At a glance
By Nigel Bowen
Businesses have had to worry about reputations since time immemorial, but never has it been easier for a dissatisfied customer, disgruntled ex-employee, unprincipled competitor or bored teenager to inflict reputational damage.
While there are strategies businesses can put in place to minimise negative online reviews, such as being obsessive about providing good customer service, it is unlikely even the best-run business will manage to keep everyone happy all the time.
The standard course of action when confronted with negative customer reviews
The standard advice offered to businesses that have been unjustly maligned on social media and online review sites is to:
- Privately contact the reviewer and attempt to placate them
- Respond publicly on the review site, putting the other side of the story
- Contact the site and argue that the review is inaccurate and should be deleted
In a perfect world, one of these steps would put an end to the problem.
In reality, there is every chance the legitimate reviewer won’t respond, the internet troll won’t let up and the review site won’t take any steps to prevent your digital reputation from being tarnished unjustly or maliciously.
The extreme approach: suing for defamation
The extreme option is to sue either the reviewer or the review site for defamation.
Unfortunately, it is often impossible to determine the reviewer’s true identity, and few businesses want to take on a well-resourced review site. However, there are notable exceptions.
In 2020, Gold Coast accountant Kyran Seeto took Google to Australia’s Federal Court, chiefly over the tech giant’s refusal to remove a review alleging that Seeto needed training in customer service and took too long to lodge tax returns.
Seeto channelled the feelings of many SME owners when he told the ABC: “I’m trying to build a business, but with literally a keystroke they can destroy you. It’s not fair.”
How bad are bad reviews?
Dr Shahin Sharifi, senior lecturer in marketing at Macquarie Business School, conducted extensive research into the effects of customer reviews on hotels.
“It seems people booking a hotel didn’t pay attention to nuanced reviews; they focused on the ones that were positive or negative,” Sharifi says.
“Interestingly, the positive and negative reviews were perceived differently. The good ones were seen as trustworthy, but the bad ones were seen as a retaliatory response driven to a single incident or failing.
“That suggests businesses shouldn’t be overly concerned about a negative review, especially if it’s surrounded by positive ones.”
Andrew Whitford is the co-founder of the online reputation management start-up Removify, which charges A$500-A$1500 to get negative reviews taken down on a no-win, no-fee basis.
Whitford agrees that, in some cases, good reviews can counteract the influence of a bad one. However, he points out bad ones can have a disproportionate impact.
“If a business gets a one-star or two-star review, it will then often need to get dozens of four-star and five-star reviews in a row to get back to the ranking it had before the bad review,” he says.
Whitford also argues that while bad reviews may not be deleterious in certain industries, they can have door-closing consequences in others.
“People are cautious about entrusting their physical, mental or financial health to others,” he says.
“If a doctor, psychologist, dentist, lawyer or accountant has their reputation smeared, it can be devastating.
“We’ve been involved with professionals in that position who’ve told us their phones stopped ringing after just one anonymous bad review.”
Accountants are at risk
Whitford estimates Removify has helped more than 50 accountants since early 2019.
“The good news is that accountants seem to show each other professional courtesy,” Whitford says.
“I’m sure it happens but, compared to other industries, it’s rare for Accountancy Firm X to try and get more business by leaving scathing customer reviews of Accountancy Firms Y and Z.”
The bad news is that accountants’ clients aren’t as genteel.
“Often the accountant gets blamed if the client doesn’t get the response they wanted from the Australian Tax Office,” Whitford says.
“And the dissatisfied client will often not only leave negative online reviews themselves – they will also ask their friends and family members to do likewise.”
The case for a “digital fixer”
Whitford argues that the typical response by victims of a digital “hit job” is, at best, problematic.
“Regardless of what actually happened, it’s rarely a good look for a business to get into a public quarrel with a reviewer,” he says.
“Business owners, who feel personally attacked, are prone to venting or being sarcastic when responding to bad reviews. That’s likely to inflame the conflict.”
As for approaching a review site directly, Whitford compares this to a business owner deciding to represent themselves in court rather than hire a lawyer.
“A site will usually only remove a review if a convincing argument can be made that it violates that site’s own terms of service,” he says.
“I can’t speak for other players in the reputation management space, but the staff at Removify have the expertise needed to construct the kind of arguments sites will find persuasive. We also have the technology to, for instance, prove a review was left by a malicious actor [rather] than a genuine customer.”
Speaking of technology, Whitford believes that review sites will increase their use of machine learning to weed out dodgy reviewers. But he does not expect to be short of work any time soon.
“Our experiences interacting with review sites suggests they are a long way off being able to automate adjudicating online reviews,” he says. “And, after the events of 2020, people are spending much more time online and leaving lots more reviews.”