The Lost Art of Restraint

The predominant school of thought among social media managers is that businesses must respond to negative comments or reviews left online. Always. No questions. No exceptions. Just respond. Conventional wisdom holds that a proper response can help mitigate potential damage to your online reputation and might even win back the aggrieved customer.

In reality, this approach works well when you are dealing with a rational customer who has a legitimate (or what may be viewed as a legitimate) complaint. Simply saying that you are sorry for their poor experience and offering to make it right or tactfully taking the conversation offline often does wonders to restore faith in your company.

Unfortunately, most businesses that have been in business for any length of time have probably dealt with the reverse – an irrational person whose complaint is not legitimate. Couple that with a disturbing new trend – the rise of unethical competitors paying people to write negative reviews – and you have a combustible cocktail of consumer angst waiting to explode all over your social media pages.

How is a business to handle it? In some instances, you have to give yourself and your company permission to do something extraordinary – nothing – or at least nothing that is visible to the entire digital world. Of course, I’m assuming that most business owners have the common sense and business savvy to distinguish between a rationale albeit angry customer and someone whose comments truly have gone off the deep end. Treat the former with respect and the latter with the same level of wariness you’d normally reserve for a rattlesnake. Why? Because, just like the fanged amphibian, an unreasonable (or well-paid) person can turn on you quickly and do more damage than you ever anticipated.

Your goal should be addressing the situation without escalating it. If the person is a customer or potential customer whose contact information you have, you can take it offline. Call and offer a carefully crafted, sincere apology for their experience, offer to correct the situation if possible, or back away as graciously as feasible (if it’s a potential customer you realize you can’t or don’t want to work with). Alternately, you can send a private message or email doing the same. (Just be aware that if you put something in writing, there’s always a chance that it will be posted, so tread with caution.)

If your proactive measures have satisfied the person, you can ask them if they would consider removing or updating their negative review or comment. If they are truly mollified after the conversation but have not taken down their comments after several days, it may be possible for you to respond to their initial post with a gracious message along the lines of: “Thank you for taking the time to talk with me last week about your situation and offering you the opportunity to make things right.” Obviously, if the conversation did not go well, posting even something this benign can throw gasoline on the fire and gives an unreasonable person yet another opportunity to tell folks how you “done them wrong.”

Ultimately, your best defense against negative reviews is a strong offense. Actively request positive reviews from your good customers. If you have a disproportionate number of great reviews and one or two bad ones, consumers will tend to give more credence to the majority. Consumers also are becoming increasingly savvy and realizing that not every review or comment is posted by someone with a legitimate gripe. If a comment sounds completely off the wall to you, odds are it does to the rest of the world as well.

Just think about your own personal social media pages. We all have that one friend who tends to post the most off-the-wall or completely inappropriate comments on just about everything. Sometimes you may call him or her on it; sometimes you may opt to let their craziness speak for itself. There’s a subtle art in restraint.

The same holds true for business. The bottom line is that if you have one bad review that you choose not to respond to amidst a plethora of positive reviews (and even an occasional poor review handled appropriately), it’s probably not going to damage your online reputation as much as you fear.