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How a Bad Review Landed One Man in Jail: How to Respond to Negative Online Reviews

Kiely Kuligowski
Kiely Kuligowski

Responding well to negative online reviews can turn a negative situation into a positive one for your business. Here's how to do it.

  • 84% of people trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation from a friend.
  • The use of online reviews can boost engagement with your customers, establish your credibility and increase your online visibility.
  • When responding to negative reviews, be calm, apologize, and offer appropriate compensation if applicable.
  • This article is for small business owners or marketers who want to learn how to properly respond to negative online reviews of their company.

When you post a bad review of a business online, the chance of being arrested for it probably doesn't cross your mind – but that's what happened to Wesley Barnes when he posted a complaint about a dispute he had over his hotel's $15 corkage fee.

Barnes was staying at the Sea View Koh Chang resort in Thailand when he had an argument with a manager over the restaurant's corkage fee for Barnes' personal bottle of gin. After the argument, he posted a negative review of the hotel on TripAdvisor based on his experience.

What Barnes did not bargain for was Thailand's strict defamation laws, which earned him a weekend in jail (and the possibility of two years in prison if convicted) after the hotel filed a complaint with the police out of concern for its reputation.

However, the hotel's actions backfired, as news of the arrest spread and Sea View received many more negative comments online, which berated the resort for attempting to send someone to jail for a bad review. The hotel withdrew the complaint against Barnes after he apologized for "repeatedly false and untrue statements" that he said he wrote "out of anger and malice" and to "maliciously defame Sea View."

While you probably wouldn't try to imprison someone for leaving a negative review online, there is a lot to be learned from Barnes' story on how to properly respond to reviews of your business.

Why are reviews important for your business?

Reviews can be a vital part of your business's credibility. Research shows that 84% of people trust online reviews just as much as a personal recommendation from someone they know, and 90% of buyers read at least one online review before making a purchase.

Online reviews provide an opportunity for organic marketing and conversation amongst your customers, as well as a chance for you to engage and respond to comments. These are some other things online reviews can do for your business:

Boost purchases

One of the biggest benefits of making online reviews available to your customers is the tenet that social proof drives purchases. In other words, if a particular user sees other customers agreeing that a purchase was a good decision, that user is much more likely to make that purchase. This is the reason that websites like Amazon give buyers the option to sort products by reviews; customers like to buy what other people are buying.

Increase online visibility

Online reviews can boost your business's visibility in Google's and other search engines' results by providing a steady stream of fresh, relevant content that Google automatically ranks higher in the search algorithm. This makes your brand easier to find for customers who are searching for products or services you provide. A high ranking on Google can also make your business appear as an authority in your industry, which makes customers more likely to buy from you.

"In terms of customer acquisition, the importance of reviews is well known, but less people understand the impact from an SEO perspective," said Manick Bhan, CTO of SEO and digital marketing agency LinkGraph. "Google considers online reviews in its ranking algorithm, meaning those small businesses with bad customer reviews are just not going to get on page one."

Build credibility

In addition to your SEO, online reviews can boost your online reputation, helping your business look credible and trustworthy. Consumers are much more likely to trust businesses with average reviews of at least four stars, and businesses with high average ratings are more likely to convert views into sales.

Encourage customer engagement

Online engagement is a massive component of modern business, so it's important for you to provide as many avenues for customers to engage with your business as possible. Online reviews provide a place for customers to engage in dialogue with you, allowing you to address grievances and them to share positive experiences as well.

Key takeaway: Online customer reviews are important because they can help your business boost sales, build credibility and increase its online visibility.

What causes bad reviews?

Understanding why people leave negative reviews can help you respond effectively. Here are some reasons why consumers may leave a bad review for your business:

  • To warn other buyers against a poor purchase
  • To share a bad experience with others
  • To let your business know about a bad experience, and what you should do to fix it
  • To seek compensation as a response to a poor experience
  • To receive an apology or acknowledgment of the issue

How can negative reviews be positive for your business?

