consumers. They also look at the ratings and reviews of a business, using that to frame their perception of how the business will treat them and interact with them.
Those reviews, of course, are not driven by third-party data sources such as JD Power or other quality benchmarks. No, they're driven by other consumers, and that's where the real power struggle takes place. Consumers want to do business with people they perceive will treat them fairly, and they're basing that decision on what they read online about you.
This creates a dynamic where, more than price, your HVACR business competes on the integrity of your customer experience. Do you do what you promise, and are you reliable? Price is not always king. Indeed, the future might belong to the businesses that create the best possible customer experience.
Your First Line of Defense
Online reviews are the first step for many consumers in their journey to you, whether they end up requesting an appointment online, calling your toll-free number or sending you an email. Ratings and reviews are the first stop on the path, and the reason for that is a name familiar to every business: Google.
Despite all of its largesse and prominence, even a site as large as Yelp is dependent on Google for website traffic. In fact, Yelp still relies on Google for 75 percent of its site traffic each month.
The reason Google loves online reviews sites so much — and why they give them such high prominence in the search rankings — stems largely from the general rate at which ratings and reviews are refreshed with new content. For its part, Yelp processes 26,000 new reviews every minute, and what that translates to for Google is a reliable source of information about your business. This is a concept known as freshness, and it rules the web.
What that means for your business is two things: first, because of the volume of reviews processed by sites such as Yelp and Angie's List, you'll have a lot of difficulty ever supplanting them as a top result for your business on Google. It also means those same sites are the ones consumers are turning to in their decision-making process, and that's where the tough love part comes back full circle.
Choosing not to "play" on Angie's List or Yelp is essentially the same as turning off your phone service or canceling your web-hosting contract. It restricts the ability of a consumer to frame an accurate picture of your business and is probably directing them to one of your competitors. You don't have to pay these sites to have a listing, but you do need to put some time and energy into making it do the work for you.
Everything of significance you've ever built in your life — relationships, businesses, family — has required starting with a solid foundation. Developing a successful online rating-and-review strategy is no different. There are basic tools you want to acquire for your toolbox, no doubt, but also a fundamental commitment to doing it right.
Responding to Online Reviews
Your customers come in different flavors, and not all customers are the same. Some customers will review because they're loyal and they love you. Others will review you because they're nasty and didn't get enough love as a child. I categorize them in four broad buckets.
How to Respond to Negative Reviews
1. Keep calm and carry on. Immediately repeat this when you come across a negative review of your HVACR business online. Your first instinct should be to breath.
2. Do not make it personal. If you're following the advice above, you know that personal attacks are not beneficial to the customer experience. Attack the issue, not the customer.
3. Let exaggerations speak for themselves. Consumers are smart enough to know when someone is exaggerating and using hyperbole. Don't feel you have to be reduced to the gutter.
4. Acknowledge the reviewer's feelings. You're going into consumer's homes and other places of business, and that can create feelings of encroachment. Have a bit of empathy for the consumer's feelings and it might help you find a different way to address the issue.
5. Express a proactive response. Reach out to consumers and ask them to contact you, and let the reviewer know what you're doing to address the issue. Did you speak to the service technician about it, or change a process? Make it known you personally made the effort to make things right.
The Regulars are loyal patrons of your HVACR business, and probably some of your favorites. They get service at the prescribed intervals, they book in advance and make it easy for you to do business with them and, because they are loyal to you, are in a great place to give you candid feedback about what you can do to better serve their needs. You should take extra care to thank these reviewers for their contributions and take their feedback to heart.
The Desperate Outcriers are the reviews that sting and leave a mark, and that's largely because they're pretty accurate. Often, they point out something you know is an issue with your business already — perhaps it is a timeliness issue, or a technician who doesn't clean up after they've finished their work despite your pleas.
You know the issue needs to be fixed. What makes this category unique is they've probably tried another path to giving you this feedback, but felt you didn't hear them. Therefore, they've gone "public" with their grievance.
