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  • Tema Frank

A Cure for the Hotel Website Review Blues

You get to work, coffee in hand, fire up Trip Advisor to see if any new reviews of your property have come in. There, amid all the 4 and 5 star glowing reviews, you see a 1 star from a grumpy, impossible-to-please recent guest. It's going to pull your average down, and you won't show up as high in the rankings. Even worse, the customer has also Tweeted about how upset he was with your service, bashed you on Yelp, and told his friends and followers on Facebook. You start to panic. It's the 2nd bad review in a week; you have to contain the damage!

What Should You Do?

The proprietors of the Union Street Guest House decided to fight fire with fire: they wrote into the fine print in their contract that customers would be charged $500 for bad reviews. They felt that the reviews were unfair, and that customers shouldn't be able to slander them in this way.

Legally, they may have been right, but the approach they took killed their business. The first reviewer they tried to ding went public, and a media uproar ensued. The owner tried to claim the fine was a joke, but the evidence didn't support his claim, and it came way too late to save the business.

In fact, thanks to the number of hoteliers and restaurant owners trying to fine or sue people over bad reviews, the US House of Representatives last year passed the Consumer Review Fairness Act, which makes it illegal for businesses to force customers to sign agreements giving up their rights to make honest negative statements. It also makes it illegal to sue them or to threaten harm for honest negative reviews.

That said, you could potentially go to court arguing that the customer's comments were not "honest", but to be totally honest with you, the odds of winning such a case wouldn't seem to be very good. Even if you did win the battle, you'd lose the war: as we've seen with the Union Street Guest House and other similar cases, if you attack a customer who left a review, that is likely to spell the end of your business.

Sometimes fighting back with humor can help, although that can be a risky strategy: sarcasm doesn't always work. It apparently did for the Hotel Doolin, in Ireland, which replied to a highly critical one-star review by not only defending its staff, but saying, among other things,

"I'm sensing a lot of anger in the review above and I know that you probably didn't mean to let loose all that anger on us. Hey, sometimes people just need to vent. Sometimes at night when I come home from a long day's work at the hotel, I check to see if everyone is in bed and then I go out into the field at the back of my house and scream into the darkness. I let it all out, like a wolf on a moonlit mountain. I feel better after that and nobody gets hurt. I'm not saying howling into the night like a wolf will work for you, I don't know your circumstances, you may have neighbours that'll think it is weird, but there are other ways of channelling rage that don't have to involve Hotel Doolin and slandering [front desk clerk] Emma….

"There are three men over the age of forty working in the hotel. Only one of them was working on the night you stayed, so we didn't know how to deal with the 'grumpy old men' in your review, until my assistant manager came up with the only viable solution. We've decided to execute all three of these men to ensure that no other guests will have to endure the horrific ordeal you went through that evening in the bar. Paul, Martin and Luis will be blindfolded and shot in the back of the head at Fitz's cross after mass this Sunday. There will be trad music, cocktail sausages and face-painting for the kids and I can organise a pair of complimentary tickets for you if you wish to attend. I know this will not make up for what happened to you but we hope it will go some way towards showing you that we take your feedback seriously."

Feedback from other reviewers and the media to the hotel's reply has been very positive, and a recent peek at Trip Advisor shows that, while the negative review still shows up first, it is clearly the minority: most reviews are 4 and 5 stars.

The reality is that most customers these days have learned to discount extreme reviews, whether extremely negative or extremely positive. So if most of your reviews are positive, that one unfair one isn't going to kill you. Usually bad reviews have at least some truth to them, so if a customer leaves a bad review, learn from it! Don't get defensive; that's not a game you can win. Even if you think the reviewer is being unfair, the fact is that you didn't handle the situation well enough. If you had, they wouldn't feel the urge to say such negative things publicly. If it is clearly a fake review, you can appeal to the site hosting it; sometimes that will work, especially if you can prove that the person writing it never stayed at your hotel. But if they actually had been your guests, you'll have a much harder time. Instead of arguing with either the guest or the website owners, try these tips for handling bad reviews.

  1. Constantly Monitor What People are Saying on Review Sites - Most review sites will let you set up triggers so you can be notified (even on your phone) as soon as anyone leaves a comment.

  2. Answer Their Comments Promptly - even if you don't know all the facts yet. The faster you respond, the more likely you are to defuse the situation. If you haven't had a chance to investigate, you can start with something along the lines of: "I'm sorry to hear that you had a bad experience. I'm looking into it immediately, and would love to get back to you privately to discuss the details of what happened and how we can make things right for you. You can reach me at …"

  3. Try to Get Them to Continue the Conversation Offline - As you see in the above quote, I suggested talking "privately". The mere fact that you acted fast and with apparent goodwill may be enough to get them to agree to go offline.

  4. If They Insist on Continuing Publicly, Don't be Defensive - If you have investigated, and you believe the complainant is dead wrong, you still, unfortunately, can't say so. You can say something along the lines of, "Thanks again for your feedback. I've discussed it with all concerned and we've re-examined our procedures to make sure nobody goes away feeling the way you did. Be sure:

  • You are not saying they were right to have gone away feeling angry, nor that their accusations were correct. You are, instead, acknowledging their emotions, which are quite real to them.

  • You've also shown that you've done something to act on their concern. Again, if you believe they were incorrect, you may not need to actually change your procedures, but it is a good idea to look at them to figure out why this person may have been upset and whether there is a way to deal with such situations better in future. Showing that you've taken their concerns seriously will defuse the anger, and impress anyone who reads the review and your reactions to it.

  • You are offering some kind of compensation (which they probably won't pursue), but leaving it open as to what that might be. This way you aren't setting a public precedent that would encourage others to complain in order to get a free night or some other valuable "reward" for the complaint. And hopefully this will end the online debate.

  1. Stop at Two Public Rounds of Discussion - Some people just love flame wars. Nothing you can say will satisfy them. But if you've stayed calm and reasonable throughout, readers will discount what the attacker said, and throw their sympathies over to you. So your final comment could be something like, "I'm sorry that we don't seem to be able to satisfy you. I wish you well in your future travels."

  2. Engage with the Happy Reviewers - If your property is small enough, thank everyone who comments, positive or negative. If you only comment on the negative, you are not encouraging people to leave positive reviews, and more attention will be drawn to the negative ones. Try to personalize the thanks (e.g. "So glad you found the beds comfortable! We get new mattresses regularly to make sure guests always have a great sleep!"). If your organization gets so many comments you can't possibly thank everyone personally, make sure you are thanking at least some of them. Try to always have a thank you somewhere in the most recent four or five reviews.

Answering reviews, whether positive or negative, is one of the best marketing investments you can make. Just remember to keep your cool, even in the face of outrageous complaints.

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