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Help! I’ve Been Slammed on Yelp!

by Donna Ray Berkelhammer

"Order the hamburgers at Donna's Diner if you like salty, dried out burgers dripping in ketchup and onions to try to give them some flavor. Don't go there unless you have a strong stomach and you like sticky seats or surly waitresses. If you are lucky they will be out of what you ordered.  Got my third choice and it stinks. Literally."

This was just posted on Yelp, an online review site.  It's not true, and you think it's from a customer last week who gave your staff a hard time.  Can you sue Yelp? Or the poster? Can you make Yelp or Angie's List or Facebook take down the bad review? Are there other alternatives?  Does it really matter?

In reverse order, online reviews matter more and more.  Just a few negative reviews can really drive down sales and potentially close businesses. Customers pay less attention to your professional marketing and more attention to peer reviews.

In order to do something about negative online reviews, first you have to see them.  In this day and age, retail and consumer businesses need to understand social media and monitor their brands online.  They also need a social media response strategy.

Believe it or not, negative reviews can be a great tool for a small business owner.  They can uncover hidden problems and give you a chance to show you care about the customers, their experience and your business. Taking them down can be done, but it is difficult and you can look like you are hiding something.  Every social media site has its own procedure for take-down.

When you find a disgruntled customer posting online, engage constructively and sincerely. You might try to reach out privately to settle the issue or get more facts so you can fix legitimate problems.

But you also want to respond online, so there is a permanent response  to the negative review.  Be polite and professional, and thank the reviewer for the feedback. Briefly and factually respond.   Don't argue, be combative or be defensive. Don't insult or belittle the poster.

For example, the owner of Donna's Diner could respond: "You must have caught us on a bad day.  We hate that your burger wasn't to your satisfaction.  Our burgers are fresh and juicy and we have the best fries in Durham.  Contact me, so you can give me more specifics about your visit, and I'll give you a free meal so you can see us on a good day."

One local business owner saw an online complaint about his biscuits one morning, and tweeted out that anyone else who had that problem could come back and get a free biscuit.  Did some people take advantage?  Probably. But did other people note the gracious attitude and become more loyal?  Probably.

Another way to overcome bad reviews is to encourage satisfied customers to give positive feedback.  Have you been to a business that has this sign by the register:  If you liked your meal, like us on Facebook or review us on Yelp.  Natural, organic reviews can really help your business, but orchestrated, canned or fake reviews will be discovered and removed.

You can also put your own positive content (interviews with the waitstaff, this week's specials, news about the local business scene, best wishes to the new store next door, pictures of your renovation, a recipe, new products)  to be fresher than the negative reviews.

Defamation suits are rarely a viable option. Defamation is a false statement that is harmful to a person's or business' reputation, that was made recklessly or intentionally. Opinions, even harsh ones, are not considered to be defamation.

Also, it is very difficult to bring defamation suits against bloggers and most commenters. Section 230 of The Communication Decency Act gives a safe harbor from defamation suits to users or providers of an "interactive computer service" (i.e., if you post a blog via WordPress or Blogger, you are a user, if you host a web site, you are a provider). You may still be liable if you  edit comments and accidentally change the meaning of  a comment, or in your response to a comment.

So when you see the bad review, take a deep breath, and use your chance to showcase your strengths to an online audience.

Read more articles at North Carolina Law Life

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