Battling negative online customer reviews in the face of the Covid hangover

Customer management experts share their tips to combat negative reviews as Australia's small business ombudsmen calls for consumers to be "kinder" to local businesses struggling to stay open

Transparency, proactivity and setting clear expectations with customers are the best things brands can do right to try and counter a potential rise in negative online customer reviews, several industry thought leaders advise.  

The comments follow a plea from Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, Bruce Billson, this week urging consumers to refrain from posting negative online reviews as short staffed small businesses across the country deal with the lingering impacts of Covid.  

Billson noted many small businesses are working hard to keep their doors open and their employees and customers safe, as well as service their communities despite challenges coming from growing numbers of staff in isolation and supply chain disruptions.  

“The best way to support small businesses is to be a kindly customer – patient and understanding, with good and generous intent,” Billson said. “Small businesses are run by real people who deserve our respect and empathy.  

“Negative online reviews can be devastating for a small business, particularly those that are struggling to recover from tough couple of years. So just put the phone away. Resist the urge to give that unfair one-star review.”  

Customology general manager, Michael Barnard, recommended businesses offer complete transparency and set clear expectations from the offset to avoid frustrating customers during these challenging times.  

“Updating the community via social media channels is a great way to get quick messages out, or even having signs on the door explaining current staff situations/impacts,” he advised. “Businesses who have already built an army of loyal customers are less likely to meet backlash from customers, as one of the many benefits of generating customer loyalty is in fact they have earned their customers’ ongoing support - no matter the circumstances.”  

When customers do leave negative reviews, it’s important a business endeavours to reply to each explaining the situation clearly, Barnard said. “These are difficult times for everyone, so there needs to be a mutual degree of empathy. For businesses of course, but also the customers,” he added.  

Managing partner of customer loyalty and experience agency Ellipsis, Tim Tyler, said one of the ironies of social channels is they’re often impersonal.  

“Customers who would empathise with a business owner in person, and forgive, are less constrained in voicing criticisms in reviews,” he admitted. “We recommend trying to make the consequences of bad reviews as personal and genuine as possible.  

“Answer them personally if you are the owner, apologise and offer to chat mask-to-mask so the reviewer realises a real person is hurt by their words. Denial or lengthy excuses rarely work, so let them know you are doing your best but sometimes fall short of expectations and you are sorry.”  

Ellipsis principal, Alex Lehwaldt, said the ultimate objective for brands right now needs to be to manage expectations. Again, he recommended being transparent with customers on the challenges being faced during the pandemic.    

“Be proactive – not all customers know what’s currently happening and need to be made aware, so that they even have a chance to show sympathy and patience,” he advised.  

Another practical way of communicating could be though banners on your website, advising of delays, shortages and the current status quo. Flyers, leaflets in store/physical locations can be employed for the same purpose, as can references in email communications, Lehwalt said.    

“Share the sincere wish that this situation be over. Be (re)active. Actively, and professionally, respond to any negative reviews posted online, whether it’s on Google or Product review,” Lehwaldt said. “This shows the business and the people are involved, cares about customers, reminds readers of how difficult times are.”   

Fake reviews recompense  

The Ombudsman’s comments about the lasting and damaging impacts of negative online reviews also follow a recent submission to the Federal Government’s social media inquiry calling for digital platforms to make it easier to remove fake reviews. Billson said more than 30 businesses had come to the Ombudsmen trying to help gain support against fake reviews in recent years.  

“Unfortunately, small businesses have few avenues for recourse when a fake review is posted, which is why there needs to be a transparent review system in place,” he said. “In the US, Google acted to protect the interest of the investment application, Robinhood, by removing hundreds of thousands of fake reviews on its Google Play Store. We believe small businesses should be afforded similar protections of their interests.”  

The Ombudsmen is recommending digital platforms build more tools to prevent fake reviews and be clear about the evidence small businesses need to provide to have fake online commentary reviewed and removed.  

“Small business owners are under enormous strain as they work get their businesses back on track. Fake reviews are contributing to those mental health pressures. Digital platforms should be doing more to support the small business community,” Billson said.  

Google has come under fire locally for not having sufficient mechanisms in place to verify the identity of users submitting reviews, and for not taking a more proactive role in removing fake reviews from its platform outside of court orders.    

Following the latest comments by the ombudsman, a Google spokesperson told CMO 55 million reviews and nearly 3 million fake business profiles that violated policies were blocked on its platform in 2020. Technology has also been used to disable more than 610,000 user accounts after detecting and investigating suspicious or policy violating behaviour. Maps information is also under scrutiny, with processes available to flag reviews, inappropriate content and misleading places for removal.  

To support businesses, the platform referred to its ‘reviews feature’, designed to share useful information to potential customers based on experiences, or questions about experiences, at the specific location. It can also give good businesses an opportunity to shine and attract more customers, the spokesperson said.  

The Federal Government’s Inquiry into Social Media and Online Safety was established in December 2021, with public hearings underway on 20 and 21 January. Nearly 60 submissions were received, ranging from social media platforms such as Twitter, TikTok and Google, to traditional media operators and regulators, state-based childrens safety and school groups, digital industry bodies and wellness groups, A final report is due on 15 February 2022.  

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