How to respond to negative online reviews?

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” ― Albert Einstein


Picture of Albert Einstein.So like Mr. E says, every business is likely to receive the odd bad review—we just can’t all be on our A-game all the time. A bad review can even be good for business if the company responds appropriately and sprinkles a little marketing magic on it.


It may be hard to see it as such, but negative reviews can be a gift. For every customer who complains, 26 others remain silent. That means if a business gets a bad review, there could be dozens of other people who had the same experience and aren’t saying anything.


Business owners crave feedback, so what could be better than receiving quick criticism from someone who has tried the business? Of course, there will always be trolls and people that are unpleasable. No matter how great you are doing, there will always be a few people who wish the soup was soupier, the rooms were roomier, or the cave was just slightly less cavernous. If you keep that in mind, negative reviews can start to feel a lot less like a kick in the gut, and a lot more like what they really are: a great source of feedback. That defensive feeling? Shake it off. Haters gonna hate. But, negative reviews can alert business owners to problems they didn't know about.  


Here are a few things to remember when responding to negative online reviews:


  • Take some time to respond. Not a lot of time, you want people to be able to rely on your quick response, but make sure you don’t react purely on emotion. It is hard not to take a bad review as a personal attack, because business owners care so much about their company. While you want to ensure you don’t let your emotions take charge, it’s important to write with sincerity. Responders can make the situation worse by sounding sarcastic or disingenuous.
  • Be kind and genuine. While you are responding to one person, and your response should come across that way, remember that the audience is potentially much larger and far-reaching. Not only will other people who visit the review site see the response, but it’s possible those people could share the review and response with their own networks.
  • Be specific. If a customer mentions something in particular about the business, use that in your reply. Not only does this demonstrate that you are not a robot, but it makes the complainant feel heard and understood.
  • Remember that feedback and criticism can be helpful. This reviewer has taken the time to invest in the business in an attempt to make it better—thank them (even if you don’t agree with them). Business owners are always looking for a way to understand the customer experience, and there is no better way than a review. The reviewer may have a relevant point about the business, so it’s important to consider the content without going on the defensive. If each negative review says that Zoe is the worst, maybe Timmy needs a talking to. Or a firing.
  • Offer to take the conversation offline. You would never want to have a less than pleasant dialogue with an unhappy customer in a physical store with other customers around, so why would you do it in front of more watching eyes online? Offering a phone number and a way to connect privately ensures the reviewer that you want to fix the situation for them, not just for the digital audience. Also, if you decide to offer a free or discounted service to make up for the bad experience, it’s best not to do this in front of other customers and potential customers—that might encourage bad reviews to get free stuff. You know who loves free stuff? Me. And everyone else.
  • Do not ignore it. Ever! Imagine a business's competitors were taking out ads saying how terrible they were and the business just chilled. The negative review may not be written by a competitor, but chances are, more relevant people will be reading the review than would be seeing an ad in traditional media. These people have already searched the business and are deciding on a purchasing decision. Make sure local businesses are part of the conversation going on about them, online, every single day.


Remember that the reviewer came into the business to give it a shot. Then they took some of their valuable time to offer feedback. It’s possible to turn a naysayer into a brand ambassador. People are not looking for perfection (that’s clear when we look at our elected politicians, isn’t it?). And as Salvador Dali once said, “Have no fear of perfection—you’ll never reach it.” Consumers want to feel heard. They want to know a brand or local business is authentic.


Here are a few examples of businesses who got it right, and were able to put a positive customer experience on a bad review.


Great Example of how to handle a review. -- Earnhardt Honda Review Response


Earnhardt Honda


This reply is the simplest and replicable. The manager gives a sincere-sounding apology, doesn’t argue the reviewer’s claims, and avoids throwing his staff under the bus. They provide contact information in the form of both a phone number and an email, giving the reviewer the ability to reply in a way that works best for them, as well as the ability to take the conversation out of the public eye.




Boloco, a small fast food Mexican chain in New England, has many examples of superb review handling. John Pepper, the company’s CEO, has become famous for the care with which he treats his customers. The following is an email John sent to a diner who was upset that an item was removed from the menu. The human tone and the detailed explanation regarding the decision is unlike any response I’ve ever seen. Prepare yourself, you don’t see feedback like this every day.


—–Original Message—–


From: John Pepper []


Sent: Tuesday, January 24, 2006 8:31 PM


To: Ben


Subject: RE: customer response




First of all, thanks for your note. We always appreciate hearing from customers… even if we’ve done something that doesn’t make them happy, it helps us a great deal.


We worried a lot about Roasted Veggies and what the reaction would be. The reason they disappeared in the first place is because so few people actually ordered them, and the amount of prep time and waste (because they’d sit too long and we’d have to throw them out) stopped justifying keeping them on the menu years ago… but because of the few, and outspoken, customers who lived on them, we kept them in place. You are now the 7th person that has written about this loss since we took them off three months ago (not including a handful of our employees who are also quite upset).


From a purely business standpoint, it didn’t make any sense to keep the Roasted Veggies. From a customer loyalty standpoint, however, your note (and the others like it) makes me want to get them back on the menu tomorrow! The challenge we always have is balancing the two… you would be amazed at the number of requests we get on a weekly basis from our customers – obviously, we can’t accommodate everyone, but we do listen to everyone, and consider what they say carefully.


I don’t know how this will turn out in the months to come. I know I can’t promise they will return unless we start hearing overwhelming feedback that they must. We’ve taken items off in the past and had no choice but to bring them back (ie. Buffalo chicken is best example where it felt like a riot was about to take place)… so far, this hasn’t been one of those items.


I hate to even suggest trying the tofu, if you are in fact a vegetarian. My wife is, and that’s what she gets religiously. It’s not your standard tofu, it has spice, flavor, and people love it!


Other vegetarians will get the fajitas, though I agree with you are far different than the Roasted Veggies.


And finally, others will just get any of the items we sell “as is”, which is to say without chicken or steak. Most of our menu items start vegetarian, and only when you add chicken or steak do they become otherwise.


I am sorry I don’t have the answer you are looking for. To try and make up for this, and to give you a few visits on us to possibly find something else that gets you excited, send me the 16 digit code on the back of your Boloco card (you can pick one up if you don’t have one, and send it to me then) and I’ll add some Burrito Bucks on there for you to use. It’s the least we can do, and maybe you’ll find something that works. If not, we will hope that something we do in the future brings you back to our restaurants – we have sincerely appreciated your business and hope we’ll find a way to earn it back soon.








Here’s another example from Boloco. This one is unique in that the restaurant was able to handle the criticism before the customer had even left the establishment. A customer sent out a tweet complaining that the music playing at a nearby Boloco was too loud. Marketing noticed the tweet right away and called the restaurant and told them to turn the music down, so the restaurant did. Marketing then provided a description of the woman (from her Twitter picture), and had a cookie delivered to her. They then retweeted her with the addition of the word “done.”


Take a second to imagine being the person who sent that tweet out. You'd be completely wowed, right? She was. The customer sent out a tweet praising Boloco, which then many of her followers starting talking about and sharing. She then wrote a blog post on the experience, the content of which has since spread to books and other blog posts, including this e-book! Boloco turned a noise complaint into Internet fame for their restaurant.