A Small Business Owner's Guide to Bad Reviews: Why Do People Write Them and How Do You Respond?

According to a 2019 article by Inc. Magazine, 84% of people trust online reviews as much as they trust reviews from friends. As a result, these online reviews are a crucial piece of your small business marketing.

While a positive review can boost sales, a negative one can tank them. That is, if you don't know the right way to respond to negative reviews. With the right response, you can minimize the damage, and even turn bad reviews into an opportunity.

Why Reviews Are So Important for Small Business Marketing

Different marketing methods have different strengths. One of the key distinctions is between mass advertising, such as print or television ads, and word-of-mouth recommendations, which include online reviews. Each method has a particular value.

Mass media channels excel at building awareness. In other words, they are useful as a way to get your name out to potential customers who may not be aware of you.

However, building name recognition is only the first step toward a sale. According to the hierarchy of effects theory, customers have to go through many stages between seeing an ad and making the decision to buy. Other methods may be more useful at later stages.

It's a similar idea to the sales funnel. The hierarchy of effects theory focuses on what's going on in people's heads, as opposed to on your website.

While mass advertisements reach more people, personal reviewers are better at driving behavior changes or purchase decisions. An ad may show people your company is an option, but a word from their neighbor (or online reviewers) will convince them to buy.

Credibility and the Persuasion Knowledge Model

The key difference between traditional advertising and customer reviews (including bad reviews) is credibility. People will trust reviewers, especially when those reviews come from people who are similar to them.

Customer reviews are more diagnostic, meaning that they convey more credible information than your advertising does. Your ads could be positive because the product really is good, or because you want to sell more products. Customer reviews, on the other hand, are only positive when the product is good.

Over time, people build up defenses against traditional advertising, as the persuasion knowledge model argues. People develop countermeasures against marketing tactics once they recognize them as tactics, in the same way that your immune system develops antibodies.

Customer reviews are more credible because readers do not consider the reviews to be tactics (although, given the rise of fake reviews online, maybe they should). So, readers do not need to deploy any countermeasures when they read online reviews.

The People Who Leave Reviews

Beyond credibility, online reviews may be even more valuable based on who tends to leave them. Both diffusion of innovation theory and the effects of weak ties show how important these reviews can be.

New products and ideas spread through segments of a population at different rates. Diffusion of innovation theory emerged in the 1960s to explain how it happens.

Innovators (2.5% of the population) pick it up first. The early adopters (13.5%) follow, then the early majority (34%), the late majority (34%), and finally the laggards (16%). You need a different appeal to reach each group.

Innovators and early adopters pick up new products first and they are some of the people who leave early online reviews. These reviews are a signal for the early and late majorities that a product is worth buying. Thus, this evidence is crucial for your product or service to spread.

The power of weak ties is an idea that explains how social groups are linked together. Typically, two groups of people will be linked by a single connection, which is the weak tie. These people serve as the bridges between the two groups.

These bridge people are social hubs: they are connected to a lot of people. Furthermore, they are the sort of gregarious people who leave reviews and, more importantly, will then talk about those reviews with their social circle.

In other words, a reviewer can introduce your product in real life to a large group of people that may be outside your typical customer base. They represent opportunities for expansion.

Of course, to enjoy these benefits, you have to make sure potential reviewers can review you first.

Responding to Bad Reviews

Good reviews pretty much take care of themselves. Maybe you thank the person for their time and kind words, but for the most part, you can just leave them alone if you don't want to interact.

Bad reviews, on the other hand, require some response from you. Otherwise, those signals from the early adopters and the social hubs will drive other potential customers away. The right response can help minimize any damage, and might even help you.

The Biggest Rule: Never Delete Reviews

If you only remember one piece of advice from this article, make it this one: never delete bad reviews.


You can remove offensive posts, or comments that include profanity, but you can never remove a post just because it speaks negatively about your business.

Freedom of speech is the paramount virtue of the internet, so any attempts at censorship will just bring in more negative reviews. The theory of psychological reactance explains why.

Psychological reactance suggests that when people think their freedom is being limited (for instance, their freedom to leave or read honest reviews), they react by asserting that freedom. So, if you stop them from posting reviews, they will leave more.

Furthermore, the act of censoring the reviews only draws more attention to them.

In online circles, it's known as the Streisand Effect. In 2003, Barbara Streisand filed a lawsuit to remove photos taken of her home as part of the California Coastal Records Project from the internet.

Before she filed the lawsuit, the photos had been downloaded only six times. In the month following the lawsuit, more than 420,000 people visited the site. The act of censoring the photos made people aware of them.

So, never delete your bad reviews. It will only make things worse.

Be Personal and Be Accommodating

Now you know what not to do, but that doesn't really answer what you should do.

If you choose to respond to negative reviews, it's important not to use a canned or template response. That will seem condescending and insincere.

Instead, address the reviewer by name and mention their particular problem. That shows you are paying attention to their specific needs, and that customer service is a genuine priority for you.

Next, offer a concrete solution to their problem. That can be a refund or a change in your company's processes. Whatever it is, make it clear that your company is taking steps to ensure a similar problem won't happen again.

How accommodating your response should be depends on how the reviewer, and your other customers, attributes responsibility for this problem. Is the problem a result of your actions or outside forces? And is it a longstanding problem, or the result of temporary circumstances?

If your actions caused the problem, and your business has a history of such problems, you will need to provide a more generous response.

Move the Conversation Offline

You want to provide enough information in your response to the review that other visitors to the site can see you take the criticism seriously and that you are committed to correcting the problem.

After that, you will want to move the discussion to a more private channel so you can help the reviewer. The best way to do that is to provide a concrete contact they can reach out to. Do not just direct them to your contact form.

Never Get Emotional

It's important to remember that bad reviews are not personal. This customer had a bad experience, but they are not attacking you. Looking at bad reviews as a chance to improve will help take the sting out of them.

Even if a reviewer is aggressive in their criticism, responding in kind will only escalate the situation further. The best approach is to be professional, respectful, and accommodating.

Ask for Updates

While negative reviews can definitely hurt you in the short-term, in the long run, they can be a chance to boost the image of your business.

Remember the points on credibility from above? They apply here as well. If you can get a customer to reverse their previous negative review, that is a credible sign that their new review is the truth.

The concept is called reluctant testimony: other readers will be sure the information did not come from a biased source.

That is why you should always ask the person who left the original comment to update it later, once they are satisfied with the outcome of course. They may become even more fervent advocates for your company afterward.

Protect the Reputation of Your Business

Hopefully, by now you realize how important it is to track mentions of your business online. User reviews are one of the most crucial pieces of small business marketing, and with effective monitoring, you can respond to any negative reviews in real-time.

For help with your marketing strategy, including social media monitoring, browse some of our marketing services, especially our directory listing management service, which helps you take control of your listings and never miss a review.

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