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September 2, 2014

What You Don’t Know About Bad Online Reviews Can Hurt You

Photo Credit: Stuart Miles via freedigitalphotos.net

Back in the day, before the advent of the Internet and the computer age, I had the dubious honor of receiving a call from a local businessman inquiring about the cost of our marketing services. It didn’t take me long to realize that his attitude was dripping with condescension. All of 23 years old, short on patience and big on insolence, I had the audacity to accuse him of just “shopping.” Well! Livid is hardly a strong enough word to describe his reaction at having been caught in the act, an insult for which he threatened to report me to the Better Business Bureau.

Fast forward to today, such a conversation would never have elicited that kind of response from me. First of all, experience has taught me that the customer is king, no matter how pompous his conduct. Secondly, shopping has become such a reality of consumer behavior that entire fleets of businesses exist just for the purpose of price comparison. Furthermore, the threat of a poor business rating has put the fear of God into every breathing business owner, the viral repercussions of which can totally wreak havoc on a company which took years to build.

If running a business in a bad economy weren’t difficult enough, now the daily looming prospect of a bad online review makes it even more intimidating. Terrorizing may be a more accurate description.

After all, unlike days of old, you cannot ignore a bad online review. The longer you procrastinate, the more damaging it becomes. How so? A lack of response is admittance of guilt. You must respond. And, the sooner, the better.

It’s a Whole New Ball Game

Ever since the U.S. federal government passed the Communications Decency Act in 1996, free speech on the Internet has been encouraged because websites which publish user reviews are immune from liability. This includes such sites as Google, Yahoo, Yelp, Angie’s List, Consumer Reports, Better Business Bureau, and Citysearch; not to forget, Amazon, eBay, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, among many others. Unless the review is proven to be a blatant lie, most sites will protect the reviewer’s rights and the review’s availability. So much for having the review removed.

If you’ve received a bad review, your first step should be to confront the bad online reviewer in as courteous and professional a manner as possible. The purpose of doing this is to defend your business practices, explain your position and convey to all other readers that you are an upstanding business professional with only the best of intentions. Usually this type of response contrasts dramatically with the reviewers’ typically angry accusations which sometimes make them seem unreasonable, hysterical and absurd in their claims.

Maintaining your composure under the duress of such severe criticism is highly recommended since the bad review will likely remain online for a long time, regardless of your complaints about its inaccuracy. We all know that you cannot please all the people all the time and we all have bad days now and then. Gaining the respect of all the other readers is your biggest goal under the circumstances. In fact, Angie’s List states that it can actually work to your advantage, when certain kinds of prospective customers decide they like your attitude when faced with a problem. They may feel more comfortable doing business with someone who can handle adversity with the same aplomb as success.

Do You have a Legal Leg to Stand On?
If you feel the review is a complete fabrication meant to denigrate your business, you have the option of suing the reviewer for defamation. Certainly you can hire an attorney who specializes in such matters, but establishing which cases can proceed to a successful outcome remains a daunting challenge. There are many circumstances in which legal “privilege” allows someone to make certain claims without risk of committing a crime. If the review was posted anonymously, you will need time to investigate its source and you only have one year in which to bring your case forward. Those are big hurdles to overcome.

And what exactly constitutes defamation? Encompassing both libel (written defamation) and slander (spoken defamation), this crime is defined as the false accusation of illegal, immoral or unethical conduct which results in damage to the victim’s reputation. If the accusation is the truth, if it is someone’s opinion, or if it is allowed because of legal privilege, defamation has not occurred. Since most user reviews are considered opinion, being able to sue for defamation is a rare situation indeed. Yet, when it is determined that the reviewer deliberately manufactured lies to intentionally defile your reputation, successful judgments can result in multi-million-dollar awards for damages, as exemplified by two recent cases: one for $11.3 million in Florida in 2006 and one for $13.8 million in Texas in 2012.

Absorbing the Shock of a Bad Review
As a case in point, one of my clients is a landscape designer who has been the recipient of ten reviews by Angie’s List members, all of which have earned him a straight “A” average. Consistently among 10 different members, all of whom spent a range of $14,000 to $125,000 on various large projects over a couple of years (an average of $60,000 each), comments are emphatically positive, with raves about his performance, customer service and high quality work. All would recommend him highly and would themselves hire him again. What makes Angie’s List reviewers more believable than many others is that they are identified with their real names and addresses. His outstanding reputation among members has influenced Angie’s List to bestow its highest honor on him this year, its “Super Service” Award.

