Shake it Off: What I Learned From a Negative Review

04/22/2015 10:31 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2015

The customer is always right. It's the old adage every business owner will face throughout the life of their venture. But despite your best efforts, it's inevitable that at some point you'll deal with an unhappy customer. And what if that customer leaves a bad review? It will certainly throw you for a loop. But the question is: Will it affect your business?

Review sites have proliferated, and not all the comments about your business are going to be glowing. Sure, sometimes a bad review is unwarranted; sometimes it's untrue; and sometimes you may have made a mistake that needs to be corrected. But whatever prompted the unflattering commentary, you can't let it paralyze you -- it's important to move on and learn from the experience.

Rewind to late 2013, when I opened my Wicker Park co-working space, and decided to offer hourly office rentals to coaches and therapists during the week, hoping to fill an empty room. I was still getting my sea legs as an entrepreneur, and was trying to figure out how to run the business while managing a household and raising two young children. I made a decision not to rent offices on the weekends, disappointing a potential customer with a Saturday need. She quickly wrote a bad review -- an unwelcome surprise since I'd never considered that anyone would care enough to review office space, positively or negatively. But these are the sort of lessons you learn as a startup. Another lesson: I wasn't alone, as fellow entrepreneurs shared their experience with bad ratings, and gave important advice on how and when to take action, and when to shake it off.

Here are some tips on dealing with less than stellar reviews:

  • Respond when you can, but take time before responding. When someone says something negative about you or the business you've worked so hard to build, you may feel defensive. But the more professionally you respond, the better the outcome, so take some time to gather your thoughts and get the facts straight.
  • Be honest -- if you messed up, own up to it. People respond positively to someone admitting when they're wrong, and attempting to rectify the situation.
  • Offer to try to fix it -- if possible -- and if the complaint is made in good faith. If you can offer a customer a replacement or a discount, do just that. Let them know they've been heard and that you're willing to work with customers to solve problems.
  • Keep it in perspective. People looking at review sites are smart enough to discern between real reviews, and kooky reviews that don't add up. And keep in mind that a few middling reviews could actually make your overall ranking look more balanced and reliable.
  • Focus on the positive. Keep in mind that not every negative review merits a response -- so use your judgment. And don't forget to ask satisfied customers to leave reviews on sites including Facebook, Google+ and Yelp. Happy clients are usually glad to help spread the word.

What I learned: It's important to keep an eye on the digital footprint of your business, and your finger on the pulse of your customer. To this end, keep communication lines open, be as accommodating as possible, and make sure you and your staff make customers feel comfortable. You're not going to satisfy everyone, and on some occasions, the customer isn't right, but you should certainly do your darndest to try and find common ground, and head off problems at the pass, without compromising your basic business needs.