What to Do When Your Customer Service Mistake Shows Up In Online Reviews

By: on June 7, 2017

Public shaming has always played a role in human society. Unfortunately, it’s here to stay.

But for most of human history, public shaming was a high-effort activity. Someone had to make an accusation, then there’d be some discussion, maybe a community meeting or two, not to mention the burdensome tasks of sewing scarlet letters and making the wooden stockades. It was a lot of work.

Public shaming of two men in 1800s England. Their actual crime is unclear, though it could have involved very low NPS or CSAT scores.


Nowadays, public shaming is as easy as writing an online review or posting to some company’s Facebook page. So, with this much lower barrier to entry, it has become a go-to tactic for customers unhappy with a company’s customer service experience.

In light of all this, small and midsize businesses (SMBs) should plan ahead for the inevitable day when they find themselves getting shamed publicly, whether on Yelp, Facebook or in any of our other digital public squares.

In this report we lay out a five-step process to help SMBs address negative reviews posted online as a result of customer service mishaps.

1. Separate the emotion from the substance of the review

 CHALLENGE:  The customer might have accused your company of some witchcraft-level service infraction, but denying you’re a witch is the fastest way to get drowned like one. Avoid that temptation!

 HOW TO ADDRESS:  Try to view every emotional review as having two separate components: the facts and the emotions. You will need to respond to both, but you’ll need to address each component differently.

The substance of your response will address the facts of the case. While the language you use will help appease the emotions. By language, we’re referring to word choice, the use of active over passive voice and other elements of writing style.

2. Determine if policies and procedures were followed

 CHALLENGE:  If the critical review describes an atypical situation (like an agent who was having a bad day), then that’s one thing. But if the review doesn’t indicate that an employee dropped the ball, then it’s very possible there’s an underlying problem with department policies or procedures. These are your company’s learning moments.

 HOW TO ADDRESS:  More often than not, the problem will have arisen from one of the grey areas within your procedures. These are common in interactions that require that an agent use their discretion to seek a reasonable resolution.

This type of review can also indicate that internal policies lack clarity or that agents have not received enough training. If you’re getting many critical reviews in which the situation seems to have followed policy, then it’s likely that the policy itself or the agents’ understanding of it is lacking.

3. Look for the larger lessons and opportunities to improve

 CHALLENGE:  As the person in charge of customer service, your job is to always be on the lookout for improvement opportunities. While it’s customary to look for these opportunities in metrics, spreadsheets and KPIs, they turn up equally often in your most critical reviews.

 HOW TO ADDRESS:  This is exactly what we mean when we say that customer engagement should be a two-way street.

As companies learn more about their customers, they learn how to better serve them (with new, different products and services). But many companies fail to pick up on the lessons customers try to teach the companies directly, with their reviews, complaints and public rants.

Not every critical review will contain worthy advice, but those that do, will very often suggest policy or strategy changes that wouldn’t be clear from looking at metrics and KPIs alone.

4. Understand that a little understanding goes a long way

 CHALLENGE:  Ever notice how those that rant the loudest are very often the ones with the least balanced understanding of a topic? Yes, it can be frustrating, but in customer service contexts, it’s often very understandable.

 HOW TO ADDRESS:  Remember that your customers are largely blind to your policies and procedures, until they’re forced to encounter them. By then, they’re usually in no mood to appreciate them objectively.

This is why it’s so important for service staff to not only address the customer’s immediate concerns, but also help them understand how those concerns will be addressed. Without an understanding of the context, customers feel lost and helpless.

When you receive an especially ranty review, ask yourself: Were there behind-the-scenes factors of which the reviewer was unaware? Can we share any of those factors publicly with the reviewer (without sharing so much that we make ourselves look incompetent)?

If so, consider sharing what you can, as a little added understanding of the situation is often the missing ingredient needed to appease an upset customer.

5. Maintain balance and perspective when all eyes are on you

 CHALLENGE:  For many companies, overly critical online reviews can be a big source of frustration. These reviews are often emotional and they very often present a lopsided account of events. It can take a lot of restraint to not write a quick reply in hopes of “setting the record straight.”

 HOW TO ADDRESS:  In many cases, the reviewer’s goal is simply to vent, and maybe even “punish” the company with some negative attention. In those cases, what are the chances that your reply will actually set anything straight? Answer that question before considering a reply.

Remember, too, that your response to a negative review is first and foremost a response to the general public. While people do get some strange pleasure from reading nasty reviews, they get even more of that strange pleasure when reading the responses to them.

Negative reviews that receive a lot of attention will very often require a reply, but that reply will be viewed by some very critical eyes. Take your time and respond appropriately, by following the suggestions above.

Takeaways and Next Steps

Finally, remember that complaining online is, for most consumers, the ‘escalation of last resort’. It’s not something they enjoy and most people only do it when they feel they have no other choice. If it’s happening to your company with any regularity, then the easiest solution may simply be to give dissatisfied customers other choices for escalation.

Here’s software that will help you better address negative reviews:

Customer service software will help avoid the vast majority of bad-review inducing service mishaps.

Online self-service channels can help solve problems before they even reach your service department.

Live chat software can keep frustrated website users from expressing their frustration publicly.

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