Bad Reviews: Surprisingly Effective Ways to Survive Them

Bad reviews can either help or hurt your local business. Learn some surprising ways to handle bad reviews and turn lemons into lemonade.

Bad reviews are a fact of life now, even for the best local businesses with the happiest customers.

Unfortunately, bad reviews can also ruin the best of businesses by directly impacting sales.

In this article, you’ll learn exactly what to do when you get bad reviews. You’ll learn how bad reviews can sometimes help your local business. And you’ll get step-by-step instructions on how to handle bad reviews, complete with examples.

Here are the specific topics covered in this article:

Can bad reviews really help your business?

Short answer: Yes.

Consumers today are savvy and understand that many businesses try to buy fake reviews to boost their star ratings.

So consumers get suspicious when they see a local business with nothing but glowing 5-star reviews.

Ironically, having nothing but happy customers and 5-star reviews can actually hurt your business by driving away customers who think your reviews are literally “too good to be true.”

Here is the ideal scenario for your online review profiles:

  • 5 stars – Average star rating of 5 stars
  • 100+ reviews – High quantity of positive reviews to give the star rating credibility
  • Several 3-star bad reviews – Several bad reviews, ideally 3 stars each, give the star rating more credibility and set the low bar for customer expectations at a level that isn’t too low
  • Specific complaints that aren’t deal breakers – Prospects have more confidence in doing business with you if they see bad reviews that complain about specific, detailed problems that set the “low bar” for their expectations based on minor nitpicks and no deal-breakers that would change their buying decision
  • Positive business owner responses – Prospects gain trust in a business when they see the business owner responding to bad reviews with a positive attitude and clear commitment to customer satisfaction

You want to have some bad reviews so that people know your 5-star rating is credible and not based on fake reviews.

However, you don’t want your bad reviews to be scathing 1-star reviews. It’s much better for your bad reviews to have 3 stars.

A 3-star review prevents your 5-star average from getting weighed down too much, which also supports having a higher number of bad reviews without losing your 5-star average.

A 3-star review also sends the signal to would-be customers that the complaint wasn’t too important or damaging.

The ideal bad review includes complaints about a specific problem, so people reading the review know exactly what caused the customer to be unhappy. This lends more credibility and authenticity to the review, giving the reader more confidence that they know what to expect from the business.

It’s also ideal if the specific problem in a bad review is the kind of problem that won’t change the reader’s ultimate buying decision.

For example, most people hiring a lawyer care about how good the lawyer is at winning cases, not how organized the lawyer’s receptionist is at scheduling meetings. So a bad review that gives 3 stars and says, “They won my case, but I kept having to go back and forth with the receptionist to schedule meetings, which was really annoying” won’t sway very many people from wanting to hire the lawyer.

So having bad reviews can actually help your local business. Having several bad reviews actually lends credibility to your 5-star average rating. And bad reviews can also reassure people that the worst problems your customers have had are not serious problems at all.

What to do if you get a bad review

So you got a bad review…

…and it ruined your day.

But you know that you satisfy the overwhelming majority of your customers.

But you just can’t win them all. Bad reviews are now just an inevitable fact of life for all local businesses.

So what should you do next about this bad review?

First, figure out if this bad review actually helps your business more than it hurts it.

Take another read of the section above, “Can bad reviews really help your business?

If the bad review helps more than it hurts by adding credibility to your already-high star rating, then all you need to do is reply to the bad review in a way that demonstrates your commitment to customer satisfaction. Read more on this in the section below on “How to respond to bad reviews.”

But if the bad review hurts more than it helps, then you have a few options….

Regardless of which option you take, the ultimate answer is simply to prevent bad reviews from hurting your local business ahead of time.

Do this by getting so many good reviews that no single bad review can hurt your overall star rating. When you get a bad review that doesn’t hurt your star rating, that review may actually help your business by lending more credibility to your star rating.

Learn more about how to prevent bad reviews from hurting your business in the section aptly titled, “How to prevent bad reviews from hurting your business.”

How to remove bad reviews

All major review websites have a process for removing reviews that violate their policies.

Most review websites have policies against reviews that include any of the following…

  • Threats of violence against any person, business, or group
  • Illegal content, such as copyrighted material
  • Inappropriate language, such as swear words, name calling or sexually explicit language
  • Review authors who aren’t customers, such as a former employee of the business, a competitor, or even a customer’s mother who wrote the review instead of the customer themselves
  • Paid-for reviews, such as fake reviews that a competitor buys from an unscrupulous third-world black hat review farm

For bad reviews on Google, check out our article on how to delete a Google review.