Negative reviews present you with an excellent opportunity to engage with the customer and prove you're willing to correct an issue quickly and honestly. This shows the customer that you value them and their business, which could make them more willing to become a return customer.

Responding to negative reviews also allows you to take back ownership of how your business is perceived online and ensure that your online presence remains as positive as possible.

"Responding properly is essential, as it affects how other customers perceive your brand," said David McPartlin, head of marketing at AccountsPortal. "If they see you responding properly, then they know that their time and money would still be respected even if a problem were to occur."

Additionally, online reviews have the potential to open your eyes to problems in your business. Take what customers say to heart, and investigate the issue. If it proves to be legitimate, contact the customer who left the review and update them on the changes you've made to fix the problem. The customer is likely to feel heard and appeased, and your credibility as a business will go up.

Key takeaway: Negative reviews are an opportunity to engage with your customers, prove you're willing to correct problems, and identify issues with your business.

How to handle a negative review

Though reviews are generally a positive thing for your business, you're likely to encounter negative reviews at some point. If handled properly, even negative reviews can have positive effects on your business. Here are five tips for responding well to a negative online review.

1. Acknowledge the problem.

A business acknowledging and recognizing the issue can make a customer feel seen and valued. Start your response by saying something like, "Thank you for letting us know about this issue," and follow with steps to solve the problem. Here's an example from Lululemon's Instagram account, where the company replied to a customer with a shipping issue:

"We hear that you are having some issues while trying to place an order, and that is not sitting well with us. When you have a minute, please send us a DM, and we would love to continue the conversation with you there."

2. Apologize.

Just like acknowledgment of the issue, an apology can significantly defuse a situation and appease the customer. While you don't necessarily need to admit to any wrongdoing, you can apologize for not meeting the customer's expectations or for any inconvenience caused.

"When replying to negative reviews online, be direct with the consumer, and take ownership of whatever the issue is," said Matt L. Schmidt, burial insurance advisor. "By doing so, potential future clients will see this and most likely not be swayed by negative reviews. In the event there was something your staff could have done differently, admit it and provide details of how you'll improve in the future."

3. Give an explanation (if applicable).

If you have more information to support your apology or review response, like a computer error or other incident, you can include that in your statement. An explanation provides more context for the customer and may encourage them to be more empathetic toward your business. Remember not to make excuses, though; you should still apologize.

4. Offer appropriate compensation.

Compensation for a poor experience can mend or salvage a relationship with a customer. You could offer coupons, discount codes or priority scheduling to alleviate the problem.

"If it's giving a discount on a future order [or] giving a full or partial refund, it's worth saving face when it comes to online reviews, because they'll leave a stain on your business's reputation," said John Pinedo, founder of Freedom Bound Business.

5. Move the conversation elsewhere.

If you're dealing with a complicated issue that requires in-depth conversations, try to take the conversation off social media, such as to direct messages, email or the phone. This creates a more personal environment where you and the customer can be honest with each other and work directly to reach a solution. 

"Respond calmly and quickly," said Golda Criddle, marketing manager at ReviewInc. "Ask to move the conversation to a private channel if necessary, in order to resolve the conflict and possibly turn the negative review into a positive one."

Key takeaway: When you respond to negative feedback about your business, it's important to stay calm, offer an apology and an explanation if applicable, and move the conversation to a private channel.

Image Credit: undrey / Getty Images
Kiely Kuligowski
Kiely Kuligowski
Business News Daily Staff
Kiely Kuligowski is a and Business News Daily writer and has written more than 200 B2B-related articles on topics designed to help small businesses market and grow their companies. Kiely spent hundreds of hours researching, analyzing and writing about the best marketing services for small businesses, including email marketing and text message marketing software. Additionally, Kiely writes on topics that help small business owners and entrepreneurs boost their social media engagement on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.