How to handle negative online reviews

There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth itself

Before responding to a review online, triage the comment you have received. Is the reviewer an actual client or, possibly, a troll looking to start a fight? Once you have assessed, handle the comment accordingly. PHOTO 125942510 / ANIMAL HOSPITAL © VIACHESLAV IACOBCHUK | DREAMSTIME.COM
Before responding to a review online, triage the comment you have received. Is the reviewer an actual client or, possibly, a troll looking to start a fight? Once you have assessed, handle the comment accordingly.
PHOTO 125942510 / ANIMAL HOSPITAL © VIACHESLAV IACOBCHUK | DREAMSTIME.COM

Getting a negative review is like a punch in the gut. I have never had a clinic tell me dealing with reviews is something they enjoy. Quite honestly, I do not enjoy it either. I have learned to embrace the value of reviews and understand the importance of handling negative comments.

Reviews are a powerful tool in the business world. They can be gifts our clients offer to help in our efforts to reach a wider audience. They can also be weaponized by those who are unhappy with our services. How we respond to a negative review is what matters most. 

Why reviews matter

Thinking back to your last purchase or visit to a restaurant, did you decide to make a purchase after reading the reviews? What did you think about the product or restaurant after reading the reviews? Have you ever given a low-rated restaurant a visit despite its review rating? When you read some of the reviews, did you form any opinions about the author of the review?

Reviews, in the simplest form, are social proofing. Social proofing is what we look for when we have an absence of personal knowledge; we take the consensus of those around us to form an opinion about the product, service, or business.

The Social Proof Theory, popularized by psychologist Robert Cialdini, maintains a person who does not know what the proper behavior for a certain situation is will look to other people to imitate what they are doing and to provide guidance for his actions.”

Simply put, we figure out what is what by copying those around us. Let’s use Amazon as an example. Amazon has millions of products offered by thousands of sellers. We cannot possibly know whether sellers are reliable, or whether the products offered are any good. Amazon uses the star rating system to grade the experiences of other people who have purchased the same product, allowing us to decide within a certain degree if the product will be a good purchase or not.

Why reviews do not matter

Reviews are one piece of the pie we can use when deciding about purchasing a product. The use of reviews can benefit the business, as well as the consumer. The ability to weaponize a review is what can become a problem for us. Social proofing is not only the reason reviews matter, but also the reason they do not matter.

Let me explain. Reviews are not an overall truthful or reliable measure of your practice’s ability to deliver quality medicine. It is an opinion based on one moment in time with many factors attributed to it. These factors are not available for us to look at to decide whether they are justified. One important cause of negative reviews stems from the lack of quality communication with the client.

As we all know, in veterinary medicine, this is not always possible. What we say is not always heard as we meant it. Miscommunication does happen, often. Reviews are an example of this and, in my opinion, always should be taken with a grain of salt. 

To respond or not to respond

I am sure most, if not all, the people reading this article have received a negative review, or have had to deal with one at some point in their careers. As the practice manager, I had to handle my own practice’s negative reviews. When we received notification a negative review had been left, I immediately stressed out and then had to let the owner know about it.

The initial reaction was usually the same: anger, denial, frustration, hostility, followed up with an antagonistic rant about how the client has no idea what they are talking about or is being blatantly untruthful. My job then began trying to figure out how to respond to this review without relaying anything the practice owner really said or meant and do it in such a way the practice owner was happy. Not always possible. 

Gut check before proceeding

Before responding to any negative review online, I highly recommend a gut check. I also advise unplugging your keyboard until you have finished your gut check. Never ever type in anger. You will be a lot more likely to tell the truth, and even worse, how you really feel if you respond when you are angry.

This gut check consists of a few simple questions to help get your emotions in check and find out what is really bugging you about this review. The goal is to deescalate a negative situation and keep you out of court. Consider what your immediate gut reaction is when you see you have a review.

You do not even know yet if it is positive or negative; you just know a review came in. What do you initially feel and think when you see the notification? Going further, if the review is negative, how does this make you feel? Understanding your immediate reactions will also help you get into a mindful place before typing a response. Remember, the point of a review is to provide social proofing for those reading about this later.

Social proofing works for us, too

Social proofing allows us to make decisions when there is a lack of personal knowledge about a product or service. Social proofing also allows us to provide additional knowledge to consumers who are reading those reviews. They can help a consumer decide whether to act.

We all have read incoherent and crazy reviews. We discount them because we make assumptions about the author. We may be willing to give the business a chance because we assumed the reviewer is not a reliable narrator. The truth of the matter is, the point of responding is not to communicate with the author of the review, but to indirectly communicate with the readers as they come along later. Readers can identify with the reviewer and imagine themselves in the same situation experiencing your reaction and seeing how you respond to them.

This can work in our favor. Active review responses might dissuade someone from leaving a negative review because they see you do respond, and you do seek out additional communication when handling negative reviews. Typically, people are resistant to face-to-face confrontation or negative interactions, which is why they leave reviews online instead of connecting with you in person to discuss their dissatisfaction. Going back to our line of thinking: If the reader of the review is identifying with someone you responded to and they are convinced you will respond to them as well, they may not be so inclined to leave a nasty review. 

Crafting a review response

Some clients who get upset just never come back. We may not ever find out why they were upset or what happened. We just lose a client, the patient, and the future revenue.

Upset clients who leave a review are still invested emotionally. They want us to know why they are upset or what happened. This means, in some cases, we can still turn this around and keep a good client. Review responses are a game of strategy with a healthy dose of psychology. This strategic move should be made with a cool head.

