“When you forgive, you in no way change the past — but you sure do change the future.” — Bernard Meltzer
Your brand inhabits a challenging world in which its consumers’ words make up the bulk of your reputation. Negative reviews can feel like the ultimate revenge, punishing dissatisfactory experiences with public shaming, eroded local rankings, and attendant revenue loss. Some business owners become so worried about negative reviews, they head to fora asking if there is any way to opt-out and even querying whether they should simply remove their business listings altogether rather than face the discordant music.
But hang in there. Local business customers may be more forgiving than you think. In fact, your customers may think differently than you might think.
I’ve just completed a study of consumer behavior as it relates to negative reviews becoming positive ones and I believe this blog post will hold some very welcome surprises for concerned local business owners and their marketers — I know that some of what I learned both surprised and delighted me. In fact, it’s convinced me that, in case after case, negative reviews aren’t what we might think they are at all.
Let’s study this together, with real-world examples, data, a poll, and takeaways that could transform your outlook.
Stats to start with
Your company winds up with a negative review, and the possibility of a permanently lost customer. Marketing wisdom tells us that it’s more costly to acquire a new customer than to keep an existing one happy. But it’s actually more far-reaching. The following list of stats tells the story of why you want to do anything you can to get the customer to edit a bad review to reflect more positive sentiment:
- 57 percent of consumers will only use a business if it has four or more stars — (BrightLocal)
- One study showed that ~1.5-star rating increase improved conversions from 10.4 percent to 12.8 percent, representing about 13,000 more leads for the brand. — (Location3)
- 73.8 percent of customers are either likely or extremely likely to continue doing business with a brand that resolves their complaints. — (GatherUp)
- A typical business only hears from four percent of its dissatisfied customers, meaning that the negative reviews you rectify for outspoken people could solve problems for silent ones. — (Ruby Newell-Lerner)
- 89 percent of consumers read businesses’ responses to reviews. — (BrightLocal)
The impact of ratings, reviews, and responses are so clear that every local brand needs to devote resources to better understanding this scenario of sentiment and customer retention.
People power: One reason consumers love reviews
The Better Business Bureau was founded in 1912. The Federal Trade Commission made its debut just two years later. Consumer protections are deemed a necessity, but until the internet put the potential of mass reviews directly into individuals hands, the “little guy” often felt he lacked a truly audible voice when the “big guy” (business) didn’t do right by him.
You can see how local business review platforms have become a bully pulpit, empowering everyday people to make their feelings known to a large audience. And, you can see from reviews, like the one below, the relish with which some consumers embrace that power:
Here, a customer is boasting the belief that they outwitted an entity which would otherwise have defrauded them, if not for the influence of a review platform. That’s our first impression. But if we look a little closer, what we’re really seeing here is that the platform is a communications tool between consumer and brand. The reviewer is saying:
“The business has to do right by me if I put this on Yelp!”
What they’re communicating isn’t nice, and may well be untrue, but it is certainly a message they want to be amplified.
And this is where things get interesting.
Brand power: Full of surprises!
This month, I created a spreadsheet to organize data I was collecting about negative reviews being transformed into positive ones. I searched Yelp for the phrase “edited my review” in cities in every region of the United States and quickly amassed 50 examples for in-depth analysis. In the process, I discovered three pieces of information that could be relevant to your brand.
Surprise #1: Many consumers think of their reviews as living documents
In this first example, we see a customer who left a review after having trouble making an appointment and promising to update their content once they’d experienced actual service. As I combed through consumer sentiment, I was enlightened to discover that many people treat reviews as live objects, updating them over time to reflect evolving experiences. How far do reviewers go with this approach? Just look:
In the above example, the customer has handled their review in four separate updates spanning several days. If you look at the stars, they went from high to low to high again. It’s akin to live updates from a sporting event, and that honestly surprised me to see.
Brands should see this as good news because it means an initial negative review doesn’t have to be set in stone.
Surprise #2: Consumers can be incredibly forgiving
“What really defines you is how you handle the situation after you realize you made a mistake.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself, and this edited review typifies for me the reasonableness I saw in case after case. Far from being the scary, irrational customers that business owners dread, it’s clear that many people have the basic understanding that mistakes can happen… and can be rectified. I even saw people forgiving auto dealerships for damaging their cars, once things had been made right.
Surprise #3: Consumers can be self-correcting.
The customer apparently isn’t “always right,” and some of them know it. I saw several instances of customers editing their reviews after realizing that they were the ones who made a mistake. For example, one rather long review saga contained this:
“I didn’t realize they had an hourly option so my initial review was 3 stars. However, after the company letting me know they’d be happy to modify my charges since I overlooked the hourly option, it was only fair to edit my review. I thought that was really nice of them. 5 stars and will be using them again in the future.”
When a customer has initially misunderstood a policy or offering and the business in question takes the time to clarify things, fair-minded individuals can feel honor-bound to update their reviews. Many updated reviews contained phrases like “in good conscience” and “in all fairness.”
Overall, in studying this group of reviewers, I found them to be reasonable people, meaning that your brand has (surprising) significant power to work with dissatisfied customers to win back their respect and their business.
