Should Restaurants Respond to Personal Attacks in Online Reviews?

Posted on 24 Oct 2016 23:58

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It's true: How a restaurant owner or manager responds to negative online reviews can make or break a business. Even if the problems brought up are not real, and even if the problems are identified and fixed, a misjudged, defensive, or insulting response can do long term damage, sometimes spreading far beyond a single review in an online review community. There is an art and a science to responding to one-star and two-star reviews productively.

The solution many restaurant owners are most comfortable with is no solution at all. They simply choose to ignore online reviews. Some owners may have staff members monitor reviews and alert them if there is anything that needs their action, but they do not actually read the reviews themselves. This may be a healthy choice for the individual, as the constant barrage of feedback, often negative, can be mentally and emotionally draining. However, it may not be the healthiest choice for the business.

Not having a presence on social media and review sites can be seen as being indifferent to customer concerns. And, as a customer, you'd have to wonder. If a restaurant owner or manager is unwilling to deal with problems in the more impersonal internet setting, how willing would they be in person?

However, as important as it is for a restaurant to dive into social media and try to respond to negative comments effectively, could it be that some negative reviews should be ignored? When opinions are divided on whether you should respond to reviews at all, it is certainly hard to know which ones to ignore.

The answer, in my opinion, and in the opinion of many restaurant owners is YES. You should ignore certain reviews. You cannot fix everything, and you cannot respond in a "perfect" way to everything. In fact, responding to some types of comments may simply make matters worse. Remember that negative reviews can be overwhelming, and make you blind to the positive!

It can be hard to decide, though, when it is best to reply to or ignore a review. Understanding some myths about restaurant reviews may help. This leads us to the first, and maybe the most common, myth about restaurant reviews:

Most Restaurant Reviews are Angry and Negative

It is easy to believe, faced with angry and sometimes quite nasty negative restaurant reviews, that the only customers who are writing reviews are the angry ones! Well, it is true that a dissatisfied customer, in general, is more likely to speak out than a happy one. However, when it comes to restaurant reviews in places like Yelp and TripAdvisor, the majority of reviews, almost 80% of them, are 3-star and above. So, the majority of online restaurant reviews are happy ones or at least mostly positive ones.

Still, much depends on the particular social media platform and how active the users are. While many negative one-star and two-star reviews are quite constructive, when restaurant guests become angry enough, a restaurant "review" can become a personal attack against the owner, manager, etc.

When someone decides that you are a terrible person, and goes to the trouble of posting online all the ways in which you are terrible, there is probably not much you can say to change their opinion. In fact, unless you are exceedingly savvy in dealing with people, anything you say will likely be taken as evidence of your horribleness! If someone thinks you are a jerk, they may tend to perceive what you say as coming from a jerk. What to do? First, understand another myth about restaurant reviews:

One Negative Review Could Ruin My Business

I have heard this myth repeated on many restaurant (and hotel) makeover shows: "ONE BAD REVIEW could put you out of business!"

It is true that such a thing has happened, but it requires a "perfect storm" of events. Actual research shows something different. It is unlikely that ONE review can make or break your business. Yes, you should take each and every review seriously, and consider how to respond or whether not to respond, but thinking that one exceedingly angry guest could bury you can cause you to act more out of desperation rather than with a cool head and a considered position. You may be simply wasting a lot of time trying to "fix" a bad review that few people will ever even notice.

People do not just blindly follow star counts, nor do they dwell overlong on one bad review. Restaurant guests understand that their perspective and expectations may be different than others, and they may well think that what pissed off one guest doesn't even apply to them. Savvy internet folks actually expect there to be bad reviews. If all your reviews are 4-star or 5-star, they grow suspicious and may start to think that NONE of your reviews are credible!

It may help to take a look, in a random search, at Yelp reviews. You may notice that some one-star and two-star reviews, for example, actually contain no written review. Many people will leave a few stars and write a few sentences about what they ordered, with no opinion on the actual food or service. Other people will ignore such reviews, including the star count.

Still, there are plenty of bad comments to be read, and it is not fair to say a bad comment cannot cause you to lose potential customers. There have even been attempts to put a number to this, such as a UK study which found that a negative tweet could cause a business to lose 30 customers.

But, what can you do with a reviewer who is going after you personally and slides past review into "personal war?"

There may be nothing to do. It may be that responding to such a comment will only serve to push it up and make it more prominent, leading to further comments and then discussion. Such a discussion may leak out of the particular online thread into other independent threads on the same site or different sites. The result could be a negative smear, or at least your restaurant being viewed in a negative light in internet articles and comments that will last for years and years. This kind of negativity on the web becomes like a fingerprint, forever identifying you and your establishment. Although it is possible to rise above such an onslaught, perhaps after spending thousands on a reputation management company, you may never be able to completely remove such fingerprints. Ironically, the myth above, that one bad review could ruin a business could become reality: Responding to certain reviewers may lead to the review becoming more prominent than it should be, and creating a negative buzz that is unwarranted, and maybe disastrous.

