Traditionally, Santa Claus gave all little girls and boys a year-end review of their behavior. Good kids got stockings full of sweets and toys and bad kids got lumps of coal instead.

Frankly, Santa was a little vague with those lumps of coal.

Without a note giving some specific guidance, little Susie and Johnny had to guess what exactly they did that soured their relationship with the Jolly Old Elf. Without further clarification, the poor kids had to just randomly change their behavior and hope they’d be forgiven next year.

Aren’t you glad you have online reviews now instead? Whether it’s Saint Nick himself that’s giving you a bad review or a customer that came in for your holiday sale, you now have access to the most amazing tool retailers can use: negative feedback.

Handle it right, and you won’t regret missing the mark one bit.

Why Each Negative Customer Review Matters

You ignore negative customer reviews at your own peril.

On one hand, you shouldn’t stress over an occasional negative review. A sprinkle of lukewarm 3-star reviews or an occasional 1-star review actually creates a certain amount of credibility for you. Savvy consumers get suspicious when they see nothing but glowing reviews — 95% of those consumers will come to the conclusion that your company is screening out the bad reviews or hiring people to post fake ones.

In other words, they’ll assume you’re dishonest from the start. And that will lose you customers just as fast as too many negative reviews. Most people realize that you can’t please everybody — so stay focused primarily on your overall ranking instead.

On the other hand, you can’t just utterly ignore those lukewarm and negative reviews. First, doing so is a wasted opportunity to retain a customer — and research shows that it’s 6-7 times more expensive to gain one new customer than it is to keep a current one.

Second, only about 4% of disappointed customers take the time to even post a review. So consider them the mouthpieces for the silently unhappy. When you respond to one, you’re responding to all of them. This means you may bring back a few customers who are otherwise inclined to just quietly walk away for good rather than complain.

Finally, if you ignore a lukewarm or negative review, you also lose the opportunity to reassure potential customers who are on the fence about giving your product or service a try. The right response to a negative review can coax a fence-sitter into taking a chance on your service or product by showing that you’re willing to make things right if their experience somehow goes wrong.

How to Handle Different Types of Negative Reviews

Not all negative customer reviews are built alike, however. That’s something that you need to be aware of before you start responding because each type takes a different approach:

The Truly Disappointed

These reviews may come from long-time customers who feel like your quality of service or product is slipping. Alternately, they may come from customers who heard glowing things about your company and found that the reality didn’t meet their expectations.

They make up the majority of bad reviews. And they’re not angry so much as disappointed. Here’s an approach that works great for these customers:

  • Quickly acknowledge their complaint.
  • Empathize with the customer — nobody likes to be disappointed.
  • Don’t try to defend the problem by explaining that your cook was new, the delivery guy was late or the cashier was still a trainee.
  • Instead, acknowledge the mistake and apologize.
  • Ask for a chance to make things right and — if given it — promptly follow up.

This approach demonstrates that you took the review seriously. You showed your maturity level by owning the problem and offering to fix it. You just may end up saving that customer relationship. It’s a sad fact, but only about 68% of customers who post negative online reviews get a response from the targeted company. Of those that do, however, 18% go on to be lifetime customers and around half will take the time to delete the negative review that started the whole ball rolling.

The Unappeasable Customer

Some people just can’t be pleased. There’s also a segment of the population that delights in trolling company review boards and trying to see just how much damage they can do.

If the reviewer is inaccurate (or outright lying), don’t be afraid to politely but firmly defend your company and correct the inaccuracies. Just remember to keep your response calm and professional because your target is no longer that unhappy customer. He or she has made it perfectly clear that nothing you can say or do will change the situation. Instead, your target audience is everyone else reading the review.

With that in mind, you can sometimes get away with — cautiously — exposing the poster as someone who demanded the unreasonable or impossible and is now vindictively trying to put a dent in your business. Stay cool and offer a little humor if you can. There’s a now-epic example of this tactic from a Kansas City restaurant to a 1-star reviewer that’s a perfect example of how to stay professional while still dismantling the devious review.

The Takeaway:

A lump of coal is really just a diamond in the rough. And that’s how you need to view negative customer reviews.

  • Don’t fret over the occasional negative review. Instead, realize that it actually gives your brand credibility — nobody pleases everybody all of the time.
  • Take each negative review individually and decide if it is one that you can actually learn from or one you can use to show your class to other potential customers.
  • Keep in mind that negative reviews give you an opportunity to turn a one-sided commentary into active engagement and an actual dialogue. That tells other potential customers that you do care about their experience and are listening to what your customers are saying.