4 mistakes to avoid when your business gets bashed online

When a company gets a bad customer review on Yelp, Facebook, Twitter or any other social network, emotions can run high, because real damage to its reputation and sales can result.

The business owner usually has a knee-jerk reaction and responds in kind by attacking the offending customer with an emotionally charged online response.

Some businesses might take the opposite approach and choose the other extreme -- no response at all. By simply ignoring the bad review, a company hopes it will dissipate into the Internet ether, whereas a response might ignite a social media storm and cripple the company publicly.

But both the emotionally charged response and the ignore-it-at-all-costs response are big mistakes, says CEO Jay Shek at Locality, a search engine for local businesses that taps into ratings and review information from Yelp.

The better response is a measured one where you reach out to the upset customer offline and try to fix the situation. The result of this effort, good or bad, can be relayed online. The goal is to show readers of the bad review that your company is proactive when it comes to improving products and services.

Shek has seen his share of responses to bad reviews and has come up with four common mistakes companies make. There are exceptions, of course, that call for special responses. For instance, if competitors or critics pretending to be customers are writing bad reviews, as in a recent case concerning Yelp reviewers, then legal action may be required. Generally speaking, though, Shek's list of common mistakes apply to most situations.

Mistake 1: Countering With Fake Positive Reviews

Some companies will try to flood the social site with positive reviews, in hopes of blunting the sting of a critical one. A quick Google search on fake reviews will uncover a cottage industry of marketing firms specializing in producing them. But by doing so, a company runs the risk of getting caught and being publicly shamed.

Odds of getting caught are increasing, too. Review sites such as Yelp are getting better at sniffing out fake reviews. Web filters help identify fake reviews coming from the same accounts. Consumers, too, can often spot fake reviews by the way they're written: They are typically overly positive, not a lot of detail about the business, a generic feel.

Last October, Samsung was fined $340,000 for hiring writers and two marketing firms to post fake reviews in Taiwanese forums, both positive ones for Samsung products and critical ones for competitors' products.

Mistake 2: Overreacting Publicly

Smaller retailers tend to overreact emotionally to a critical review, whereas a larger company's marketing pros are usually more seasoned and level-headed. Yelp is awash with small business owners ranting against customer criticism, but it only makes them look small, petty and, of course, unprofessional.

"It's natural to react emotionally, but you can't let that come through," Shek says. "Reacting negatively reflects even worse on your business than the initial negative review."

With a single, opinionated critical review -- as in, "the lasagna was terrible" -- you might not want to react at all, because there's not much to do anyway. With other critical reviews, a response should at the very least acknowledge the customer's frustration, as well as ways to fix the situation.

Mistake 3: Being Too Passive

As noted earlier, some companies will ignore negative customer reviews. But online reviews are the new customer surveys and comment cards. They're a form of feedback from your customers. Companies pay thousands of dollars for this kind of research. "Now customers are giving you this for free," Shek says. "You shouldn't ignore it just because you think it's unjust or exaggerated."

This doesn't necessarily mean you have to respond to every critical review. However, you should constantly check for patterns. For instance, if many customers are agreeing that the lasagna is terrible, then the you might want to make changes to the recipe.

Mistake 4: Making a Quick Fix

When reacting to a critical review, the initial outreach should be done offline, because online comments can get snippy. An offline conversation with the critical reviewer affords a chance to really understand the issue and work to resolve it.

This is much better than a blanket fix, such as immediately giving any critical reviewer a 30% discount on their next purchase. "You don't want to train consumers to complain in order to get discounts and free stuff," Shek says.

Once a resolution has been worked out, you can post the results online. "Whether or not you've made the customer happy, the fact that you were open and honest about the problem and tried to address it increases your reputation online."

A lot of times the critical reviewer will be appreciative of your efforts and, in turn, post a positive comment. That's how a bad review can be made into a great marketing message.

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple, BYOD and Consumerization of IT for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn. Email Tom at tkaneshige@cio.com

Read more about internet in CIO's Internet Drilldown.

This story, "4 mistakes to avoid when your business gets bashed online" was originally published by CIO.

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