All is not lost. In fact, negative reviews from this category of consumer are an excellent opportunity for you to demonstrate your commitment to the customer experience. Thank them publicly for their comments, commit to fixing the issue and make it known you value their business.
Doing so creates a story that will persist with your business for months or years to come, and shows other consumers who see that interaction that you're on top of the game. It shows consumers that you care and that they can trust you.
Socialites are generally not looking to do you harm or even necessarily help you out. In many cases they're climbing the "social ladder," as it were, of the review platform and trying to become among its elite ranks of reviewers.
This is particularly common behavior on Yelp — hence the phrase, often used in a derisory manner, "Yelpers" — but you might find them on other sites too. They see their involvement as personal enrichment.
The final category is Snipers, the ones who didn't get enough love as a child. They rarely have anything nice to say about any business, anywhere. Their aim is directed at you or your business.
If you get a negative review from a consumer like this, don't panic. That's vital. Other consumers see them too, and will often discount their review as crazy. You can probably spot these customers when they call, or when you are in the field for an appointment. They're just not nice.
How to Win With Reviews
So, what do you do when a bad review hits, and how can you make the most of the opportunity? Your initial reaction is likely to be "how can I make this go away." You cannot. Outside of some very specific parameters, most rating-and-review platforms will not remove a review simply because it's negative or even inaccurate.
Your first step, as I alluded to above: don't panic. One negative review is not going to end your business. In fact, research shows most consumers read between 2 and 10 reviews when they are making a purchase decision.
The presence of a negative review creates what I call the "Perfect Review Sandwich." Think about it: a BLT without bacon is just not very convincing as a sandwich. A business profile that's filled with great, 4 and 5-star reviews is also suspect. Studies show the presence of negative reviews helps bolster the validity of the positive reviews around it. So embrace their presence, but quickly pivot.
You should quickly draft a response to the negative review, and do so in every instance. Jay Baer, best-selling author of "Hug Your Haters" and "Youtility," conducted an exhaustive research study in partnership with Edison Research. They studied the science of online complaints and found that only 41 percent of people who complain online expect a response from the company.
When the company responded, however, those same consumers were more likely to recommend the business after the interaction, often because they didn't expect a reaction in the first place.
Other research shows that the most critical reviews are often written by a company's most loyal customers, so being responsive and addressing the issue helps you retain a loyal customer and demonstrate to others that you're committed to your business. It's win-win.
Make it Easy to Complain
Are you doing everything possible to make it easy for customers to contact you to complain before they go public? Think about the intercept options you might have for negative feedback: comments from a service technician about their appointment; phone calls; email; social media, if you're on it; comment cards.
Make it easy for customers to get in touch with you and lodge a complaint before they feel compelled to even write a review. In many cases, you might be making it hard to reach you or your operations team, leaving an angry customer who might be a bit passive-aggressive little other option than Angie's List or Yelp.
In many cases, younger customers don't even WANT to talk to you. One research study found that only 29 percent of consumers born between 1961 and 1980 want to have contact with a business by phone. Their preferred method is email, SMS, internet/web chat and social media.
Are you on those channels and monitoring them for complaints? Your best path to preventing negative reviews online might be opening up the communication channels to make it easy to vent. Do that, and you might intercept the pass.
Business Strategy or Headache
Ratings and reviews are one component in a complex HVACR operation, but you can turn the presence of that medium into a business strategy.
Structure your marketing and customer service efforts around those intercept opportunities and be nimble to respond when you get reviews, and you might create customers who will advocate for you for life. That's the pinnacle of success.
Daniel Lemin is the best-selling author of Manipurated, an expose on the online ratings and reviews industry. He was employee no. 400 at Google and led corporate PR efforts around the world, and has studied online reputation and reviews for more than 15 years. For additional information, visit manipurated.com.