Negative online reviews: how to respond like a pro

It may feel heartbreaking to receive a bad review or negative comments when you’re writing as a private individual; if you’re a company, dedicated to providing an excellent product, experience or service, negative reviews could hit your bottom line.

Your first reaction may be that the review is unfair, but take a deep breath. Think very carefully before posting a reply. See this as an intellectual challenge – your response will become part of your brand’s online DNA. 

Bloggers are in a privileged position. We can choose to delete negative comments on our own blogs but that doesn’t mean we should always ignore them.

If you’re in business, the overwhelming odds are that you will need to face this at some stage. Use these tips to transform your vocal customer from a liability into an asset.


  • Don’t ignore bad reviews, especially ones with very specific complaints.
  • Don’t interpret a negative review as a veiled invitation to write a glowing 40 word advertisment about your business. It isn’t.
  • Don’t be drawn into an online fight, allow yourself to become irritated, be rude or give a knee-jerk reaction.
  • Don’t contradict negative comments or question the reviewer’s facts unless you have clear, demonstrable proof.
  • Don’t threaten to discipline or punish your staff.
  • Don’t treat it as ‘just’ a PR exercise. It’s possible you’re being tipped off about something that you’re not getting quite right all of the time. There may even be something seriously wrong that needs urgent attention.
  • Don’t overestimate the importance of one comment, especially if it appears in a sea of glowing reviews.


  • Let your brand values shine through your actions and words.
  • Investigate from a fair and balanced perspective.
  • When you write to the reviewer, keep other potential readers in the forefront of your mind.
  • Respond kindly and promptly. Thank the reviewer for taking the time to comment and show that you are grateful for their feedback.
  • Explain how they can contact you (or your customer service manager) by e-mail or a direct phone line to resolve the issue.
  • Provide a context for the comment, so that other readers understand the issues raised.
  • Put yourself in their shoes: apologise personally that the experience was not what they were hoping for. Let them know you understand their feelings.
  • Offer compensation or a refund where the case deserves it. Remind the reviewer publicly of any steps you have already taken or offers you’ve made.
  • Outline what you are doing to prevent this from happening again (investigations, training, new procedures, etc).
  • Remain supportive of staff. Pass on comments (both positive and negative) and give them chance to respond to any criticisms and to suggest improvements. Explain how you’re planning to reply.
  • Monitor social media – it may alert you of issues as they arise, before a formal complaint is made.
  • Make sure your contact information is kept up to date on the important industry review sites so you’re informed of comments as they’re posted.

Other tips:

  • Always be open to feedback of all kinds, especially alternative viewpoints – imagine it as a response to a survey you’ve commissioned.
  • Your most vocal customers can become great assets if you take the time to consider their point of view and are able to change their minds.
  • You may be lucky enough to have customers who will champion your products or counter complaints on your behalf in specialist forums. This is often the best possible outcome – don’t feel you have to intervene.
  • Manage the complaint offline if you have contact details. When you’ve reached an agreement, ask the reviewer if they’re willing to remove or amend their online complaint, or to post a follow up. If needed, post your own response.
  • If you’ve investigated a procedure that has been criticized, and still believe it has great benefits for customers, explain the thinking behind it.
  • In difficult cases, or if you feel hurt by the comments, draft a reply and check it with a tactful person you trust.
  • Before posting, re-read your response to check that it is friendly and helpful, and looks like it’s been written by a responsible, caring human being rather than a marketing department.
  • Rarely, you’ll feel the comment is vindictive or completely unreasonable. Other people are very likely to spot this too. By maintaining the higher ground and being gentle, reasonable and polite, you’ll win the battle without a fight.

Take control

If a complaint is defamatory, malicious or offensive you may have the right to ask for its removal. Check any guidelines for posting on the website hosting the review.

A tongue-in-cheek industry tip?

It’s well known that gardeners are lovely people, but there’s always an exception to the rule. I was once given this memorable advice by an industry colleague at a meeting of the US Direct Gardening Society:

If you have the odd completely unreasonable customer that you just can’t please, no matter how hard you try, offer a refund, suggest a competitor who might be able to help them and quietly remove them from your mailing list.

Of course, we don’t always have the luxury of dealing with unreasonable customers this way, but in extreme cases, any loss of business may be compensated for many times over by the increased happiness of your staff. Remember, their views matter too!

I’ve seen the eyes of more than one talented customer service representative light up at this suggestion. I don’t believe we ever went ahead and removed anyone, but offering staff the option can make all the difference. Showing you support them and have faith in them can give them new heart to try another approach.

Leaving negative feedback for others

  • If you want to leave negative feedback online yourself, try to do it with as much kindness and good humour as you can muster.
  • Wait until your initial disappointment or frustration subsides so you can give a well-balanced account.
  • Be clear and specific.
  • Always give the company chance to make amends – most often they will sincerely want to do that.
  • If they don’t respond to your satisfaction, check your consumer rights, then vote with your feet and give your business to someone else.

The best customer complaint letter ever?

Well, that depends on your point of view: this one about Virgin’s airline meal is certainly funny – and a great example of what a creative mind can conjure up with nothing much to do on a long distance flight.

And what about the company response, as reported by The Telegraph in the footnote?

10/10 to Richard Branson for picking up the phone and actually speaking to his customer, but the Director of Communications has fallen into the trap of responding with a glowing review, which The Telegraph, with a fine sense of irony, was happy to quote. I’m only awarding 1/10 for that – unless of course he convinced you that the food was actually first class? Thought not!

My last flight with Virgin showed that this kind of complaint has been taken on board – the food and entertainment were both fine. Perhaps I have the author of this letter to thank for that!

If you’ve got any other ideas on how best to manage negative feedback, or if you have experiences to share, please leave a comment.

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