A Bad Review Is Forever: How to Counter Online Complaints

Andrew Gruel, chef and owner of the Slapfish restaurant chain, responds to about 50 online reviews a day, positive or negative.
Credit: Emily Berl for The New York Times

For the California restaurateur Andrew Gruel, poor online reviews demand rapid responses.

One of his new Slapfish restaurants, serving sustainable seafood, was hit this year with dozens of bad reviews that complained about its prices (too high) and portions (too small).

So Mr. Gruel pulled out all the stops. He sent emails to customers begging them to come back. And he rejiggered menu prices, increased portion size and even introduced combo meal deals. Quickly, those one-star reviews shifted into five stars.

“You can get buried by bad reviews,” said Mr. Gruel, whose fast-casual restaurants serve food like fish tacos and lobster burgers. “So it’s a race to stop the bleeding.”

The payoff, he added, can be tremendous. Turning around one-star reviews creates lifetime customers — and better reviews draw more customers.

Mr. Gruel’s extreme approach to bad reviews may sound like overkill. But studies show that consumers overwhelmingly choose businesses based mainly on star ratings. Even a decline of one star, on a scale from one to five, can hurt revenue and send a business into a slide.

So tracking a business’s online reputation is a critical part of building a thriving company, experts said.

“Star ratings persist forever,” said Daniel Lemin, author of “ManipuRated: How Business Owners Can Fight Fraudulent Online Ratings and Reviews.” “Meanwhile, actual reviews can fall off the first pages of review sites. And consumers rarely read reviews older than three months.” After problems are addressed and solved, he added, there’s a high chance that disgruntled customers can become avid advocates.

So small businesses have nothing to lose by engaging their critics, Mr. Lemin said. The recipe is simply apologizing and asking for another chance. The criticism may hurt, he adds, but the way a business responds matters.

Yelp is, of course, the powerhouse review site that is most watched. According to a Nielsen survey, 44 percent of consumers use Yelp to search for local businesses. TripAdvisor and Angie’s List have far smaller followings.

This has prompted the growth of reputation management firms such as ReviewTrackers, Reputation.com, and Status Labs. They typically use data-analysis tools or software to find online reviews and rapidly respond to them.

For example, ReviewTrackers, based in Chicago, tracks over 70 review sites, said Chris Campbell, the chief executive and founder. “That number grows every quarter,” he said. Free tools like Google Alerts do not always pick up every review site, he added. “Your customers are already talking about you,” Mr. Campbell said. “So you can’t just ignore them. Anyway, businesses that engage with their customers are growing.” Studies show, he said, that the quality of a restaurant’s online reviews can even predict how fast it will close.

Mr. Gruel, a trained chef who started his business in a food truck, prefers to respond to reviews himself. He fears using “canned responses that aren’t personal.” If he cannot respond quickly, he asks an employee to do so. Using two smartphones and an iPad, Mr. Gruel already responds to about 50 online reviews a day, regardless of whether they are positive or negative.

“Dining experiences live on in the computer,” he said. “And they reach thousands of people. But you can only manage a fraction of that experience inside the restaurant.” He also checks Yelp statistics, which analyze things like how many people visit a review page, that are emailed to him.

Checking online reviews every few days is now a business necessity, many experts said. Barbara Findlay Schenck, author of ”Small Business Marketing Kit for Dummies,” recommends finding out which three sites customers use most and then setting up online alerts to monitor them. “Be strong where your customers are looking,” she advised.

“The minute you see a bad review, look for a shard of truth,” she said. “Is this something you can improve? Look for what you can fix.” But don’t fight fire with fire by getting into an argument with a reviewer, she added.

Meg Piercy, who heads the furniture company MegMade, based in Chicago, checks reviews on multiple sites each day. Her business has more than 3,000 pieces of refurbished furniture that can be customized and they are sold in several states. Besides Yelp, she also checks Instagram, Etsy and the MegMade Facebook page. “This only takes a few minutes,” she said. If a review is negative, she calls the customer within 48 hours.

“I want people to know my true heart,” said Ms. Piercy, who doesn’t want to outsource her review scans either. “And I’m thankful for their feedback.” When one customer gave MegMade a two-star review a few weeks ago, Ms. Piercy responded by giving her $100 off the next changing table.

Reviews need to be four stars or above to satisfy Ms. Piercy, a self-proclaimed perfectionist. She also said online reputation issues can keep her up at night. “It’s so important,” she said. But she also sees ratings as a potent marketing tool, given consumers’ growing clout.

Ms. Piercy even uses an Excel spreadsheet to track all posted reviews. “I look at the quality of the review,” she said.

Positive reviews are indeed good marketing fodder. “You can blast them out by putting Yelp badges with the number of five-star reviews on your website,” said Darnell Holloway, director of local business outreach at Yelp. Now it’s all about relational capital, he said, and you don’t need a big marketing budget.

Mr. Gruel also enlists Yelp’s Elite Squad, which reveals emerging hot spots. “About 70 percent of our business has grown through Yelp and Instagram,” he said. One study even found that a 3.5-star rating that is bumped up to four stars can result in a 19 percent increase in peak-hour bookings.

The rating system is hard to manipulate, experts cautioned.

Bad reviews can’t be scrubbed on Yelp, Mr. Holloway said. The only exceptions to this rule is when someone violates content guidelines through hate speech or by not having had the experience they’re actually reviewing.

For example, the Minnesota dentist who killed a lion in Zimbabwe got hundreds of negative Yelp reviews. “We removed them,” Mr. Holloway said. “Yelp isn’t a place to post political reviews.” Disgruntled employee posts are also cut. Software evaluates every review, he added.

Yelp and other sites also discourage offering incentives to reviewers. “We make sure that we catch business owners who are offering these incentives,” Mr. Holloway said. “We’re focused on quality control.”

Yelp’s sting operations also track down people who write fake reviews for money. But they can be hard to pinpoint, some experts said. “Everyone is looking for answers to fake reviews,” Mr. Holloway added. “But don’t get hung up on negatives. It’s still important to join the conversation diplomatically.”

The phenomenon of fake reviews has only grown worse, Mr. Lemin said. Review writers even solicit work on the website Fiverr.com, he said. But don’t panic when you get a bad review. One can’t harm you. “And a bad review can even validate the good ones,” he said.

Mr. Gruel said he aimed for four- or five-star reviews. “They will make my business sustainable,” he said.

This article was originally published at the NY Times.