Fighting Back: Dealing with Negative Reviews and Social Media Bullies

It’s like in A Christmas Story when Ralphie has finally had enough and kicks Scott Farkus’ ass.  Sometimes you are justified in throwing a punch.  Most times you should exercise restraint and seek other action.  Here’s what to do and when to do it when faced with the prospect of negative reviews and internet bullies.

Cool Stories

In the past six months we have seen some widely circulated instances of bar and restaurant owners fighting back against social media bullies and we like it.  Anyone who has found themselves in a similar situation will find these reactions deeply satisfying.  Here are my three favorite, with links if you’re not familiar.

  • In October the owners of Voltaire in Kansas City, MO fired back a brilliant response to Sonal B on Yelp.  She wanted takeout, a service the restaurant does not provide and made good on a threat to post a negative review if they didn’t acquiesce. Read More>>
  • In December Ran Duan of Sichuan Garden in Woburn, MA stuck to his guns as Harvard Professor Ben Edelmen thoroughly embarrassed himself and that institution with a series of threats and demands stemming from a $4 overcharge on a takeout order. Read More>>
  • Just over a month ago Chef Michael Scelfo at Alden & Harlow posted a photo to Instagram of two customers who had seated themselves on a busy night, mistreated staff and threatened poor reviews on Yelp if removed.  Read More>> 

What’s Going On

Social media reviews and the sites where they can be found are a source of near constant anxiety for many of us in the food and beverage industry.  Criticisms of your operation can be like hearing from a teacher that your kid is stupid.  “Yeah, maybe, but, that’s my kid.”  

Poor operations are justifiably slammed on the internet.  At the same time, good operations that strive to provide consistently excellent goods and services can sometimes receive the same harsh treatment, often from what we perceive to be unfair reviewers.  In extreme cases, similar to the ones above, customers threaten to use this power to get what they want when they want it, regardless of the reasonableness of the request.  Why?

There is a contract between a service consumer and a service provider within which the provider delivers a package of goods and services in exchange for some compensation from the purchaser.  The ability to choose providers makes the customer powerful in this relationship.  A second contract exists between the two parties, one most appropriately described as an implied social contract.  This contract holds that the parties engaged in the service transaction will deal with each other respectfully and in good faith.  This implied contract has always been violated by some customers, many of whom overestimate their transactional power (“I’m a regular,” “I spend a lot of money in here,” “I know the owner.”).  Today, this overestimation of importance and power is felt by many more customers and much more deeply because of social media.

What’s Not Going On

Everyone seems to think that Yelp is the problem.  This seems not to be the case.  Anecdotal evidence from all over notwithstanding, every shred of objective evidence, from court cases to independent University research, indicates that Yelp is not deleting your positive reviews or writing negative reviews in an effort to get you to advertise with them.

Unconvinced?  Look up some of the best bars and restaurants in your area on Yelp.  That’s what I did.  I suspect that you will find what I found – that the very best operations in your area have very good Yelp reviews, that your impression of them is matched by their Yelp rating.

The frustration with Yelp stems from the inability for any of us to explain how it works.  Yelp itself claims that reviews are filtered through a complex algorithm that accepts some reviews and rejects others.  They won’t tell anyone how it works.  When looking at your reviews, the distinction seems arbitrary and so our mind assigns a simple reason to what we can’t understand – Yelp cheats.

I saw Jon Taffer give a presentation at last year’s Nightclub & Bar Convention and Trade Show.  He encouraged operators to stop blaming the weather, the economy, the government for their problems and instead take action to make things better.  Stop blaming Yelp.  It is what it is and people like it and use it.  Instead, take some action that makes things better for you.

What to Do – Evaluate and Recover

  • Check your reviews – Your Yelp reviews are important and you worry about them.  Review them on a regular basis to determine which ones require action and which ones don’t.  Some reviews may be retaliatory and in some cases you can let Yelp know.  Common themes can also be a clue that you may have a real problem.
  • Check yourself – For some of us it can be difficult not to be defensive when someone criticizes something that we take so personally.  For others it can be difficult to not be reactionary and change everything when someone is critical.  It is crucial that you be as objective as possible when looking over criticisms of your operation.  You should feed them through your own filter and determine if they are valid and require action.  If commenting on a review, don’t be retaliatory or defensive but don’t apologize if one is not warranted.
  • Say thank you – You should acknowledge that you appreciate positive feedback by saying thank you…just like you would in person.  You may choose to do so privately so that it doesn’t look to users like you solicited the positive feedback.
  • Recover bad experiences – Statistics indicate that only 4% of customers complain after a bad experience.  This number more than triples on social media.  While it is best to fix problems immediately, social media gives you an opportunity to fix many more that you didn’t know about in the present.  Take social media complaints as an opportunity to fix what may have been less than successful encounters. Let your dissatisfied customers know that their satisfaction is important to you.  Invite them back with an incentive to return.  Do this publicly to let all users know that you care about your guests.  Statistics show that dissatisfied customers who are recovered became enthusiastic fans.  Many will change their negative review to a positive one as the result of your efforts.
  • Encourage your customers to review - This is a little controversial.  Yelp discourages businesses from “buying” good reviews.  Screw Yelp.  It’s your business and its success is critical.  In general 3 times more people share a bad experience than share a good one.  You should do what you can to encourage your customers to share their experiences.  You know more of them have good ones, so the more they share the better you look.

What to do – Retaliate

In some cases you should stand up for yourself or even retaliate.  That’s what the operators did in the three instances above and they came out better for it.  This can be a very dangerous proposition for your business if the circumstances are not exactly right.  The operators above were dealing with customers making outrageous demands including providing a service they didn’t provide and refunding “treble damages” as punishment for a transgression.  Two of the three complainants were lawyers – enough said.  The operators handled the complaints delicately and simply let their customers dig themselves deep holes.  None of the complaints was about unsatisfactory service, food or drink.  Before you decide to go nuclear on a customer, be sure the situation is similarly extreme and your reaction is similarly warranted.  Or, at least make sure you are going off on a lawyer!


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