How negative reviews become positive: Identifying winning patterns
In my case study, the dominant, overall pattern of negative reviews being transformed into positive ones consisted of these three Rs:
- Reach — the customer reaches out with their negative experience, often knowing that, in this day and age, powerful review platforms are a way to reach brands.
- Remedy — Some type of fix occurs, whether this results from intervention on the part of the brand, a second positive experience outweighing an initial negative one, or the consumer self-correcting their own misunderstanding.
- Restoration — The unhappy customer is restored to the business as a happy one, hopefully, ready to trust the brand for future transactions, and the reputation of the brand is restored by an edited review reflecting better satisfaction.
Now, let’s bucket this general pattern into smaller segments for a more nuanced understanding. Note: There is an overlap in the following information, as some customers experienced multiple positive elements that convinced them to update their reviews.
Key to review transformation:
- 70 percent mentioned poor service/rude service rectified by a second experience in which staff demonstrated caring.
- 64 percent mentioned the owner/manager/staff proactively, directly reached out to the customer with a remedy.
- 32 percent mentioned item replaced or job re-done for free.
- 20 percent mentioned customer decided to give a business a second chance on their own and was better-pleased by a second experience.
- 6 percent mentioned customer realized the fault for a misunderstanding was theirs.
From this data, two insights become clear and belong at the core of your reputation strategy:
Poor and rude service seriously fuel negative reviews
This correlates well with the findings of an earlier GatherUp study demonstrating that 57 percent of consumer complaints revolve around customer service and employee behavior. It’s critical to realize that nearly three-quarters of these disasters could be turned around with subsequent excellent service. As one customer in my study phrased it:
“X has since gone above and beyond to resolve the issue and make me feel like they cared.”
Proactive outreach is your negative review repair kit
Well over half of the subjects in my study specifically mentioned that the business had reached out to them in some way. I suspect many instances of such outreach went undocumented in the review updates, so the number may actually be much higher than represented.
Outreach can happen in a variety of ways:
- The business may recognize who the customer is and have their name and number on file due to a contract.
- The business may not know who the customer is but can provide an owner response to the review that includes the company’s contact information and an earnest request to get in touch.
- The business can DM the customer if the negative review is on Yelp.
You’re being given a second chance if you get the customer’s ear a second time. It’s then up to your brand to do everything you can to change their opinion. Here’s one customer’s description of how far a local business was willing to go to get back into his good graces:
“X made every effort to make up for the failed programming and the lack of customer service the night before. My sales rep, his manager and even the finance rep reached out by phone, text and email. I was actually in meetings all morning, watching my phone buzz with what turned out to be their calls, as they attempted to find out what they could do to make amends. Mark came over on my lunch break, fixed/reprogrammed the remote and even comped me a free tank of gas for my next fill up. I appreciated his sincere apologies and wanted to update/revise my review as a token of my appreciation.”
What a great example of dedication to earning forgiveness!
Should you actively ask restored customers to edit their negative reviews?
I confess — this setup makes me a bit nervous. I took Twitter poll to gauge sentiment among my followers:
Respondents showed strong support for asking a customer who has been restored to happiness to edit their review. However, I would add a few provisos.
Firstly, not one of the subjects in my study mentioned that the business requested they update their review. Perhaps it went undocumented, but there was absolutely zero suggestion that restored customers had been prompted to re-review the business.
Secondly, I would want to be 100 percent certain that the customer is, indeed, delighted again. Otherwise, you could end up with something truly awful on your review profile, like this:
Suffice it to say, never demand an edited review, and certainly don’t use one as blackmail!
With a nod to the Twitter poll, I think it might be alright to mention you’d appreciate an updated review. I’d be extremely choosy about how you word your request so as not to make the customer feel obligated in any way. And I’d only do so if the customer was truly, sincerely restored to a sense of trust and well-being by the brand.
So what are negative reviews, really?
In so many cases, negative reviews are neither punishment nor the end of the road.
They are, in fact, a form of customer outreach that’s often akin to a cry for help.
Someone trusted your business and was disappointed. Your brand needs to equip itself to ride to the rescue. I was struck by how many reviewers said they felt uncared-for, and impressed by how business owners like this one completely turned things around:
In this light, review platforms are simply a communications medium hosting back-and-forth between customer people and business people. Communicate with a rescue plan and your reputation can “sparkle like diamonds”, too.
I want to close by mentioning how evident it was to me, upon completing this study, that reviewers take their task seriously. The average word count of the Yelp reviews I surveyed was about 250 words. If half of the 12,584 words I examined expressed disappointment, your brand is empowered to make the other half express forgiveness for mistakes and restoration of trust.
It could well be that the industry term “negative” review is misleading, causing unnecessary fear for local brands and their marketers. What if, instead, we thought of this influential content as “reviews-in-progress,” with the potential for transformation charting the mastery of your brand at customer service.
The short road is that you prevent negative experiences by doubling down on staff hiring and training practices that leave people with nothing to complain about in the entire customer service ecosystem. But re-dubbing online records of inevitable mistakes as “reviews-in-progress” simply means treading a slightly longer road to reputation, retention, and revenue. If your local brand is in business for the long haul, you’ve got this!