For bad reviews on Yelp, check out our article on how to remove a Yelp review.

Otherwise, go to the review website where the bad review lives and find out what that website’s policies are. If the bad review violates any of the review website’s policies, you’re in luck! Just follow their escalation process to flag the review for violating the site’s policies.

However, in most cases negative reviews don’t violate any policies. In that case, you have little chance of getting the review removed, and your best bet is to try to convince the customer to turn a bad review into a good one. Learn more about that in the next section.

How to turn bad reviews into good reviews

The only way to turn bad reviews into good reviews is to turn unhappy customers into happy customers.

DON’T reach out to someone who gives you a negative review and ask them to remove it or improve it. That’s obnoxious, and you just might convince them to update the review to an even worse review.

Instead, stay focused on solving the customer’s problem… or at least doing everything you can to minimize the damage the problem causes the customer.

Step 1) Reach out, apologize, and find out more

Reach out to the reviewer to apologize that they had a bad experience and find out more about how you can make it better for them.

Express sincere sympathy for the fact that the customer is not happy. Even if the customer’s expectations were completely unreasonable, or even if they caused their own dissatisfaction, the fact still remains: You’re in business to make your customers happy and this customer isn’t happy. So sincerely sympathize with their dilemma.

Step 2) Fix the problem or at least be helpful

Try to fix the problem if it’s at all possible. Nothing turns an unhappy customer into a happy one better than actually fixing their problem.

If you can’t fix the problem, at least try to point them in a direction that will help them. Offer information or advice that might help. Refer them to a different business that might help. Get them as close to a fix as you can, even if you can’t get them all the way to a final resolution.

Step 3) Ask for an updated review

Finally, only after you’re sure the customer is no longer unhappy, ask the customer very politely if they would be willing to update their review.

Be careful not to be too pushy, or you’ll undo all the goodwill you’ve earned by helping the customer.

Here’s an example of an email asking a customer for an updated review….

Notice that this example email doesn’t ask for something for nothing. It effectively asks the customer, “Have we earned a better review?”

Also notice that the email mentions that the customer’s review matters. It can negatively affect the business and even the individual employees. This lets the customer know that the negative review actually does real harm to someone. That will make the customer ask themselves, “Is the problem still so bad that it’s worth harming this business and its people?”

And notice that the email doesn’t try to pressure the customer. It says, “Either way, [whether or not the customer chooses to update the review] many thanks….”

And finally, notice that there’s a link on “your review” that leads the customer directly to the review in question. This link makes it super easy for the customer to update the review. The easier you make it, the more likely the customer is to actually spend the effort to update the review.

If you’ve done a good enough job of turning an unhappy customer into a happy customer, you stand a good chance of getting the customer to turn that bad review into a good review.

How to respond to bad reviews

When you reply to bad reviews, the #1 most important key to remember is this:

The people who will read your response in the future are at least as important as (possibly more important than) the person you’re replying to.

Bad reviews are golden opportunities to show the world how committed you are to satisfying your customers.

With that in mind, here are some of the most important pro tips on how to craft the perfect response to a bad review….

Pro Tip #1) Respond quickly

Reply to the review as quickly as possible. The faster you reply after a bad review is written, the more you will impress the reviewer with your responsiveness… which can lead to the reviewer updating the review to a more positive one later.

Pro Tip #2) Stay positive

Stay focused on helping the customer solve problems and never let the exchange devolve into mudslinging or a game of “He said, she said.”

Also watch your language. Use only positive words with positive connotations. For example…

This is a positive statement, but uses negative language: “I’m sorry you lost your glasses at our business. I don’t know why you couldn’t find them, since we don’t usually fail to find lost items. I’ll try to avoid this happening again in the future.”

And this is the positive version of the same sentence: “I hope we can find your glasses. We usually succeed at finding items. I assure you we’ll do everything possible to help with this sort of thing better in the future.”

Both sentences have the same meaning, but the first one uses a lot of negative language—sorry, lost, don’t, couldn’t, fail, lost, avoid. And the second one uses positive language instead—hope, can, succeed, assure, everything, possible, help, better.

This may seem silly, but years of marketing experience tells us that it’s human nature to respond with more positive emotions to positive words, and negative emotions to negative words. So take your word choice seriously!

Pro Tip #3) Take responsibility

Always take responsibility for a customer’s unhappiness… even if the customer is completely to blame and had outrageous expectations.

That doesn’t mean you need to take responsibility for causing the customer’s problem if your business didn’t cause the problem.

