Accentuate the Negatives

Instead of ignoring less-than-stellar online reviews, marketers should address them immediately to build trust among consumers.


News travels fast in the age of online media, and bad news travels faster. And despite the proverbial wisdom that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, a concern still exists among marketers that negative reviews will put off Internet-savvy consumers who research their purchases and are swayed by crowdsourced opinion.

A 2013 survey from Dimensional Research reports that “90 percent of respondents who recalled reading online reviews claimed that positive online reviews influenced buying decisions, while 86 percent said buying decisions were influenced by negative online reviews.” But when the vast majority of people say that purchase decisions are “influenced” by reviews, what exactly does that mean?

J.P. Barnych, vice president of sales at Trustpilot, a firm that offers software and support for businesses to build and manage their online presences and customer service, says there are misconceptions about who posts reviews. “Most people think that the only customers who are likely to leave reviews are the ones who are upset, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Barnych says.

The majority of reviews that the online eyewear retailer FramesDirect sees tend to be positive. “Most of our product reviews are four or five stars,” says Craig Moore, operations manager. “Most of our company reviews are positive as well. This makes it easier to spot negative reviews or complaints because of the ratio of positive to negative feedback we see.”

Nobody’s Perfect
Everyone wants to put their best foot forward, but making a good impression doesn’t always mean making a perfect one. In fact, seeing nothing but positive reviews on a business’ website can actually backfire; too much positive press tends to make a business or a product seem inauthentic or suspicious. “When people see nothing but good reviews for a business, it can make potential customers wonder if it’s too good to be true,” Barnych says.

The research bears this assertion out. According to a report by eConsultancy, “68 percent of consumers trust reviews more when they read both good and bad scores.” While erasing poor or negative reviews might be tempting, it’s not the smartest play. A better strategy is to manage customer reviews and responses, to limit the damage of negative reviews by demonstrating that you’re willing to address problems and make improvements. Not only does it help create better relationships with customers, it can engage potential customers by allowing them to see how a company responds to reviews, which builds trust.

“Transparency in how we deal with problems and complaints actually benefits us,” says Daniel Moure, chief marketing officer at PureFormulas, an e-tailer that distributes natural health supplements and a Trustpilot client. “It helps us come across as real people trying to do the right thing and shows that we deliver on our promises and will fix any issues as quickly as possible.

“The trick is to respond without overreacting,” he says. “The important part is to not ignore customer feedback, even if it’s negative.”

Read, React, and Prioritize
Responding to negative reviews doesn’t have to be a difficult or stressful process. Having a strategy for responding to reviews provides a framework for cultivating a positive outcome, regardless if you’re addressing a compliment or a complaint. Barnych advises that best practices for responding to customer concerns involve acknowledging errors, treating customers respectfully, and apologizing for the issues.

“Customers can be very understanding,” he says. “First and foremost, they want to be acknowledged and have their concerns treated as legitimate.”
The timing is crucial. While it’s not always possible (or advisable) to respond to negative or problematic reviews immediately, complaints should be addressed and answered within a reasonable time frame. FramesDirect generally responds to issues within three to four hours, and always the same day. “When responding to complaints or concerns, our [customer service representatives] look up the order, acknowledge the comment online, and follow up by calling customers rather than [using] email,” Moore says.

Moore advises marketers not to underestimate the power of adding a personal touch when responding to customer concerns. Customers don’t always expect an individual response from an actual person, and that surprise can help short-circuit negative feelings while the CSR and the customer work to resolve any issues. It’s not unheard-of for FramesDirect customers who previously left complaints to change their comments or leave a new, more positive review after a personal contact. “Responding helps make them feel like you see them as a person, and it humanizes your company,” says Clotilde Bedoya, marketing director for FramesDirect.

Talking to customers individually is often the best way to understand where their frustrations or problems come from, Bedoya adds, and helps address specific complaints with customized solutions.

“Just listen,” Moore says. “Listening helps establish trust. You might hear about the same problem from multiple people, but it’s very likely that each person will have a different root cause of the complaint.”

The Best Defense
It can be difficult to respond to complaints without being defensive, but it’s essential to creating a workable rapport with consumers. People who leave comments do so because they want to feel they are being heard, and disputing their feelings is the quickest way to start off on the wrong foot.

Be contrite and ask the customer what they would like done to address the issue, PureFormula’s Moure advises. “Be upfront and ask for their help in finding a solution. Their input can often be valuable information in figuring out what caused the issue in the first place.”

Even if an issue can’t be resolved or addressed right away, as long as your company responds to it instead of ignoring it, a positive connection can be made with the person who left the complaint. When prioritizing potential problem reviews, however, marketers should be careful not to ignore positive reviews in a rush to address negative ones. “Every review should be responded to, even ones that aren’t complaining about a problem,” Bedoya says. “Doing so shows respect for the time people took to leave those comments.”

Positive comments are also opportunities to encourage customer loyalty. “You can build off the positive relation­ships, as well as learn from negative ones,” Barnych points out. “Responding to reviews properly can turn a customer into a loyal advocate for your product.”

“A simple ‘Thank-you’ for a positive comment goes a long way,” Moure adds.

Negative to Positive
Marketers have a choice as to how they can react to negative reviews: as trouble­some problems to stress about or as opportunities to grow, improve, and cultivate new customers. “Think about it like this: If you own [a] restaurant and someone had a terrible dinner experience, would you rather find out as they walk out the door or after they tell 10 to 12 of their friends?” Barnych asks.

Negative comments and complaints can often serve as an early warning system, alerting companies to problems they might otherwise have been unaware of. Moure recalls a PureFormulas product that received mixed reviews. When his team followed up on the complaints, they discovered that some had arisen from an issue with keeping the product in stock. It led to the creation of a system that allows customers to sign up for email notifications whenever a desired product is back in stock. “Finding out about that problem because of critical comments resulted in creating a system that led to better customer service and satisfaction,” he says.

Moore relates the story of how one customer had problems with the size of their eyewear, saying that it looked different on the website than when it arrived. After talking with the customer, FramesDirect developed a frame size guide that uses facial recognition software and has helped minimize returns and exchanges.

Barnych encourages marketers to ask customers for feedback and to post reviews and comments. “If you don’t invite customers to leave reviews, then the only ones who will are the ones who have an ax to grind,” he says. “If you wait until you hear about a problem, that’s all you’ll see.”

The effects of critical reviews or complaints don’t have to be negative. Marketers have the power to turn negative comments into positive growth for their products and companies. It’s just a matter of approach. “Sometimes, complaints are just wrong, and you may not be able to resolve the problem,” Moore says. “But if you’re consistent and do your best, it often turns out well.”

Michi Trota is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Chicago. She holds a BFA in Writing, Literature & Publishing from Emerson College in Boston, and is managing editor and production manager for the American Dental Assistants Association’s publications.