Then, one Sunday morning, a terrible review arrived with a rating of “F”! To say we were shocked would be putting it mildly. However, this review was not about his actual work. It was about his not showing up for a scheduled appointment to discuss a possible project. The reviewer spent many a sentence describing how poorly he had been treated and how disappointed he was in my client’s performance. Then, another review of the same type appeared soon after that with the same rating and same problem. When questioned about these two cases, my client mentioned he was suffering from Lyme Disease which runs rampant in our tick-laden area, an occupational hazard he faces on a daily basis. He also denied both charges, saying he had shown up at both appointments after driving long distances to find it was the customers who were not there.

While I did not witness these two issues, I have to give my client the benefit of the doubt based on all the excellent reviews he has received. My first thought was that perhaps these reviewers were actually friends of his competition who had been enticed to post bad reviews to hurt my client’s business. I suggested that he contact each of these people to try to rectify their experiences perhaps with an offer of a discount or a free service if they would remove the bad review. However, I worried that such a tactic could lead to their blackmailing him with the threat of posting another bad review in the future. Plus, all those good clients who had paid full price would stand the risk of insult. Besides, isn’t it illogical to reward a negative reviewer with a better price?

A Better Way to React

Although my client declined the idea of calling these two people, he had the presence of mind to contain his anger and post a polite reply to each of their reviews explaining his side of the story and offering another chance to meet.

Since I handle all of his online social media, his website and his overall marketing, my client asked me to contact Angie’s List to discuss how to remove these two dishonest reviews. Although Angie’s List asserts that they will intervene by asking reviewers whether they could possibly have reviewed the wrong business, unless the reviewer himself is willing to remove the review, it will stand untouched. Angie’s List also states that reviews that do not involve business services per se, have little effect on an overall rating.

Still, my client feels abandoned by Angie’s List to whom he pays thousands of dollars for an advertising campaign in both their printed and online magazine. In fact, he is constantly receiving e-mails from them showing his demoted presence in these vehicles because of these two “F” reviews, which indicate “poor member communication.” Their solution? More advertising expenditures! In comparison to what members pay for the privilege of posting and reading other member comments, a mere $10/year, my client is exasperated about such inequitable treatment. Ironically, Angie’s List has been publicly criticized for “favoring” its advertisers by boosting their rankings on their site for monetary purposes. If my client were to respond favorably to these recent e-mails, that certainly would be appear to be true. But in his present state of disgruntlement, just the opposite seems to be true. Angie’s List seems to be penalizing my client by obscuring his advertising prominence under the guise of shielding members from a less-than-perfect communicator.

Angie’s List also pointed out that since the two “F” reviews have been published, there has been no decline in his number of e-mailed requests for quotes from members through his Angie’s List account. Granted, he can hardly dispute the overwhelming power of all his excellent Angie’s List reviews. In fact, he sees their influence in the constant emails through his website, clicks on his Google AdWords advertising and phone calls from new prospective clients. Although it is difficult for him to accept this unfair set of circumstances, he must soldier on, day in and day out, in his extremely demanding, enormously tiring occupation, maintaining a positive attitude and doing his best for every new client he serves.

The Best Recourse for the Future
It is a well-known fact that the best resolution to negative online reviews is to constantly provide fresh positive content. Already, new glowing reviews by other Angie’s List members have appeared with straight “A” ratings on expensive projects which has lessened the impact of the two embarrassing “F” reviews. If favorable comments greatly outnumber those to the contrary, the obvious conclusion will be that you have a business of reliable value. While we would all like to be perfect, few things in life really are. So, if you get a couple of negative reviews, take heart. All is not lost.

A Word to the Wise
Plus, a few new developments are interesting to take into account. Businesses are not the only targets of criticism online these days. Customers are also being scrutinized for inappropriate conduct and behavior on a number of new sites. And anyone who thinks they can say whatever they want without risk of prosecution is greatly mistaken. Reviewers who post anonymous comments identifiable only by a nebulous username are completely traceable using technologies that source their computers’ IP addresses. That means that what you say online can hurt you to the tune of thousands, if not millions of dollars in legal damages if your lies are ruled a crime of defamation. And whether negative reviewers’ names and addresses are evident for all to see or not, people should weigh the risks of criminal retaliation by a berserk business owner seeking revenge in much the same way that road rage kills out on the open highway. One woman commented online that she would refrain from reviewing anyone on the Internet for fear of physical retribution to her home, her family, her reputation or her life. That is certainly a sobering thought when you read some of the supposedly anonymous comments people post thinking they are beyond reproach.


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Marilyn Bontempo, president of Mid-Hudson Marketing, based in Holmes, New York, has been developing strategies for business success for more than 36 years. A professional writer and graduate of Bard College, she has won numerous awards for excellence in marketing, photography, graphics, writing and web design. As a specialist in branding, she assists many of her clients with management of their social media and public relations initiatives. In addition, she handles e-commerce for a number of online merchants not only on their own websites but through eBay, Amazon and others. View her work at www.midhudsonmarketing.com

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