As such, we need to be aware of a few Golden Rules when it comes to review platforms:

  1. Know how to find the content guidelines for each platform you have reviews on. In most cases, this is Facebook, Google, and Yelp.
  2. Have a working knowledge of what is or is not allowed to be said so you can refute reviews that go against these guidelines.
  3. Save a copy of the guidelines that can be easily accessed. You will need to have the specific rule that the review goes against if you are attempting to flag it.

Before responding, triage the review itself first. Below are a few of my triage categories I use when deciding how to craft a response:

  • Is it abusive or hate speech?
  • Is it vulgar?
  • Is it a troll?
  • Is it a seek-and-destroy mission?
  • Is it a legitimate review?

The answer to these questions will lead me to the next phase in crafting my response.

Hate speech, etc.

Responding to vulgar, abusive, threatening, or hate-filled speech is not advised. Flag these reviews and cite the specific guideline against using that type of language. Most platforms take this type of threatening hate-filled behavior seriously and do remove reviews that fall under those guidelines. The trick to getting them removed is to cite the guidelines for that platform. They will not research their own guidelines and make a judgement call on it. You need to do the work and give them the answer to the test. If you rely on a platform to make a judgement call about the review itself, they will likely side with the consumer. The platform will make the decision whether the review meets the intent of the guideline that you cited. So, help them help you.

Sometimes negative reviews stem from the lack of quality communication with a client. A careful response can help diffuse the situation.
Sometimes negative reviews stem from the lack of quality communication with a client. A careful response can help diffuse the situation.

Do not feed trolls, they only get bigger. Trolls are not actual clients; they are people who just want to cause strife, or maybe they have you confused with someone else. Flag these reviews. Platforms depend on the reliability of the reviews so people trust them. They do not want trolls messing up the place.

There is usually a guideline requiring all reviews be left by actual clients who have directly had experiences with the business they are reviewing. The response to this type of review is to simply state: “After a search, we do not see your name listed in our client database, and we do not have any records that we have seen your pet here before. We believe you may have left this review for the wrong place. If we are mistaken, please give us a call so we can clear this matter up.” 

Seek-and-destroy missions and legitimate reviews

Seek-and-destroy missions are like trolls except it is a gang attack—like a pack of wolves attacking prey. We see this when one person may have had a negative experience and has told their friends and family about it, and they all start a negative review campaign against you. You would respond to these types of reviews much like you do the troll response. You state they are not listed in your client database and flag them, citing the guideline against non-customers leaving reviews.

Legitimate reviews are, admittedly, the most challenging because they are from a client and may or may not have some elements that are accurate. There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth itself.

Here are the steps to crafting a careful and considerate response to a legitimate review:

  • Look for an empathetic opportunity: “I know waiting for results when your pet is sick is very stressful.”
  • Acknowledge their review: “I am really sorry to hear you had a bad experience during your recent visit with us.”
  • Reaffirm your standards and offer a solution: “We are sorry for your wait. Please remind us during your next visit and we will do a complimentary nail trim for your pet” or “We are sorry for your wait. We know how valuable your time and we strive to respect that.”
  • Only offer to have further conversation offline. The last sentence of any review response should include your name and an email address or phone number where they can contact you to discuss this further in person. For example: “Thank you for your review. Although we always hope for a great review rating from our clients, we do appreciate the feedback. We’re sorry you felt like the wait was longer than necessary. We try to be as timely as possible. When helping our patients, sadly, we can’t always keep that promise no matter how hard we try. Please give me a call at 555-4567 so we can discuss your experience in more detail. Ask for Rhonda, I’m the practice manager.”

In this response, we do not accept fault for anything, and we do not accept blame. We empathize with the client’s version of the experience and offer to communicate in person going forward. We do not want to engage back and forth because of the opportunity for others to chime in and joint the chat. Do not pour gasoline on any fires online. Respond and move on.

A few don’ts:

  • Don’t panic, go to your calm place.
  • Don’t type in anger. Don’t angrily defend yourself or your medicine online. You won’t win.
  • Don’t admit fault.
  • Don’t answer each accusation listed in the review. You won’t win that either, and you are opening dialogue.
  • Don’t ever tell the truth about a situation involving the client’s understanding of the events. There is no time where a client will appreciate being told they are wrong or misunderstood. You are attacking their intelligence.
  • Don’t discuss the error in the client’s decision-making for their pets’ care. Avoid responding that if you could run the tests you needed and not be told they did not have any money, etc. You seriously will not win this one. That is a viral fight waiting to happen.
  • Don’t internalize a negative review as fact or let it make you feel bad or insecure about your medicine.

Crafting a review response takes time and consideration, but after a while you learn the anatomy of the response and you can post your reply and move on with your day. Clients may or may not actually reach out to you in person to discuss the cause of their review. In my experience, based on feedback, very few clients make the effort to communicate in person offline, so inviting them to discuss it in person does not sign you up for a phone fight. It is telling the readers later that you are willing to communicate in person professionally because the matter is important to you.

Remember to thank positive reviewers, too. These types of comments are valuable and should be appreciated!

Rhonda Bell, CVPM, CCFP, CDMP, is founder and co-owner of Dog Days Consulting, a social media and brand management company. She spent 15 years as a practice manager working the day-to-day challenges of the veterinary practice and experienced firsthand the stresses, joys, communication dilemmas, and wonders of working in veterinary medicine. Bell now dedicates her work and energy to helping practices succeed online and to coaching team members with the skills that will prolong and sustain their careers.

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