Dallas Morning News restaurant critic Leslie Brenner is beloved in some foodie circles, reviled in others. Elite Dallas chefs have been known to toss epithets her way while local restaurateurs have gotten creative in their attempts to ice her out of their establishments. Her transgression? Her alleged arbitrary use of the Morning News’ star ranking system, as well as hotly disputed reviews.
Stars mean money and when a restaurant loses one, the vitriol can reach a fever pitch.
Companies around the world struggle over how best to respond to negative customer reviews. Of course, these struggles rarely reach the tenor of the barbed media exchanges that have volleyed between Ms. Brenner and the restaurateurs over the past few months.
Small businesses and restaurants are particularly vulnerable, though, to the repercussions of negative reviews.
The Good News?
Businesses can harness the power of positive customer reviews, learn to deftly handle the negative ones, and build star-laden online reputations. 72% of Consumers Value Online Reviews and Personal Recommendations EquallyOnline reviews make or break reputations.
Surveys conducted by Search Engine Land, a leading search marketing company, indicate 58% of consumers will trust a local business after reading positive online reviews, while 72% of people value online and personal testimonials equally. Personal recommendations or warnings may get spread within groups of friends and eventually be forgotten.
Online reviews have the potential to stick around for years, influencing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of consumers.
Negative Reviews Torpedo Search Engine Rankings; Positive One’s Jettison Businesses to the Top
The general sentiment of each review figures into local search engine algorithms, impacting where a business falls on a search results list. Negative reviews, earned or not, cripple a company’s page ranking. So does a dearth of reviews.
A low star ranking, in the case of the angry Dallas restaurants, loses business travelers and vacationers and considerably detracts from a restaurant’s prestige. Some of the Dallas restaurants have had to answer to concerned customers who wonder what happened to drop the star rating. Should they still frequent a restaurant that lost a star or two, they wonder? In short, a low star count means less profit, fewer invitations to panels and festivals, and less national exposure.
Can Businesses Sue Critics for Libel or Damages?
“Absolutely, but it’s rarely a smart move” says Lynn Ross, LegalShield Provider Attorney – Texas, who has seen only a handful of successful libel or slander cases in 46 years of practice. “When businesses are in a dispute and one publishes critical remarks about the other, they could sue the writer if they can prove she lied about them, causing actual damages. But there are no guarantees.
Businesses run the risk of calling so much more attention to the issue, they may find their efforts to right a wrong acting as a platform for their detractor’s words. No one wants that kind of attention.”
Proactive Businesses Take Control
A Harvard Business School study found that a company’s profitability increased by 9% for each additional star included in its Yelp page. So, what might concerned businesses do to protect their reputations?
1. Designate a Testimonials Page
Designate an online space for customer testimonials. This demonstrates respect and concern for the customer experience. Many companies believe their best advertising comes in the form of happy customers singing their praises. This move may also afford the opportunity to rectify negative situations before they reach the broader web.
Businesses might also incorporate customer reviews into blog posts as a way to keep content fresh and a sense of dialogue rolling. Customers generally like to see their opinions featured and shared. Online conversations between businesses and the public foster a sense of community that contributes to customer loyalty and satisfaction.
2. Register with Social Media Review Sites
Create a Yelp business owner account to further open a dialogue with customers, and then request their reviews. Claim your business on review sites like Insiderpages or Google Places, too. A greater volume of reviews acts as a catalyst that vaults companies up the search engine results page. Positive reviews sweet-talk new customers through the doors.
3. Launch an Email Marketing Campaign
Consider launching an email marketing campaign to encourage customers to provide critiques. Personally encourage the loyalists, especially the ones effusive with their praise, to participate. Positive reviews dilute the potency of negative ones. Weekly or monthly newsletters should feature a call to action as well.
“But be careful when asking customers to review your business online. Never give the impression you are seeking positive testimonials in return for tangible benefits. Such action can easily violate FTC regulations regarding testimonials and endorsements,” says Ross.
“In general, endorsements must reflect the honest opinion of the endorser or reflect actual experiences, may not be deceptive and must disclose any material connection between the endorser and the merchant.”
4. Publicly Answer Critics with Refunds
Potential and current customers alike tend to respect a responsive team that validates concerns and understands the customer’s point of view. Respond to online criticisms early and consider making those responses more powerful by backing them with a refund of the customer’s money as part of the reconciliation process. It does not matter who is right or wrong in most scenarios. Consider critic silencing a part of the marketing budget, take a deep breath, and pony up.
The Dallas restaurateurs were so set on keeping Ms. Brenner out of their establishments they banded together, emboldened by the actions of Proof + Pantry in early October 2014. Proof + Pantry presented her group a tab for $0. If the restaurants refuse to charge Ms. Brenner, providing her gratis meals, it erodes her credibility and impartiality, rendering her unable to ethically write anonymous reviews of their establishments, per the Dallas Morning News’ review policy.
That’s exactly what the restaurants were counting on. They had a game plan. Ms. Brenner battled back, donning a mummy costume on Halloween later that month, in order to return to Proof + Pantry anonymously and conduct her second review.
The saga continues to play out on social media, with the latest installment happening on the Eats Blog, where Ms. Brenner recently attempted to make nice and unruffle feathers.
Critics will always find a way, right or wrong. Companies can’t ban them or fine them or sue them, and they should never ignore them. Everyone understands that business and social media platforms will necessarily include a percentage of naysayers. Savvy businesses will provide them a platform and engage in civil dialogues when appropriate, understanding that professionalism and good listening will earn the coveted stars in the end.
“The key here is not to get defensive or punitive. There will be naysayers and there will be the occasional customer with a right to his anger. Learn to distinguish between the two. When your company is honest and professional in its dealings, your words contrast sharply with those of your critics. Sometimes, that contrast is all you need to make your point and build the reputation you want. You have to live it to earn it,” says Claire Terrell, Vice President, Marketing, LegalShield Business Solutions.