The first thing to consider may be whether you can identify just what made the restaurant guest so angry. Were they dissatisfied during their visit and did they verbally inform the waiter or manager of this? If so, was the response rude, insulting, or otherwise anger-inducing? In this case, something can be done about the cause of the guest's anger, even if the guest cannot be satisfied or induced to come back to the restaurant. All negative comments, even if unfair and insulting, can be valuable information. And this leads to yet another mistaken belief:

All My Negative Reviews are Fake or Written by Crazy People

This has been the stance of many a (failed) restaurant owner. Anyone who believes that all their bad reviews are written by crazy people is probably crazy themselves. The most infamous example of this attitude taken to extremes is Amy's Baking Company, which you may be familiar with from Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares. The restaurant owners ignited a Facebook war over their handling of customer complaints, later to claim their page was hacked. Their responses to negative reviews may be the worst responses of any restaurant owners, ever, and most of them started with the steadfast belief that all their negative reviews were written by their competition, or by a conspiracy of Yelpers, etc.

Likewise, believing that every negative comment represents a concerted conspiracy to ruin you, as by a competitor, verges on the paranoid. Of course, you wouldn't respond to reviews if they are all written by nuts or fakers! And if you did, why treat them like legitimate guests?

It is possible that some negative reviews are fake reviews. You may be able to tell by reviews that are exceedingly vague or exceedingly nasty without offering any details. But when similar complaints are voiced in several bad reviews, it should become obvious that the problem is real. Online reviews can be a quagmire and there is no one formula that can work for every one of them.

Here's the problem with which all restaurant owners must grapple: You can't sit around for a week or two deciding whether or not to respond. Responding two weeks after a review is left can be worse than not responding at all! You have to make a decision and do it quickly, for better or for worse.

Consider the Online Culture of Reviews

As a website owner and "blogger" of sorts, however, I want to clue you in on a facet of online behavior that may help you in dealing with the more "colorful" reviews and whether to respond to them. Many people who leave a lot of reviews are not only concerned with their experience dining at a particular restaurant. They get caught up in the culture of the particular review site or other social media platform, and want to be a prominent "influencer." The irony is that those who care more about fostering their own credibility may well be the ones who are influencing others the most.

As such, they may be motivated to write colorful and creative reviews in order to boost their own reputation, albeit at the expense of yours. While there is not much you can do about internet culture, this may help you not take the more outlandish and insulting reviews too personally. Style can tell you a lot. Does it seem like they worked just as hard to be the next Hemingway (or perhaps the next Craig Clairborne) as they did to provide an honest review of their dining experience? If you think that your restaurant is falling prey to these types of reviewers, take the time to read and consider what they write, and narrow your responses down to "meat and potatoes" of the review. Try to ignore "style" and irrelevant signals, and any statements that are not concrete and practical. In other words, don't let noisy reviews intimidate you, but learn to separate the noise from the central message.

But the "celebrity" reviewers are a small problem compared to the internet trolls.

Dealing With Trolls in Restaurant Reviews?

If the reviewer seems to be of the "troll" variety, it may be a fake review left by a competitor, or a competitor's loyalist. Or, it may be a fake review left for no reason at all except to get you to respond for the entertainment of the original poster. If in your judgment you are dealing with one of these, it may be best to ignore it. Remember the one rule you'll ever need when it comes to trolls: Don't feed them!

Reviews are a Great Source of Information

No matter what anyone tells you, whether or not to ignore an online review is a difficult question. Responding to some types of reviews can only do more harm (such as in interacting with online can never win), but ignoring others can cause you trouble.

But, as I wrote in this article about the difference between restaurant management and other business management, guest complaints and negative reviews are a very valuable source of information. Sure, everybody loves positive reviews but what do you learn from them? That you're awesome? That doesn't really put money in the bank. Continually improving, so you can stand the test of time, will. Positive reviews make you feel good, but they don't inform you of problems. Negative reviews can show you problems you may not know exist.

Should you decide to respond to a bad review, here are some general do's and don'ts:

Do Respond Quickly but Not Too Quickly

You don't have weeks to sit around deciding if and how to respond. By the time you do, it may be a day late and a dollar short. As I mentioned above, waiting a couple of weeks before responding to a negative review may do more damage than good.

At the same time, constantly monitoring online reviews and responding to a negative review within minutes will make it seem like you are too eager to 'gladhand' the reviewer, rather than being eager to respond to and fix the problems described.

It takes time to read through a detailed review and then actually try to observe and fix the problems, should they exist. If an hour after a review is posted you log on and say "we are striving to fix these problems and I assure you that your next visit will be much improved" a savvy community will know that you are just trying to soothe the guest with vague assurances and that there is no way you have actually started to "fix" anything.

Some sources and guidelines on crafting replies to reviews over-emphasize quick responses. There is such a thing as a too-quick response! Your guests are not gullible. They know when they are dealing with a public relations type whose only job is to soothe angry customers and make everything happy. While being angry, defensive, and rude is a bad response, being fake isn't much better. You have probably dealt with just this sort of response from businesses yourself.

