Bad Reviews

Handle customer feedback and avoid adverse reviews with advice from Caroline Cooper.

Bad Reviews
Photo: Getty Images

If you’ve ever had a damning review on social media, you know how it can really feel – as if someone has smacked you in the face. And you think “What?! Why the heck didn’t they say something?” or “What are they talking about? It wasn’t like that at all!” Even if there is some cause for criticism, it can feel depressing. You feel affronted by the comments and the whole world can see them.

But if you’re old enough to remember the “United Airlines breaks guitars” video (which has had over 20 million views on YouTube) you know you need to take any feedback seriously.

It’s easy to get defensive or take things personally when hearing negative feedback from customers, but without it, how do you identify what’s working and what’s not in your customers’ eyes? Customer feedback can give you actionable insights that help you make educated business decisions rather than taking a shot in the dark. Value this honest feedback from customers.

The bad news is that most customers won’t give you a second chance if their first experience is bad. That’s why it is paramount to gather feedback at the first available opportunity, so you have a chance to put things right before it’s too late.

Too many businesses rely on customers completing feedback forms or questionnaires. The trouble with these is that firstly people have better things to do than fill out a form, and if they’re going to say anything they’re far more likely to post a comment on social media, telling the whole world rather than just you.

Secondly, if someone has taken the trouble to give feedback it’s usually too late to rectify things if there was anything they didn’t like. And there are bound to be occasions when you don’t understand what they’re referring to, and by now it’s difficult to ask questions to unravel the issue.

Prevention is better than cure
Take stock of the most common themes of any complaints or aspects that have failed to live up to customers’ expectations. If you can pre-empt these you can either prevent them, or at least take steps to minimise the likelihood of them becoming an issue. An example would be being very specific or making it crystal clear the things you don’t provide or do. It’s easy for customers to make assumptions about what’s available by comparing you with similar venues unless you tell them otherwise, which can later lead to disappointment. Or when you know in advance you’re going to struggle to meet service expectations due to staff shortages or a key feature is out of action. Customers will be far more understanding if you let them know in advance so you or they can make some provision, rather than letting them down on the day.

Involve your team
Involve your team in ‘hazard spotting’ and in looking for solutions to common issues that impact customers. Often they’ll foresee issues you’ve never considered and before they’ve become a problem.

Rather than waiting for things to go wrong, create a culture where it’s accepted that mishaps happen from time to time and encourage your team to come forward with details of near misses. If they fear a reprimand or criticism they’ll never come clean if they were close to causing an issue.

Encourage direct feedback
Feedback directly from your customers gives you the opportunity to capitalise on positive feedback and minimise the impact of any negatives. It gives you the chance to ask questions to really understand the specifics.

When a customer has had a good experience, sharing this with you at the time helps reinforce those positives, whilst if it’s negative you have an opportunity to empathise, apologise and do something about it whilst there’s still time to remedy the situation.

Welcome complaints
Some customers feel awkward about giving direct feedback, but will still quite happily take to TripAdvisor or Facebook. Being visible in your business and making contact with your customers builds rapport and trust. Once you’ve gained this you’re in a far better position to gain valuable feedback first hand.

Give your team the confidence to ask well-structured questions to get feedback on specifics; there’s a big difference between bland statements such as “I hope everything was OK” rather than asking about specifics such as “What did you think of the…?”

Be observant and look out for clues that things are not as they should be. A customer’s body language, facial expressions, the tone of their voice or hesitation, or their behaviours might allow you to nip in the bud any potential problems brewing.

Different perspectives
If you don’t agree with negative feedback, rather than getting defensive find out (tactfully) what has led to the perception, as this may lead to the root of the problem. If you don’t know what disappoints customers or has led to a negative perception you can’t improve on it, so make sure you are prepared to listen to and take on board any thoughts on what lets you down, so you can learn from and address it.

Even the best run businesses have problems, and when these affect customers it’s the recovery of the situation that gets remembered.

A customer doesn’t care whose fault it is, all they are interested in is getting the problem resolved. Empower your team members to take whatever action is in the customer’s best interest. This may involve seeking information, support or action from a colleague, but the important point here is that they take ownership and see the problem through to its resolution.

This is made easier when you have systems and processes in place for service recovery, and when everyone in the team has the same understanding of these.

Online reviews
Whether it’s TripAdvisor, Google, or Facebook, there’s no getting away from the fact that online reviews – and the responses to them – are shared publicly and may be seen by hundreds or even thousands of prospective customers.

The more positive reviews you have the less impact the occasional negative review will have. The most effective way to generate positive reviews is organically, by offering such a positive experience that customers feel compelled to tell others.

Give people a reason to talk about you. People are more likely to write reviews when expectations are surpassed, and this is often found in the small details and the special care of customers. Do something exceptional, think of the things that are of high value to your guests but low cost to you so you can give added value.

When you know the customer has had a positive experience don’t be pushy, but sometimes just giving them a little nudge to post a review can make all the difference. “I’m happy to hear you enjoyed your stay. It would mean a lot to us if you helped spread the word by posting a review on TripAdvisor.”

Respond professionally
Accept that you will (hopefully only occasionally) get negative reviews. Whatever you do, don’t be drawn into defensive mode; research indicates that when customers see a business respond positively and professionally to a negative review, they are more than twice as likely to buy from that business than if they had not responded. It shows your customers that you care, and are willing to learn and adapt if relevant to meet their needs.

It’s important to respond promptly, and demonstrate empathy and that you care. An obviously copied and pasted standard response simply won’t do!

If the review is asking for a response or needs more discussion before it can be resolved, take the discussion offline by asking reviewers to phone/email you directly. This provides an opportunity for you to get more detail and has a better chance of resolving the situation.

Feedback that you feel is unjustified can be frustrating, but the way in which you handle this will reflect on your professionalism and reputation, so deal with it in a constructive way. What you need to ask is what led to this customer’s perception. If you get drawn into a debate or argument, just think how many of your potential (or existing) customers could see that response. By the same token, if you feel justified or compelled to make a refund, you’re in danger of setting a precedent if you make this public online.

Listen and learn
Whatever the feedback you receive, listen and learn from it. Keep your objectivity and don’t take things personally. Use the feedback to identify your strengths so you can capitalise on these. And make sure you share these with your team then use the less positive feedback to identify root causes and what changes are needed. Remember to involve your team in the process.

If you only do one thing, ensure you have systems and processes in place so that everyone understands. Gather and share customer feedback first-hand so you can learn from it and act to make continuous improvements.


Dealing with Complaints

Try my LEARN model for dealing with customer complaints, whether in person or online:

Listen actively to the customer – they want to get it off their chest and you need to identify the problem. Park the emotion and focus on the facts.

Show you care and that you understand their concern and why they might be disappointed or feel angry, even if it’s not down to you. Apologise; this isn’t accepting responsibility, but apologising that they’ve been put out or let down.

Agree action or alternatives
Admit responsibility if it’s down to you or the business. Offer alternatives so the customer feels they are in control of the situation. Even if the problem wasn’t your fault, help lead them to a solution to the problem.

Restore confidence
Keep your promise and deliver. Check that the customer is happy with the outcome.

Never again
Learn from the feedback and take steps so you never have to deal with the same situation again.

With the right approach, complaints can turn a negative into a positive. You can’t always get everything right, but when you don’t, make sure you fix it!


Caroline Cooper is the founder of Naturally Loyal and has over 30 years’ training and development experience in hospitality.

Recognising that managers often get promoted into positions without much training, her key focus is on developing newly promoted and junior managers to lead and engage their teams effectively.

Caroline has a number of free resources and guides you can access at

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