Negative Review? How to Craft the Right Reply to a Complaint

"I'm Sorry" Puppy

Negative reviews and complaints online are, unfortunately, one of the most predictably bothersome side effects of owning a small business in this digital age. But handling them properly starts with approaching the situation calmly and putting everything into context. For starters, be selective about which complaints or reviews warrant a response because sometimes it’s better to not respond at all. Does the review rely on inappropriate language or personal accusations to get the point across? Nasty, to be sure, but it’s not worth drawing more attention to someone who’s clearly just trying to pick a fight.

But if a negative review or complaint clearly cites specific details about an unsatisfactory experience with a product or customer service issue, it could be a golden opportunity in disguise. Why? You’ve just been handed a virtual podium, microphone and spotlight – what you do and say next can have a big impact! Stick to this basic formula when replying to negative reviews and complaints, and your chances of converting a jilted customer into a customer for life may increase dramatically.

1.       Introduce yourself. Taking ownership and responsibility can inspire a vote of confidence to anyone who may read your reply, so make sure you do so right off the bat. Use your real name and your position in the company (whether you’re the owner, manager, or sales assistant), and speak in the first person (“I”) to set the stage for a transparent, authentic reply.

Example: “Hi [reviewer’s name], I’m Jill and I’m the owner of Boho Bistro.”

2.       Stick with an apologetic tone. Look – mistakes happen, so there’s no need to be defensive to the point of being argumentative. Nor is this the time or place to accuse your customer of being someone they’re not, like a competitor or ex-employee with a grudge. Instead, treat this negative review or complaint as genuine, and start off by apologizing and acknowledging the customer’s incident.

Example: “I’m sorry you had a poor experience – what you described is certainly not up to the standards we have here at Boho Bistro.”

3.       Address a specific detail from the negative review or complaint. One of the factors that makes upset consumers rant online is that they want to be heard, plain and simple. So make sure you’re letting them know they’re coming in loud and clear. If you have an explanation or reason for a lackluster product or customer service experience, speak your piece (but remember to be apologetic). If this is a new issue, let the customer know how valuable their feedback is and that you’re taking steps to make sure the problem doesn’t happen again (you may want to outline the steps, too!).  And if there is just flat-out misinformation in the complaint, politely state the facts without sounding smug.

Example: “Waiting 40 minutes for a table is unacceptable at our establishment, so we are currently hiring more staff to ensure the kind of prompt service we strive for.”

4.       Focus on looking forward. Extend a sincere, personal offer to fix the situation. Offering to tend to the reviewer personally the next time they come in is a great way to show how you’re willing to go the extra step for your customers – and it might even result in them coming back! Then encourage the reviewer to contact you (personally) offline, which will help keep the negative review or complaint from getting more attention from both consumers and search engines.

Example: “I’d love an opportunity to show you what the Boho Bistro experience is truly like, so please and ask for me personally the next time you call or come in so I can serve you.”

5.        Check for clear, plain, correct language. Before you hit “post,” get another pair of eyes to re-read what you’ve written to make sure you’re coming across as an articulate professional. Typos happen (especially with digital media) but you want to be extra careful that your grammar and spelling are flawless now that your words are under a microscope.

Remember:when it comes to replying to a negative review or complaint online, you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. So keep your chin up and your smile wide when it’s your turn to speak on behalf of your small business.

Have you discovered any other tips or tactics that have diffused a negative review or complaint against your company? Share your experience by leaving a comment.

Angela Epley writes about online advertising, web presence, and digital retention for the ReachLocal blog, which focuses on small business online marketing strategies.


The ReachLocal online marketing blog shares practical tips and advice for those who want to reach local customers online. Learn about online marketing from our in-house experts and thought leaders.

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