How to Turn Negative Yelp Reviews Into New Customers

Armed with relative anonymity, customers don’t hold back when they feel they haven’t been treated well, and these reviews can sting. It may be business, but your work feels personal when you’re pouring your energy into something — and someone doesn’t like it.

Here’s the silver lining, though: When people share their feedback online, they’re also giving you the opportunity to transform that criticism into new customers. By facing negative reviews head-on and graciously resolving outstanding issues, you lead with customer service. You show a growing community of people just how you run your business.

After all, no one is perfect. It’s what you do with imperfection that counts. Here’s our rundown of making the most of each bad review, so you can turn your worst nightmare into something positive for everyone.

Leaders need to respond to online reviews

Business owners manage a ton of responsibilities every day. The more they can reasonably delegate to competent team members, the better. But responding to online reviews isn’t a task to delegate. When a response comes straight from a business owner or general manager, it’s much more likely to have a positive impact on potential customers.

Vivian Howard and Ben Knight are restaurateurs in the small town of Kinston, North Carolina. They run two restaurants, and they’re also famous from Howard’s PBS show “A Chef’s Life” and a best-selling cookbook. Despite their incredible success, Ben still answers online reviews himself.

Yelp Review
Image source: Yelp

Imagine if you got this response from your favorite PBS star? Hearing directly from “the boss” shows people that customer happiness is the first priority, no matter what’s going on behind the scenes.

Consider online review platforms besides Yelp

Yelp is the king of review sites. You would be hard-pressed to find a millennial who hasn’t browsed the site to choose a restaurant or a hair salon. Despite its dominance, Yelp isn’t the own place where you need to respond to reviews.

Here are some other platforms to consider:

If you run a niche business, also look out for review sites that are specific to the industry — these offbeat sites may even hold more weight with influencers. Even if that’s not the case, pick out the most relevant review sites for your business, and set aside time every week to respond to reviews on each site. Consistency across platforms is key!

Be specific in responses to customer reviews

Here’s a real opportunity to stand out, since most responses to online reviews are generic and repetitive. They lack meaning, which is frustrating to everyone, especially the customer taking the time to write a review. As a general rule, the more effort a customer puts into a review, the more personalized and specific your response should be.

When you’re writing responses to reviews, stay away from these common mistakes.

1. Never copy and paste the same message

Copying and pasting doesn’t add any value to the customer — if anything, it’s almost offensive. This choice says, “This complaint means so little that it doesn’t merit a specific response.”

2. Don’t ‘apologize for the inconvenience’

Eek! Apologizing for the inconvenience isn’t apologizing for the actual issue. Instead, it shows that you aren’t interested in changing anything for the better. You would rather breeze over the problem.

3. Stay away from the word ‘this’

Any time you use the word “this” on its own to refer to an issue, you’re not practicing active listening. Instead of vaguely referring to a generic complaint, mirror the reviewer’s description of the issue. “We’re so sorry your food was over-salted” gives a much different impression than “We are sorry for this.”

Yelp Review
Yelp Review

Focus on tone and voice

Have you ever met a person who is truly gracious? Someone who is courteous, kind and respectful? Underneath those characteristics, you can tell that they care about the person they’re talking to.

When apologizing for an issue, a gracious tone is everything. Warm, appreciative language can prompt readers to reconsider a reviewer’s negative experience. In short, being gracious disarms people — even irate complainers.

Olives & Grace, a beloved independent gift shop in Boston, struck a gracious tone in her response to a disgruntled reviewer. Even if the owner, Sofi Madison, didn’t repair the relationship with this particular person, she most likely attracted new customers with her warm approach to a dismissive review.

Yelp Review
Image source: Yelp

Yes, this example would have been more impactful if Madison shared immediately rather than nine months later. That said, it’s always better to write a response — even if it’s months after the initial review.

If you can’t project a tone that’s respectful and appreciative like Madison’s, sleep on the issue. Wait until you're less reactive, because it never, ever helps to get defensive.

Honesty is the best policy

Sometimes a negative review isn’t necessarily because of a “mistake” but because of unmet expectations. For example, a customer is unhappy with the price of your product or misunderstood what you do.

In these cases, politely bring clarity to the situation. There’s no need to be edgy with customers, even if the onus is on them for the misunderstanding. Métier Racing and Coffee did a great job in their approach in a negative Google review about the price of their espresso.

Yelp Review

Métier used this moment to educate potential customers. Now, readers who skim through these reviews know that the coffee and bike shop prides itself on having single-origin roasts. And they could very well attract people who want to pay more for the best espresso in Seattle.

The best apologies offer something extra

Knowing how to apologize is a must-have skill when responding to reviews. To inspire people to change their minds, you need to act, too. Specifically, you need to go above and beyond what people expect from good service.

For example, if a couple complains about a hair in their food online, they expect the restaurant to apologize profusely. To really impress people, the restaurant needs to exceed expectations by offering free entrees next time they visit the restaurant.

In the case of the Regatta Inn, a small bed and breakfast on Nantucket, the manager offered a free off-season night to a couple on TripAdvisor who had issues with the heat in their room during a short stay. The manager, Linda, offered a free night in person, but she reiterated it over TripAdvisor and even thanked the reviewer for the reminder to fix the issue — all with a sense of humor to boot!

Yelp Review
Image source: TripAdvisor

Linda’s follow-through showed other people that the Regatta Inn cares more about customers than profit margins. When people see managers who act from integrity in less-than-ideal circumstances, they’ll jump at the chance to be a customer because they know their experience matters.

Transform bad reviews into good customer service

Negative online reviews give you a microscope into what isn’t working. You get to decide whether they make or break your business. By taking the time to resolve issues online, you show your community just how much you value every customer. If you can always learn from these mistakes, nothing will hold your business back!

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