It doesn’t matter if your business is an e-commerce or a brick and mortar. A small town operation or a national company. Whatever it may be, odds are that negative rants from customers posted online can be a pesky thorn in your side.

So how should you handle these negative customer reviews?

The answer may not necessarily be what you think. You should pay attention to them, but if you use the wrong strategy in dealing with them, you may just ending up making the situation much worse.

If you contact the website where the negative feedback is published, there’s a good chance you will be dealing with someone like me. I’m a webmaster of a leading consumer review site for credit cards – a place where customers rant about everything from big name banks to local credit unions. And as you can imagine, anything involving credit cards is bound to be bursting with tons of nasty comments.

At one time or another during my career, I’ve also had the pleasure of managing and/or consulting other major review sites including those about doctors, beauty salons, and various products. In a nutshell, I’ve seen countless emails from irate business owners/employees, stewing about what someone has said about them. If you – the business – wants a favorable outcome, take my pointers on how to handle the situation.

DO try and resolve the matter directly with the customer

If you know the identity of the person complaining, then your first line of defense should be to try and make peace with them. Why? Because if you just go whining to the website, you will probably be at their mercy as to whether it comes down (and many larger sites will flat out refuse anyway, without a court order).

Want an extreme example of the customer from hell? There was a very prominent surgeon (regularly on TV and the whole nine) who had a very unhappy customer – he would go to literally every forum and complaint site to spout about his alleged botched operation. Not once, not twice, but over and over. He even created his own websites to share and document his story.

While it’s true some statements made by this person were slanderous, not all of them were. The result? Only some things could be removed through legal channels. To make matters worse, this customer was from another country, which further weakened any legal remedies.

This continued for many months before the doctor realized the only way to solve the problem was to make peace with the patient. While I was not privy to how it was resolved between them, I think both you and I can take a good guess what it entailed.

Fortunately, your scenarios will almost certainly be easier to resolve. It could be as simple as offering the customer a free dinner (if you’re a restaurant), a free oil change and detail (if you’re a car dealership), or a free bonus of airline miles/reward points (if you’re a credit card company). In exchange, politely ask if they can remove (or at least update) the bad comments they wrote.

DON’T try and bully the website where the comments are posted

This is perhaps the #1 worst mistake you can make. I say this for a couple of reasons…

  1. Even if you do think being a bully is the solution, I challenge you to first try being Mr. Nice Guy when contacting the website and expressing your concern. It won’t work everywhere, but you will be surprised just how far some good ol’ honest politeness can get you. I know for myself, I’ve always welcomed such emails and accommodated them as much as I’m able to do.
  2. While legal bullying can cause some to buckle, those who know the law might not throw in the towel. In fact, they may welcome the fight and even publicize it on their website. So ironically, in your attempt to dial down the negative publicity, you may have just made it worse. Also, keep in mind that many states (especially California) have strong anti-SLAPP laws on the books – so proceeding with a lawsuit may backfire.

DO admit mistakes and errors

Recently on CreditCardForum, a customer left a scathing comment on a post I wrote about the USAA credit card. Allegedly, there was some sort of dispute regarding fees. Low and behold, a couple weeks later he asked me to remove his comment. Why? Because he said USAA Member Services had corrected the problem – and more importantly – they admitted it was their mistake, which he really admired.

When you humble yourself and admit wrongdoing, it’s amazing how quickly people will turn from foe to friend. The Japanese perspective on apologizing is what you should embrace.

DON’T always delegate the problem to someone else

If you own or work for a larger company, you may be tempted to pass the matter off to a minion employee. Sometimes this makes sense, other times it’s better to handle from the top.

On a site I consulted for, there was a woman who felt her hair was “butchered” by a particular salon and she wrote an absolutely awful review of them. This was a major chain of salons (at least several dozen locations) and the president of the company himself made a 5-minute call to her to apologize and make amends. The customer was so impressed that the head honcho himself handled it, she voluntarily edited her post and praised the company for having the president fix her problem.

The lesson? Make the customer feel important! There’s no better way to do that then have a president (or at least a VP) handle things. That 5-minute call he made was probably more effective than anything a low-level employee could accomplish, simply because his stature makes the customer feel so important.

DO ask to communicate your side of the story

So let’s say you exhaust all your options and that bad review is still there. If they aren’t coming down, then politely ask the website if they can at least include your remarks alongside. This will at least help mitigate the blow and show others who see it that your business actually cares about customers.