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Handling Online Complaints and Reviews

Handling Online Complaints and Reviews

Business reviews for products or services are one of the most powerful marketing tools available. If you’re going to buy something or go somewhere, the most reliable indicator of value for money is the opinion of someone you trust who’s been there before or as a next best option, the opinion of someone you don’t know but who has used the service recently. By Walter MacCallum, a Director with Aitken Lawyers

Word of mouth – and it’s backed up by research – constantly tops the charts of marketing vectors for any product or service. And the rules around its use, on Google reviews and websites changed last month, as the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) moved to ensure greater transparency.

Analysis generally reveals that almost 90 per cent of customers read up to ten reviews of a business before making a decision. Facebook and Google reviews are among the most popular, but there are plenty of other sites that competitive businesses do keep track of including TripAdvisor, TrueLocal and the lifestyle sections of any major news outlet such as Fairfax’s Good Food - but these are only a few examples.

As of 1 March 2017, the AANA changed its code of advertising ethics to increase the requirement for transparency in online reviews and blogs so that consumers can “distinguish” between advertising and editorial content and to penalise those that attempt to disguise marketing or advertising material as, for example, user generated content, private blogs or independent reviews. Members of the public can now complain to the Advertising Standards Board if they believe a review has been paid for or is otherwise not authentic.

If you own a restaurant or bar that hands out vouchers or other enticements to customers in exchange for Google reviews, you could be caught out. If you or the company you pay to manage your website’s search engine optimisation employs reviewers who advertise on sites like Fiverr where they offer to write reviews that are positive and, less commonly but just as dangerously, well-disguised negative reviews that attack competitors, think twice. The consequences of being publically accused of tampering with reviews are far worse than one negative review.

The point is to play nice, which is great, but what do you do about negative reviews that appear on your Google site?

The first thing to do is respond immediately and publicly in a positive fashion to the review. Business owners should realise that bad reviews are going to happen because it’s in the nature of a complainant to want to let off steam. In situations like this, it’s important to show empathy, apologise if necessary and be respectful.

If you think there was a fault from your end of the transaction, respond by explaining how the situation has been changed and offer the reviewer the opportunity to contact you offline, so that once you’ve made them feel better, you can ask them if they wouldn’t mind removing the negative review.

If the review is simply untrue and you believe that it has been put there maliciously by someone who has not even used your business, say so. And flag the review in a complaint to Google, telling them that you believe that the reviewer is not a real person and that you are being trolled.

If the reputational damage is much more widespread and causes you or your business harm, it’s probably worth considering defamation action. The Australian hospitality industry landscape is dotted with numerous examples of reviews of restaurants that have found their way to court seeking relief for defamatory publications.

The most famous, because it was the first in 1989, is the Blue Angel defamation case where the proprietors of the Blue Angel restaurant in Sydney sued the Sydney Morning Herald for a review written by food critic, Leo Schofield, who wrote that his grilled lobster was ‘appallingly overcooked…leaving a charred husk of a shell that might have contained albino walrus,’ among other devastating criticisms. Customers and patrons of the restaurant stayed away and, to recoup its losses, the owner of Blue Angel took The Sydney Morning Herald and Schofield to Court and won $150,000, quite a sizeable judgement at the time.

There have been many others since, including the epic battle of a review written in 2003 of pork belly served at Coco Roco, which the reviewer described as ‘the porcine equivalent of a parched Weetabix.’

Coco Roco operated two restaurants, and although only one was the subject of the review, both closed in the months following. The legal action lasted over ten years and went to two trials before juries, one before a judge, an appeal and a full High Court hearing, which ultimately awarded the restaurant owners over $600,000 in damages.

Obviously, the levels of stress involved in legal action of this kind are best avoided, and prevention is better than the cure, so follow the rules regarding reviews on your site by keeping them independent and authentic, and if something problematic turns up, seek out the reviewer and work with them to have the review corrected or removed if at all possible.

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