How NOT To Respond To Negative Reviews Online (aka How To Make People Hate Your Brand)

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Is the Customer Always Right?

Most people are familiar with the old adage “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” Well, that may have been true back in the 19th century when P.T. Barnum, the showman and circus owner most often credited for the quote, was wowing the crowds across America. But recent business catastrophes such as the 2010 Toyota Recall and the BP oil spill disaster have proven that stance to be dramatically wrong.

Bad Publicity Effects Small Businesses, Too

However, what many business owners may not realize is that you don’t have to be a multi-billion dollar company making international headlines to be affected by bad publicity. With the amount of activity on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, one person’s complaint about a particular aspect of your business can quickly turn into an avalanche of negative feedback if not handled properly.

Worse still, handling the initial negative comment or comments incorrectly can have an even more damaging effect on your business and its image. Take this example…

Chef Learns How Not to Handle a Bad Review

Let’s look at the case of amateur food critic James Isherwood and UK celebrity chef Claude Bosi in November of 2012. Isherwood runs a very small blog called “Dining with James” where he reviews local restaurants. Considering the 100 or so Twitter followers he had before November 8th, 2012, you would say that James was anything but well-known in the foodie circles.

Something dramatic happened when Isherwood published his seemingly innocent review of Hibiscus. It definitely struck a chord with chef Bosi because he immediately lashed out with a scathing outburst on Twitter:
Twitter Fight

From there the battle was joined on both sides from people coming to Isherwood’s defense as well as other celebrity chefs like Tom Kerridge, Sat Bains and Tristan Welch taking up the cry of outrage against people like Isherwood (a.k.a. customers with an opinion and the guts to publish it) under the hashtag of #chefsunite. The whole thing spun so far out of control that national papers like The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Daily Mail all ran stories on the debacle.

The Chef’s Response Created 99% Of The Issue

The important take away for small business owners and CEOs is that it was Bosi’s outburst that brought the bad review to the attention of thousands, if not millions, of people who may or may not have gone to Hibiscus when they visited London.

The truth of the matter is that Isherwood had a reach of less than 300 people between his blog and Twitter. He also published a review on Trip Advisor (the real cause of Bosi’s outrage), but it was far from the only negative review of Hibiscus on the site and would have passed into oblivion as new reviews came in.

Now, let’s take a look at what happened because of Bosi’s ill-advised tirades. If you take the time to add up all of the shares across various social platforms, comments and other metrics we can actually see from the news stories alone, you will find more than 4,000 individual social interactions. That means a few thousand people who actually took the time to spread the news and countless others who just read the story without actually joining in. If Bosi doesn’t think that he lost $1,000’s and an infinite amount of respect from his fellow Brits then he is very out of touch with business in the social media age.

So What Should We Do When We Get A Bad Review?

Let’s face it. Regardless of how good your products and services may be, at some point someone is going to feel like they got short changed. It’s just a fact of business. Twenty years ago it may have resulted in an angry call or letter, or maybe a few neighbors got an earful about how horrible your company was and that’s about as far as it went.

Fast forward to 2013 – social media and review sites like Yelp or Trip Advisor have changed the business landscape forever. Now an angry customer has the power to create a wave of distrust or fear with a few well-placed reviews or tweet to their fans. So how do you deal with something like that?

Earlier I mentioned the 2010 Toyota recall. It was a complete PR nightmare, impacting customer confidence in the previously unshakable Toyota brand. But Toyota did something that few companies, let alone major corporations, usually do. They addressed the concerns and negative comments being passed around the Internet by leveraging social media in what was called a Digg Dialogg, where they gathered questions voted on by Digg users and posted the answers on YouTube.

According to a case study by Mashable, though not the only factor, the humble way in which Toyota dealt with the crisis helped them bounce back into the good graces of the consumers. While it wasn’t a full recovery, it was certainly the start of a positive trend that has since continued.

A Better Way To Deal With A Negative Review

Employ a bit of the grass roots strategy used by the Internet savvy owners of Boloco, an East Coast chain of burrito restaurants. Their strategy is surprisingly simple:

  1. Monitor social media channels for mentions of their brand
  2. Respond personally to each and every comment in the most engaging, funny, and/or humble way possible
  3. Rinse and repeat

You may think that it sounds silly and even bordering on a “waste of time,” but I can guarantee that the positive sentiment these small gestures will produce will be magnified exponentially by creating loyal fans who will recommend you at every opportunity.

