Online Reviews: A Window Into the Truth About Your Company

Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay

Since beginning my new role as a customer service and experience leader, I’ve gained a bit of new experience. I, along with my team, am now responsible for monitoring our activity on review sites like Yelp, TrustPilot, SiteJabber, and others. I guess I’ve known for a while that these were channels where customers could say what they think about a company, and I’ve certainly left my fair share of reviews as a customer. But I had never been the one tasked with reading and responding on behalf of the company — until now.

Having responded to a handful of these over the past several months, I’ve observed a few things:

  • Customers frequently turn to review sites to get a company’s attention, oftentimes posting while they still have an open support case.
  • Business owners love positive reviews and loathe negative ones.
  • Even though it’s often just one customer, the sense is that we need to drop everything to make it right because these are posted in a public-facing forum.

Keep these insights in mind as I share a recent experience I had that highlights the power of a negative review.

An odd experience purchasing windows

Since purchasing our home a couple of years ago, we’ve undertaken a steady diet of home improvement projects — some tackled on our own, and some with the help of contractors. I recently got a couple of bids to replace our 50-year-old, aluminum windows. These windows rattled so badly that it was difficult to differentiate between a passing car, a gentle breeze, and a 6.0 earthquake. Needless to say, it was time to replace them.

The first bid came from a fairly large window company in our area. Paul the sales guy (not his real name) came out to give us a quote. In general, we liked him. He was friendly, helpful, did a great job of going over our options, and presented us with a timely quote. 

During the sales process, however, Paul invited us out to his car to see the different models of windows that the company sells. It was at that moment that my neighbor, seeing the company name on his car, invited himself into the conversation. Here’s about how the conversation went:

Neighbor: “Hey man, you work for X window company?”
Paul: “Yeah that’s right.”
Neighbor: “I just wanted to come over and tell you that your customer service sucks. You did my windows and I had a terrible experience.”
Paul: “Oh I’m very sorry to…”
Neighbor: “Save it. I don’t want to hear your explanation.”

My neighbor walked off and Paul did his best to stay professional and finish his pitch. And I did my best to try and make sense of what had just happened.

My neighbor later came by and apologized for his behavior but also shared that, when something went wrong with one of his windows, he was given the runaround by both the window company and the manufacturer — neither wanting to take ownership of his issue. So his response was to tell everyone looking to purchase new windows not to make the same mistake he did.

And what was my response? I looked up the window company on various review sites, and while there was plenty of positive feedback, I found myself looking for reviews that aligned with my neighbor’s experience. It wasn’t terribly hard to find what I was looking for. Damage done.

Back to review sites

This whole encounter with my neighbor and the sales guy, though in person as opposed to online, felt very much like I was witnessing a live, in-person Yelp review. And it was a great insight into just how powerful and damaging they can be. There’s good reason business owners have such disdain for negative reviews.

Having been on the receiving end of these reviews, and knowing how these can cause me to sweat, I want to share a handful of tips for others in a similar situation on how to best handle negative reviews. Here they are:

  1. It’s not a matter of if, but when, you’ll receive a negative review – If you’re in business, you are going to receive negative reviews. Accept that as fact and let’s talk about how to best handle them.
  2. Look for every nugget of truth you can find – Given the damage a negative review can do to a business, the kneejerk response is to call the customer an idiot. And sure some customers are unreasonable, but is there any ounce of truth, any sort of lesson, or any possible thing you could have done better? Those opportunities for improvement are critical. Don’t miss them just because a customer hurt your feelings.
  3. Attempt to resolve the issue privately – In almost every case of a negative review, the customer made some contact with our support team. In some cases, they received an answer they weren’t happy with and immediately turned to a review site. In others, their case was still open and they were posting publicly to hopefully receive an expedited response. Regardless, do your very best to take care of that customer through private channels first before posting a response publicly.
  4. Acknowledge the presence of a negative review – This will be a point of contention with various customer support folks, but I’ve found that it’s perfectly acceptable to acknowledge the presence of the negative review when contacting a customer. I typically say, “I recently read your online review and wanted to reach out right away to see if I can help…” 
  5. But don’t ask a customer to change their review – If you’ve responded and resolved the customer’s issue to the best of your ability, they may feel compelled to change their review on their own. Stay classy and allow them to make that decision of their own accord.
  6. Always respond publicly – If you were able to resolve the issue privately, circle back publicly to acknowledge and appreciate the customer for allowing you to work with them. If you can’t connect privately or the customer is unwilling to collaborate on a solution, offer to help them publicly. Other customers and potential customers are watching to see how you respond, so respond publicly and constructively. The savvy reader is pretty good at detecting who’s being reasonable and who isn’t.
  7. You may still have a shot at saving the customer so don’t delay – If you respond in an intelligent and timely manner, it’s possible to restore the customer’s faith in your company. It doesn’t always work. You can’t win ‘em all. And frankly, sometimes you deserve a negative review. But sometimes you can turn a customer around and that makes it worth the effort. Be sure to thank that customer both for their feedback and for giving you a chance to make it right.

What about my windows?

Ah yes! My windows. In the end, we chose to hire a different company referred to us by a family member. And while it’s very possible the first company would have done a good job, we somehow felt more confident in the second company because of our connection to someone who had already had a positive experience.

We were not disappointed. Coughlin windows did a terrific job for us from start to finish and we’re so happy with our new windows. On that note, it’s time to go share my positive experience on a review site.

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Jeremy Watkin is Director of Customer Experience and Support at NumberBarn. He has more than 19 years of experience as a customer service and contact center professional leading high performing teams in the contact center. Jeremy has been recognized numerous times as a thought leader for his writing and speaking on a variety of topics including quality management, outsourcing, customer experience, contact center technology, product marketing, social media, and more. When not working you can typically find him spending quality time with his wife Alicia and their three boys, running with his dog, or dreaming of native trout rising for a size 16 elk hair caddis. Be sure to connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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