Seeing Stars: 5 Ways to Deal with Negative Reviews

When did people stop trusting their own experiences and start taking the word of perfect strangers? Welcome to the wild and weird world of social media reviews.

In this age of technology and ever-rising prices, patrons have become risk averse to trying a bar or restaurant unless they first look it up on Yelp, Google, Tripadvisor or Facebook. As a patron myself, I am tired of friends inviting me to join them for a meal and asking where I want to go. When I say, “Let’s try this place because I have never been there, but it looks interesting,” the next words out of my friends’ mouths is along these lines:

“Nope, we can’t go there. It only has 3.5 stars, and this person who posts a lot doesn’t like it.”

If you run a bar or restaurant, it’s enough to make you tear your hair out. All it takes is one disgruntled patron to post about “slow service,” “rude server,” or “so-so-food” to keep others away from your door.

I’ve also seen unhappy former employees deliberately try to torch their former bosses by posting bogus negative reviews. On the other hand, I’ve seen owners and managers encourage friends and family to go on their social media platforms, give them five stars, and rave about the food and service.

You can’t stop the former, but I hope you’re not doing the latter.

That said, sometimes poor reviews are justified. Maybe your place had an off night. Maybe some staff didn’t show up, and you had too few servers to take care of too many customers. Maybe a food shipment didn’t come in, so you couldn’t offer an advertised special. Lots of things can go wrong in our business, leading to a poor customer experience.

All businesses these days, from doctor’s offices to hairdressers, are subject to scathing reviews on social media. The question becomes: What do you do about them?

It’s natural to fall back on “fight” or “flight.” “Flight” means ignoring that review and avoiding the conflict. In essence, you’re telling yourself, “That’s just a bad customer.” There are some hard-to-please people, but even so, it’s a mistake to ignore them.

“Fight” means making excuses (“we were understaffed,” “the bartender didn’t show up”). To quote Bar Rescue creator Jon Taffer: “The common denominator of failure is excuses.” In the case of a bad review, perception is reality. Your customer perceived a bad experience and that’s the reality you need to deal with, no excuses allowed.

Dealing with social media reviews is no longer a one-off for managers. It has to become part of your standard operating procedures. Here are five things to think about.

1. Make it part of someone’s job.

Whether you hire a social media manager or make it the owner’s or manager’s responsibility, monitoring and responding to reviews has to become someone’s job. If you have the traffic to justify it, there are systems that can automate and streamline the process.

2. Deal with negative reviews head on.

I have found that people who aren’t willing to deal directly with a conflict don’t last long in the hospitality business. We must fight to keep every customer from fleeing to our competitors. That means we must strategically respond to every negative social media review – not just for the person who had the bad experience, but for anyone else who happens to read that review. If they see a thoughtful, well-written response, they will think of you in positive terms.

3. Acknowledge and accept.

Respond to that bad review by saying thank you: “Thank you for taking time to write your review. I’m so glad you brought this to my attention. We want to provide great service, and I apologize that we didn’t meet your expectations. Please direct message me your phone number. I would love to talk to you further.” This is not easy to do. You must swallow your pride and ignore your instinct to avoid conflict.

4. Assess.

What happened (or didn’t happen) to bring about a negative review? One of the owner’s or manager’s main responsibilities is to train staff to provide consistently prompt and courteous service, so it may be an opportunity to review the basics. Whether the problem is in the kitchen, behind the bar, or at the table, identify it and make a plan to fix it.

5. Move offline.

By asking the customer to direct message you or by providing your phone number, you are creating an opportunity to continue the discussion away from the glare of social media. This minimizes the chance that things will snowball and become nasty. Offline, you could invite the patron to give you another try, comp them an appetizer or round of drinks, and then check with them on their next visit to make sure things are going better.

Once you have turned the situation around through guest appreciation, it’s possible that you will not only have made a customer for life, but also turned them into a brand ambassador. How wonderful would it be for that same customer to write a second review saying they’ve changed their opinion of your establishment?

A final thought: How do you behave as a consumer when it comes to social media reviews? Information is good, but we have to take it with a grain of salt. I do look at the social media sites to confirm hours of operation and address. I’m also looking at what other people have experienced, but I don’t let their opinions determine if I will go to that restaurant.

I often look at reviews of places that I love and what do I find? Some people love them like I do, and others go on and on about how terrible it was. If I listened to those people, I would never go anywhere.

Izzy Kharasch is president of Hospitality Works,, a restaurant consulting firm in Chicago. He has worked with 700+ restaurants around the country and would be happy to offer readers a free consultation. Contact him at [email protected]


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