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Damage Control: How to Handle Negative Reviews and Turn Your Critics into Fans

Lesley Pyle

Lesley Pyle

Founder at HireMyMom.com
As both an entrepreneur and a mom of four, Lesley is passionate about helping entrepreneurs and small businesses take their business to the next level by hiring dependable, talented virtual professionals while also helping mom professionals find legitimate, flexible work from home jobs.

Unlike the mega career sites, HireMyMom.com focuses strictly on home-based jobs and projects that work perfectly for savvy entrepreneurs and today’s modern mom. Since launching HireMyMom.com in 2007, we've helped over 10,000 entrepreneurs and small businesses find the right freelancers or remote employees for their company.
Lesley Pyle

Every entrepreneur will face a poor customer review at some point, whether the critique is fair or not. When it happens, it stings. You and your team work hard every day to ensure your customers get the best of your products and services. Yet, despite your best efforts, things are bound to go wrong sometimes. And with social media a ubiquitous presence, it’s easy for a small issue to grow and get amplified quickly.

Fast action on your part can help to stem the tide, as handling customer complaints well can quickly de-escalate the situation effectively. What’s more, customers are more likely to remember the quick resolution rather than the issue. You have a chance to correct the problem, connect with the customer, and maybe even earn a new fan.


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When confronted with an unhappy customer or negative online review, you have two main objectives:

  1. Prevent the situation from escalating and generating a false narrative about your business
  2. Resolve the customer’s issue to retain his or her business

Preparation is the key to managing unhappy customers and containing negative reviews, and developing a game plan makes it easier to respond when customer issues pop up. A predetermined approach lets you act fast and having a plan in place makes it easier to respond in a way that’s more likely to result in positive resolution.

Here’s a list of steps you can take to prepare for potential problems and action items to take when negative reviews occur that will help you respond effectively:

Before complaints happen

When customer complaints come in, it’s normal to feel frustrated, angry or embarrassed. That’s not the best state for you to be in when responding to the complaint. Doing some legwork ahead of time makes it easier to respond quickly, professionally and politely.

Draft base responses

Whether complaints come in via Twitter, Yelp, email, or Facebook, you’ll need a written response ready to go quickly. A template library of base responses is an integral part of your arsenal. Having pre-drafted reactions that you edit as needed can make responding to complaints faster and easier.

Your response should do four things:

  1. Establish your credibility to address the problem
  2. Acknowledge that you saw the feedback and appreciate it
  3. Own up to the issue and apologize without going into excessive detail
  4. Move the conversation offline to avoid a public spectacle

Here’s an example of how your base response might read:

“@JaneSmith I’m the (title) at/of (insert business name). Thank you for your feedback about our service. We continually look for opportunities to improve, and your insight helps. We are so sorry that XYZ happened to you. We always try to provide ABC, and I’m disappointed to learn that we missed the mark. Please call or DM me so that I can help resolve this issue as soon as possible.”


Related: 4 Ways the Crisis is Changing Customer Engagement for Online Businesses

Develop a process to learn from the complaint

Receiving a negative review is challenging, but it also offers a silver lining of growth and improvement. Developing a systematic review process for each complaint will position you to harvest the feedback disguised as a complaint. The best time to develop the review process is before complaints arrive. Write down five questions to consider after each escalated customer interaction, in order for you to evaluate them all consistently.

Here are some sample questions you might review in each case:

  1. How/where did our process break down?
  2. How can we adjust our process?
  3. Did we handle the complaint based on our guidelines?
  4. What might we change in the future to avoid similar situations?
  5. What opportunities do we have to improve?

Even though you create the review process now, don’t use it until after the issue is resolved and the dust is settled. It’s easier to take in feedback after the passion has ebbed.

What to do when customer complaints happen

Step 1: Remain calm

It’s tough to receive negative feedback about your business. Give yourself a few minutes to recover from the sting before you respond. Although you may want to fire off the first response that comes to mind, replying immediately may lead to repercussions that can make the matter worse. Taking a short walk or talking with a friend or co-worker can help you decompress before responding.

After you’ve had a minute to process your feelings, consider the feedback.

Ask yourself:

  • Is this feedback actionable?
  • Is the complaint reasonable?
  • What helpful insight can I gather from this situation?
  • Is there an involved team member I can talk with to get a fuller picture of what happened?

With facts gathered and nerves calmed, you are ready to respond. While responding too quickly can backfire, waiting too long to answer can also exacerbate the issue. Online comments move quickly, so try to respond within a few hours. This lets you intervene before the situation spirals to a new level. Pulling from your base response materials will make this step much more straightforward.

Step 2: Respond 

Pull a template from your library and start to edit a response. Put the first draft into an email or a document instead of the platform where you will ultimately post it, so you can think and edit freely without the worry of someone seeing a version that’s not final.

As you edit, avoid common mistakes by following this list of don’ts when you respond:

  • Don’t attack the person who provided the feedback by questioning their motives or asking if the interaction was real. Remember, this is not a personal attack, even if it feels like it.
  • Don’t recount the reviewers’ actions during the interaction that led to the complaint. For example, don’t say: “You were rude” or dispute what happened.
  • Don’t suggest that the reviewer is wrong or minimize his or her complaint. For example, avoid saying, “I’m sorry you didn’t like that product, but everyone else does.”
  • Don’t make comments that could be viewed as defensive. Avoid: “You are wrong. We ALWAYS do XYZ, we never do ABC, like this review states.”
  • Don’t ignore the review. While it may be tempting to ignore a bad review, doing so can make you look out of touch. It’s better to address it constructively.

Once you have a draft, ask someone less involved to review it for tone, accuracy and clarity. Finally, post your response.


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Step 3: Follow up

If possible, proactively call or send a direct message to the customer to establish a connection. Connecting at this point is when you are most likely to turn a critic of your business into a fan.

When you reach your customer, listen to the complaint and offer a sincere apology. Express empathy for the situation so your customer feels heard and understood. It’s OK to explain your perspective but tread lightly, so you don’t sound defensive or angry. Most importantly, discuss possible resolution options. End by thanking the customer for his or her business and explain that you appreciate the honest feedback and opportunity to learn and improve. Be sure to follow through on any promised resolution.

Step 4: Move on quickly

You pour your heart and soul into your business and it’s never fun to get a negative review. But, it happens to everyone, and it’s important not to dwell on the negative feedback. In a few days, pull out your after-action review plans and assess the situation for learning. Until then, hold your head high, follow the tips outlined here, and get back to doing what you do best: serving your customers.

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