Think twice about reputation management firms.

Overly-quick responses to negative reviews can be a sign that a restaurant uses a reputation management team, whether it be someone hired by the restaurant (often a relative or friend), or a company. The way reputation management firms often work is to simply overwhelm any negativity with a constant barrage of positive syrupy goodness. Not only do they respond to reviews within minutes with vague feel-good vibes, they also hire an army of fake positive review posters. Any negative reviews don't disappear, of course, but they get shuffled to the bottom of the pile, hardly ever seeing the light of day.

While such tactics may artificially boost your online reputation, they do you a long-term disservice by causing you to be unable to respond to real customer concerns and present a realistic picture of what your guests should expect. Here is what you must always remember: While positive reviews may encourage business in the short-term if you don't actually meet your guest's expectations, they will simply stop coming, and tell all their friends not to go to your restaurant. All the syrupy replies and fake positive reviews in the world will not fix this and, eventually, you'll run out of steam, or money, and the bad reviews will be the ones at the top of the list.

Consider the owner of a bad restaurant who says "I never get any complaints."

The number one response of a restaurant guest to a bad restaurant experience is not to leave a bad review or to complain; it is to never come back.

Do not repeat negative words or phrases in your answer.

For example: If a reviewer said, "This restaurant is terrible and the owner is a jackass."

Never say something like, "Hi, I am so sorry you had such a terrible experience and that you feel the owner is a bad person."

While this may seem like a way to respond positively and to take some kind of ownership of the situation, you are, inadvertently, further cementing the negativity. Instead, try to steer the conversation to a positive and active solution. What can you do to make it better? What WILL you do to make it better? Making a mistake and coming back stronger than ever can only enhance your reputation.

However, a negative reviewer isn't necessarily a highly angry reviewer. With the most truly angry reviewers, should you respond, it is usually best to apologize publicly but then try to take the conversation private, where you will try to make it up to the customer. Success in this area may well induce the guest to edit or change their review.

If you do contact a customer personally, though:

Do not overstay your welcome.

While guests want to feel like they matter, someone is paying attention, and yes, there is a captain at the helm, they do not want to feel stalked and put out. If the guest indicates, perhaps by ignoring you, that they are not interested in your efforts to satisfy them, do not continue to try and contact them and get them to respond. A restaurant review can simply be venting. The guest has vented online, said their piece, and are ready to move on. They may have decided, unfortunately, to never visit your restaurant again. Harassing them is probably not a good idea! Words like "stalker" are bandied about on the internet with abandon. Stalker is the last word you want to appear in a public comment. Remember again: The Future Guest.

A big deal has been made of restaurant owners who go the extra mile in responding to reviews, both good and bad, by making personal video responses to the customer and posting them on YouTube, etc. This may be quite impressive to some guests but considered over-the-top and even a little too personal and invasive to others. Paying attention is good, but paying too much attention? It remains to be seen whether such tactics help or hinder a restaurant's success in the long run.

Think of Future Customers, Not Just Winning over the Reviewer

It would be great to be able to not only please every negative reviewer but to get them to change their reviews or write new positive reviews. However, getting caught up in winning over one past guest can make you lose focus on winning over hundreds of possible future guests to your restaurant. As you are responding to reviews, remember that many people see the review and your response, and how you handle things may well influence whether or not they visit your restaurant in the future. I'll readily admit that I have been influenced to visit a restaurant because of the graceful response of the owner to a bad review! The thinking can be as simple as, "What a swell guy, I want to support his business."

Do Apologize, Don't Agree in Lieu of Apology

A simple apology can go a long way. Saying, "I'm sorry," is like saying "I care." Some restaurant owners are very quick to agree with negative reviewers, but loathe to apologize. The customer will notice. No matter how much you agree, the lack of apology will make them think that you are trying to "handle" them. It is like saying, "there, there, you are right. Don't fret now," without actually taking responsibility for whatever happened to cause the negative review.

The rub is that sometimes you may find yourself disagreeing with what the reviewer says. Maybe the expectations of the reviewer were unreasonable and they were being too demanding. Maybe you can find no evidence that the incidents or problems mentioned actually occurred or are occurring. Well, the question is which is better, denial or apology? Many owners will tell you that the customer is not always right. The truth is that it doesn't matter if they are right or wrong. The hospitality business is about hospitality. You are in the business of fulfilling expectations, even when those expectations do not fit into a standard mold. While you can't meet extreme and unreasonable expectations, striving to meet those you can will keep guests coming back.

When someone reviews your business, it is like they are commenting on your baby. It is difficult not to take bad reviews personally. It is also difficult to decide how much of a personal touch you should take in your effort to be both gracious and professional at the same time. Striking a balance may take practice. Regardless, don't fall for the oft-uttered "rule" that "you should respond to every review." The proper balance may actually include not responding to every review, and carefully considering how to respond to the worst ones.

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