The state of online reviews
It is a common behavior for brands to pay for positive online reviews or offer discounts and free goodies, and the same often goes for consumers removing negative comments. Many online review sites have taken extensive steps to attempt to secure valid, untainted reviews so consumers have unfiltered opinions about goods and services, but the system is not perfect, it is subject to offline behavior as well.
According to CBS Sacramento, a restaurant says a customer claimed he got food poisoning from the venue, sought a refund, learned there are no refunds, but was offered a refund in the form of a gift card that could be used at any local restaurant.
In response, the man allegedly threatened to post a horrible review of the restaurant on Yelp unless the restaurant coughed up a $100 gift card. “I’ll be doing a scathing review on you on Yelp… and I’ll report you to the health department. But if you give me a $100 gift card, then I won’t do it.”
The restaurant owner refers to the demand as “flat-out extortion,” and refused to budge. The customer has not received his demanded gift card, nor has he posted the negative review. “I hope this inspires other retail establishments and restaurants to push back on extortion,” he said.
How other small businesses can combat threats
Everyone now knows that they have a voice online and that it is relevant – after all, people trust strangers online as equally as they do their own family members now, and particularly trust online reviews over a brand’s voice. This is empowering and in rare events, the new empowerment has caused people to attempt to abuse their voice in exchange for a payoff.
Public relations expert, and founder of Silver Strategic Communications, Bob Silver said, “This sort of thing is inevitable for any business that engages consumers and encourages social interaction through peer reviews and user generated content. People are going to be people and pricks are going to be pricks.”
Silver added, “These guys handled exactly the right way. Proactively called the bluff of the unhappy customer, made the story public on their own terms and by doing so, set the public perception by being open and willing to engage in the discussion. Everyone’s going to be a critic these days and face it, you’re never going to make everyone happy. So do your best to participate in the public conversation openly, honestly and without being defensive. It may be painful at times, but you’ll benefit in the long run.”
An alternative response
Some will tell you that the customer is always right and that appeasement is the proper route, but Silver asserts that engaging in discussion is the most beneficial in the long run, even though it is difficult.
Christopher Barger, SVP of Global Social Media, Voce Communications/Porter Novelli, and author of The Social Media Strategist suggests three steps.
Barger said, “First, some preventative maintenance: have a presence on relevant networks. Interact with reviewers, both those who love you and those who are negative. Make sure the community gets to know you and trust you. You’ll have a hedge against manufactured negativity if you’ve earned the trust of the community.”
“Second,” he added, “also preventative maintenance: Develop your own “owned” presence online. Make it a blog or something outside of Facebook’s walled garden, something that will show up in search. You need a place to tell your story in your own words. But you can’t just start it up when you have a problem, you have to be out there before there is an issue.”
“Third: When faced with an extortion situation like this, I’d fight fire with fire,” Barger said. “Tell the story of what’s happening to you on your blog. You might well even name names to make sure that everyone who reads (including other small business owners in your field) knows who this person and what they’re about and what they tried to do. Make sure that you include a line in the post telling readers to feel free to share the link or the story. Tell the story or post the link within Yelp or whatever the network is. Be proactive and make the reviewer’s conduct the story, rather than letting them set the story arc and define the situation for you. This is especially something I would do if I had an email or IM or something in writing that could prove my side of the story.”
The risk and reward of being proactive
Barger notes, “Yes, you’ll risk people thinking that you’re picking on a customer or using a bully pulpit. But I’ve found that most bloggers and online reviewers have an innate sense of fairness, and this kind of a story will disappoint and anger them as much as it does you. Additionally, in my experience, bloggers and reviewers realize that brand bullying, when it happens, paints the entire online community by association, gives them all a bad name, and lessens the likelihood that businesses will be willing to work with anyone online or reach out to any of them in the future.”
“Many of them will quickly shun or disown the bad apple out of their own self-interest,” Barger added. “And whether the person ends up posting or not, you will have cast enough doubt on their story by going out first that the bite of their negative review might be lessened.”