Don’t believe me? Check out how Boloco tackled one customer who said that they felt sick after eating there:
bocolo tweet

Have you ever had a business take that kind of time to express concern for what you’ve been through with their product or service? I sure haven’t. Want proof that the gesture didn’t go unnoticed? Check out what she replied:

Stop for a second and think about what you just saw. The fact that I was able to share that with you means that the information is freely available online for anyone to see anytime. How powerful is that? How easily could you leverage something like this in your business to send your customer approval ratings and overall trust factor through the roof?

Want even more awesome examples? I thought so. Check out these 4 inspiring case studies about Humanizing Your Restaurant to Respond to Bad Reviews. While these examples focus on the restaurant industry, the lessons and strategies they promote can AND should be applied to ANY business.

View Negative Reviews As An Opportunity

Stop seeing bad reviews as the customer’s fault or some horrible plot against your business. Take a step back and see if there’s a way to leverage it to your benefit. The customer may not always be right, but in the 21st century they have a lot more power to do real harm to your brand so don’t pull a “Bosi” and try to be a bit more “Boloco.”

Adam Thompson
Adam J Thompson is the founder of RYP Marketing, an online marketing agency based in Roanoke, VA. Need help with your SEO, link building, or... Read Full Bio
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  • Richard Bivans

    Adam, You nailed it with this article. The owner’s response means the difference a big probkem and a problem resolved. Also, consistent follow-up builds what I call BRAND EVANGELISTS, who will jump into the social media arena and help defend the brand. It’s invaluable to a business.

  • Boloco in this case was a great example of a social media customer care. Responding back to the customers immediately, taking immediate actions against the customer complaints, acknowledgement to both good and bad brand mentions. Immediate & personalized replies that help the customers solve their problem with the brand will really have a great impact on people’s mind and will certainly lead to lot of natural word of mouth marketing.

  • Nice article. I like the examples…you’d think most adults would know how to respond in public channels but it’s mind-boggling to see tweets and things like that.


  • Great article Adam! What a wonderful way to take a tough situation and turn it into an opportunity to reach out to customers. In this tech world we all can become a little out of touch with our clients. I like the suggestion to reach out to the individual on a personal level.

  • Maggie

    Great article! A response to a bad review showing concern for the customer can make such a difference! It’s great to see a business turn a negative review around and let it actually benefit them. By seeing how concerned the business is for its customers they may actually gain some new customers who read and see how much the business values customer satisfaction. As easy as it may be to take a review personal its important to not get defensive as that chef did. A good response to a bad review can help to build a brands reputation.

  • You are so spot on Adam! We had a similar situation on Yelp involving a coworker of mine and hamburger place across the street from our office. They coworker left a poor review along with numerous other from many other patrons. The manager then proceed to attack and each and every negative comment and the people who left them. He kept posting how everyone was against small businesses and wanted them to fail! It was so ridiculous! Needless to say within a few weeks of opening they shut their doors and closed for good. This may of been completely avoidable if the company had taken some responsibility and constructive criticism listened to their costumer market base and made changes per the requests of masses.

  • We have a client who has terrible YELP reviews even though the company is in business for over 25 years. The good reviews are filtered out and the bad almost all showing. Answering the reviews won’t always help. So many people make their decision based on a review site. Most of the times people who are unsatisfied will go to review sites like yelp and leave a bad review. Content people won’t. Even though the company is trying to solve all reasonable request, no company can make everyone happy. We wrote an article not long ago on reputation management and gave some tips / links and ideas how to do it it yourself.

  • Winston

    There’s been a study done on how people view businesses on the way they respond to negative Yelp reviews. They found that businesses could return their reputation to almost original status by responding with a caring thoughtful apology for the customer experience (as seen in the Boloco response.

    You can find it here:

    However, the other side of the problem is keeping up with all the social media channels. Our team is working on developing a product where it monitors your Yelp, TripAdvisor, Urbanspoon, Zagat well as Facebook and Twitter feeds!

  • Rebecca C.

    Very useful tips, in today’s online and social world customer reviews has an important role in influencing consumer behaviour, that’s why it is important that you manage your online presence. Unhappy customers can instantly spread there bad reviews instantly to a wide audience before talking to your company directly. There is no way you can avoid this and business owners should accept this, this is part of improving your business strategy and customer service.