Negative Customer Reviews: Crisis or Opportunity?


One negative customer review can have an outsized impact on a company’s reputation — especially if it’s a startup or a smaller business trying to break into the big leagues. But it’s not enough for companies to monitor what customers are saying, they need to respond with the right tone to each of their negative customer reviews. Striking the wrong tone can make matters worse. Fortunately, there are lots of strategies for turning negative customer reviews into trust-building opportunities.

Think about the last time you had a bad experience with a company. Did you leave a review? Generally, when you have underwhelming experiences, what do you do? Do you spend time on review sites? Or do you internalize your frustrations and never return to that company again?

I usually decide not to post negative reviews. This is for the simple reason that I’m a business owner, and companies have been known to retaliate for negative reviews. It’s not worth it when I have my own business’s brand to protect.

Very few of your customers will write reviews, which means for all the negative reviews out there, countless other dissatisfied customers didn’t write anything at all.

But maybe more of us should speak up and let others know when we’ve had a bad experience.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos understood the value of negative customer reviews even when others didn’t.

Someone once asked Bezos why he allowed negative customer reviews on Amazon’s website.

“We don’t make money when we sell things,” Bezos said. “We make money when we help customers make purchase decisions.”

Negative Customer Reviews: Guidelines for Customers

Of course, for a review to be helpful, it must be honest. Otherwise, your review might be considered defamation.

How do you know if your review is defamatory? Defamation applies if you make false statements that harm a person or business’s reputation.

Of course, no reputable company would retaliate against customers who leave honest negative reviews, and many U.S. states have laws explicitly forbidding this kind of unethical behavior by companies. But if a company is disreputable, it may try to intimidate you into removing your negative customer review.

Here are a few pointers for customers when writing negative online reviews:

  • Limit your reviews to experiences where you were the customer. Don’t recount secondhand information.
  • Document everything. Take photos and save emails and receipts as evidence to prove that your account is accurate.
  • Avoid inflammatory language, and constructively identify specific issues you encountered.
  • Make it clear when you are offering your opinion about what happened and be sure to distinguish between your opinion and verifiable fact.
  • And, of course, never publicly post personal or private information, like financial or medical information or a company’s trade secrets.

When written fairly and honestly, your negative customer review will likely be a key asset for another shopper. A 2021 survey by Power Reviews found that 96 percent of shoppers specifically look for negative customer reviews, and 46 percent of shoppers are wary of products with an average star rating of five out of five.

Negative Customer Reviews: Guidelines for Companies

In today’s era of social media, companies must prepare for how to handle a negative customer review. No matter how much you prioritize your customers’ experiences, someone at some point will likely say something bad about your brand online.

Have a plan for how to respond to negative customer reviews and draft templates of approved replies in response to common reviews or comments.

For businesses that receive negative reviews, it can be tempting to try to confront or dismiss the customer. But remember that your response to the negative review is not just for the original customer but for all potential customers who might read your exchange.

If you respond to negative reviews professionally and calmly, it can be an opportunity to demonstrate your company’s commitment to building customer relationships.

Here are a few tips for companies who receive a negative online review:

Removing Negative Customer Reviews: When Is It OK?

It can be tempting for businesses to remove a customer’s negative review from an online platform, especially if it feels unfair or untrue. But pause before you hit the delete button.

The United States’ Consumer Review Fairness Act protects customers’ rights to give their honest feedback about a company, its services and products, and its customer services.

In the United States, it’s illegal for companies to:

  • Restrict a customer’s ability to leave a review
  • Penalize or charge a fee against someone who leaves a negative review, or threaten to do so
  • Force people to give up their intellectual property rights within the review context. (That means companies can’t force customers to hand over ownership of their reviews to the business.)

So, when is it OK for companies to remove a negative customer review? Companies can legally prohibit or remove reviews that:

  • Include personal or confidential information
  • Are libelous, harassing, obscene, abusive, or racially or sexually inappropriate
  • Don’t relate to the company’s products
  • Or are clearly false or misleading

Leaving negative customer reviews up online can actually boost your company’s credibility with customers. Since customers use negative reviews to help them make informed shopping decisions, many of them view companies with perfect ratings with suspicion. If you leave negative customer reviews up and respond to them professionally, you signal to customers that your company is genuine and trustworthy.

Negative Reviews: A Positive

If you’re a business struggling with frequent negative reviews from customers, consider joining the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals in Business (SOCAP), or the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA), which offer educational opportunities for companies to improve their customer experience.

For customers, the next time you have a negative experience with a business, consider taking the time to write a fair and balanced review. Other potential customers will benefit. And the company you are writing about (if they value growth) will benefit too.

By Martha Brooke, Director & Chief Customer Experience Analyst
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