Responding to Negative Reviews, Revisited: 5 Ways to Avoid Bad Publicity

yelp, online reviews, bad publicity, reputation management

As noted in last week’s post, filing a lawsuit over a negative review — either to silence an unhappy patient or to pursue damages for defamation — is rarely a good idea. Costly, difficult to prosecute and, in some cases, prohibited by law, such suits can turn a one-time, one-off event into an ongoing crisis that can cause long-term damage to your reputation.

Consider the recent case reported by BuzzFeed News, in which the Yelp page of a New York endodontist was slapped with a warning label about “questionable legal threats against reviewers.” As with many such situations, the story became less about the reviews and more about the doctor. Even though the practice boasts 68 reviews with an average of 4.5 stars, potential patients visiting his page are greeted by the two entries in the above image.

Technically speaking, one of them isn’t even a review — it appears the second “reviewer” never even visited the practice — but together, they provide a textbook example of the terrible publicity that suing patients is likely to generate.

So, what’s the better way to respond? The first step is to develop a standard procedure for determining whether or not you should respond, what you should and shouldn’t say, and how you should go about it:

Determine whether or not to respond

Todays’ aesthetic consumers are pretty savvy about online reviews and generally take extreme reviews — both rants and raves — with a large grain of salt. Unless they’re truly defamatory, reviews that read more like rabid attacks may be better left to fade on their own, as are those that feature few details and/or poor spelling or grammar. Potential patients don’t put much stock in such reviews; you shouldn’t, either.

If possible, respond privately

If, on the other hand, you believe a response will defuse the situation and you know who the reviewer is, it’s usually best to take the discussion offline via a phone call or email (provided you have the patient’s permission to communicate via email). This not only demonstrates a personal interest in making things right; it allows for a more detailed, HIPAA-compliant discussion than is feasible in more social settings.

If responding publicly, tread carefully

If handled appropriately, responding directly to a review where it was posted gives a larger audience evidence of your commitment to your patients’ care. The problem is that you can’t get into patient specifics — the details of their care are still protected even if they “out” themselves with personal details — so it’s best to stick to general commentary and NOT discuss the case in question. Express your sympathy regarding their experience; offer to follow up personally with an invitation for them to call your office, and follow the rules cited in #2 above.

Respond at internet speed

The rapid-fire pace of the internet has only exacerbated people’s expectations of instant gratification, and hearing back from companies quickly when they complain is no exception. Assigning a staff member to monitor social channels provides an early-warning system about potential problems; responding quickly — even a quick “we’re sorry to hear about your experience and would like to discuss it at your convenience” to get things started — can help forestall a flurry of similar “me too” complaints.

Be professional, personal and human

It can be hard to ignore a personal attack, but responding in kind is never a good idea. Demonstrating your empathy with their situation, expressing your interest in making things right, and generally treating them with respect will go a lot further than going on the offensive. (It’s okay to counter actual misinformation with medical expertise, but be sure to go after the misinformation, not the messenger.)

The fact is that, in many cases, someone who writes a negative review really just wants to be heard and have their concerns acknowledged. And while ignoring them might seem like the easy answer, responding can actually provide a boost to your online reputation. Consider the two reviews below, spotted by Elizabeth Wuellner of marketshare, in which the provider addressed the original review offline, leading to a follow-up review with a significantly different flavor:

online reviews, service recovery

The takeaway: When it comes to negative reviews, you’re probably better off pursuing resolution in the court of public opinion than in a court of law.

About Rob Lovitt

Rob Lovitt is a longtime writer and editor who believes every good business has a great story to tell. He has written for dozens of magazines and websites, including NBCnews.com, Expedia.com and the inflight magazines of Alaska, Horizon and Frontier airlines.

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