Strategy for libelous customer reviews

Even if you have thriving, profitable business with repeat customers, the reality is that not all customers are happy.  And when the most maligned customers get angry, you better watch out.  Viscous negative reviews can seriously hurt your business and reputation.  Angry customers disproportionately speak out, and smaller businesses with lower profiles on the internet are particularly vulnerable to such attacks.

Online reviews revolutionized commerce on the internet.  Rating systems on, for example, gave customers a voice in a new way.  As review sites have propagated, the often anonymous reviews on web2.0 sites like Yelp, InsiderPages, Angie’s List, Judy’s Book, and City Search have garnered significant internet traffic.  In some cases, the review sites will rank higher than the business’s own site in search engine results.  Small businesses can no longer ignore review sites. Playing an active role interacting with your online customers and managing your business’s online profile is essential–even if you don’t sell anything online.

As a case study, I took a look at what can be an emotionally charged sector: pets & veterinary care.  When fido get sick, owner gets mad.  For example, let’s look at the somewhere far away: the Boston, Mass area.  A google search for “boston vet” immediately brings up links to customer reviews on the first page of the search results.

For example, South Bay Veterinary has 8 reviews: 6/8 reviewers gave them raving 4 or 5 stars.  2/8 reviewers accused the vet of nearly killing their pet.  Luckily, South Bay has several reviews to balance out these negative comments.

In just two clicks following a google search, a prospective customer for Angell Memorial Animal Hospital would see:

Rated 1.0 out of 5.0 ABSOLUTELY DEPLORABLE!Aug 14, 2007
My experience here could not have been worse. I would recommend that anyone considering taking their beloved pet to this “laboratory” seriously reconsider.
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Rated 1.0 out of 5.0 Liposuction for your walletMay 4, 2007
This place caused me more grief and frustration than I can describe. Their motto should be “kindness and caring for animals”…but cruelty to pet owners.
Was this review helpful? YesNo
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As a business owner, it make sense to engage with these angry customers in a constructive way to minimize the damage to your reputation.  Small businesses may even be able to seek remedies directly with their customers in these cases.  Additionally, if your site is difficult to find or not well listed, your less motivated and generally satistified customers will be less likely to find your listing and pass along their positive experience.  Businesses need to make it easier for good customers to review–without forging reviews or other ethical transgressions.  In the “Boston Vet” example, businesses with 3 – 5 reviews were far more vulnerable to a single viscious review than sites with 20 or 30 reviews.  And the larger number of reviews doesn’t necessarily correlate with the size of the business.  Regardless of your approach, your business needs to have a strategy to deal with your online customers and maintain a positive web image.

The message is that your customers have a voice.  And as more customers turn from the printed yellowpages to the web, you’ll find customer reviews scralled next to today’s web2.0 yellow page listings.

Resources: When Bloggers Attack – lengthy advice column from fortune magazine columnist on how small businesses need to respond.

Five Ways Negative Reviews Help Your Reputation – negative reviews as an “opportunity” not a “problem”

SF Chronicle Article on Reviews – yes, negative reviews can be taken pretty personally.


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