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When Customers Give You Lemons: The Bright Side of Negative Reviews

Once upon a time, I managed the kitchen of a busy bakery in a big city. I took my job very seriously, was never late for my 2AM shifts, and often found myself pouring over our online reviews shortly before collapsing on a pile of flour-coated chef coats that my sleep-deprived brain mistook for my bed. I think I actually cried over one particularly nasty comment left by a particularly disgruntled customer. The truth is, that most people who leave online reviews are of the predominantly unhappy sort. This is simply human behavior 101: studies have shown that people who have negative experiences recount said incident to an average of ten people, while those with positive experiences tell an average of three.

Like it or not, online reviews matter: today more than ever before. Yelp recently conducted a survey that showed that a rating improvement by a mere half of a star (from a 3 to a 3.5) could result in a 19% increase in reservations. Another study shows that when making a decision, 70% of consumers are just as likely to trust an online review, as they are to trust the word of a close friend. For restaurant owners and managers, this is exceptionally frustrating, because any old schmuck with no formal experience and a bad attitude can post an ugly review about your restaurant, and millions will blindly take him at his word.

As frustrating and as negative people and negative reviews can be, they are a fixture of human experience and will always be a part of our reality. So what is the best way to deal with them?

  1. Pay attention: Set up a Google alert for your restaurant’s name. This way you will always know what is being said about your business and you will be able to contribute to the conversation, rather than react later.
  2. Respond publically: If someone leaves a negative comment about your restaurant in a public forum, your first move should be to respond in line. But watch your tone. Do not respond angrily, defensively, or aggressively. Instead, humbly acknowledge your shortcomings and promise to do better. It may seem petty to respond, but it shows your customers that you care, that you are involved, and that you are committed to improving.
  3. Respond privately: It is always a good idea to send a personal apology to the offended customer. Even if you feel in your heart of hearts that they are wrong, the old saying applies: the customer is always right. It never hurts to offer a discount or coupon, and who knows: they might even edit their rating or their review after being treated so kindly.
  4. Evaluate: After you’ve cooled down a bit, re-read the review and find out if there is any truth to it. Do some investigating and determine whether or not you need to make a few changes.
  5. Make Lemonade: Think of online reviews as free (and incredibly harsh) market research. This kind of feedback, whether negative or positive, is an incredibly valuable tool that you can use to shape your restaurant into the successful institution you’ve always hoped it would be.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you take online reviews seriously, or have you quit paying attention? Have you ever gotten a really nasty online review? How did you handle it? Please feel free to leave us a comment below.