“Taking responsibility” simply means that you care about the satisfaction of your customers, and whenever a customer is unsatisfied, you take that seriously and look for ways to try to make the customer as happy as you reasonably can.

Avoid any wording that might even remotely suggest that the customer is to blame.

Also avoid wording that just might sound like you’re making excuses for the company. Even the most rational “reason” can often come across as an “excuse.” So just avoid explaining the cause of the problem altogether unless you really need to.

Pro Tip #4) Keep it short

Remember that the people who matter most are the ones who will read your response in the future.

Those people don’t read. They skim.

As soon as they see five big paragraphs of text, they keep skimming and don’t even bother to read your first sentence.

But if they see a short, concise answer of 2 to 5 sentences max, they stop skimming and read the full response.

So if you want your reply to get read at all, keep it short and to the point.

Pro Tip #5) Show sympathy

You’re in business because you care about helping your customers.

Show it.

Let the world know that you sincerely care about your customers’ satisfaction.

Don’t shy away from saying “I’m so sorry…” and “You’re right that should have been better…” and other statements that show you truly care.

Sincere sympathy goes a long way towards building trust.

Pro tip #6) Fix or inform

The best response you can give a customer offers them a direct fix for their problem.

But if you can’t fix the problem completely, then at least offer helpful information. Make recommendations. Give advice. Refer the customer to a different business that can help.

It may take a little extra time to dive into the customer’s problem well enough to offer truly useful information, but it’s well worth the investment. Others who read your reply will see the thought, care, time and commitment you put into figuring out what information to provide.

How to prevent bad reviews from hurting your business

The best way to prevent bad reviews from hurting your local business is to get lots of good reviews that balance them out.

When you have very few reviews, it only takes 1 negative review to bring your average star rating down.

But when you have a lot of reviews, no single negative review can bring down your average star rating.

In fact, if you have lots of 5-star reviews, you may actually find yourself wishing you had more bad reviews to lend credibility to your well earned 5-star average rating.

Check out our in-depth guide on Customer Reviews. It covers a wide range of topics and includes a chapter specifically on how to get more positive customer reviews.

In this article, we’ll cover the 2 main highlights: pre-screening and ramping up volume.

The most effective way to get lots of good reviews is to pre-screen customers.

Pre-screening is surprisingly effective. Here’s how it works….

How to pre-screen for positive reviews

First, send your customers an email or text message (whichever they prefer) immediately after you conclude business with them. Ask them how they would rate their experience with your business on a 5-star scale.

Timing is key. Don’t ask customers to rate your business before you’ve delivered on their expectations. And don’t wait once you have satisfied them. Strike while the iron is hot, their emotions are still strong, and their memories are still vivid.

Here’s an example of an effective email asking for a private rating….

When customers rate your business highly (at least as many stars as your current average star rating online) then politely ask if the customer would be willing to share their experiences in an online review. Be sure to include a link that takes customers directly to where they can write a review. (Warning: Google makes this difficult. Don’t copy and paste the link from your browser. This will cause technical difficulties for some of your customers. Instead, check out our article on how to get a Google review link the right way.)

But when customers rate your business lower than your current online star rating, don’t ask for a review. Instead, ask for candid feedback on how you could earn the customer’s 5-star rating in the future. The feedback you get may be even more valuable than getting another 5-star review, since it may lead you to improve your business and get many more 5-star reviews from customers in the future.

How to get a lot of positive reviews

Once you know how to pre-screen customers for positive reviews, ratchet up the volume. Ask as many customers as possible. And when customers don’t reply, send follow-up emails and texts to politely let them know you value their feedback.

One word of caution about volume: Ramp up gradually. Don’t suddenly blast hundreds of customers all at once.

Most major review websites have fraud detection algorithms that look for signs that a business is buying fake reviews.

When these algorithms see a sudden spike in the number of reviews for a business, when the business normally doesn’t get very many reviews, the algorithms call shenanigans.

If a review website thinks you’re buying fake reviews, they may filter out your hard-earned 5-star reviews no matter how authentic they really are. They may even start suspecting your past reviews were fake and filter those, too. In extreme cases, they may even suspend access to your account altogether.

So instead of causing a sudden spike in new reviews, ramp up gradually.

Make it a goal to get a few more reviews than you normally get for 1 month. Then increase that goal modestly the next month. Then increase it again… and again… until you’re getting reviews at the rate you ultimately want.

Ultimately, we recommend businesses shoot to get 1 review every 3 to 7 days on average. At this rate, you’ll satisfy the “freshness” desires of the vast majority of consumers, but you’ll keep your volume low enough to avoid triggering fraud detection algorithms.