How to respond to negative online reviews
13 MAY 2015 8:46 AM
While there are best practices for responding to online reviews, sometimes negative reviews can be damaging to business. In these situations, legal recourse is available.
Third-party sites incorporating user reviews, such as Yelp and TripAdvisor, are an increasingly important driver of property bookings. They are likely to surge in importance with the growing reliance of consumers on online research and reviews, particularly the tech-savvy millennial generation of travelers.
Although members of the hospitality industry have long known that online reviews play a major role in bookings, there is significantly less consensus regarding how management should handle and respond to negative (or even false) reviews.
For instance, many properties have reported that some guests engage in “review blackmail,” threatening the prominent posting of bad online reviews if their demands for various services or discounts are not met. Other online reviewers mysteriously post negative reviews about hotel amenities that aren’t offered at the alleged offender’s property, suggesting that reviewers are either confused about which property they visited, or knowingly post fictitious reviews.
Considering these unsavory tactics, how should management respond to online reviews, if at all?
Put simply: Management should respond, and do so regularly but cautiously. According to a recent TripAdvisor study, hoteliers who provide a management response to online reviews see a 21% increase in their booking inquiries over those who choose not to respond. Further, properties responding to more than 50% of reviews can expect a 24% bump in booking inquiries. Managers in the hospitality industry have learned that taking part in the online conversation can turn an undesirable customer experience into a positive one while also building interest among potential guests who appreciate that management cares about improving their facilities, service and reputation.
Here are a few best practices for responding to negative reviews:
- Post a response as soon as possible. Remember that the longer it takes you to respond, the more potential guests will become discouraged from visiting your property.
- Because relationships are valuable, take the time to thank the reviewer by name and assert that you appreciate the feedback. It will reinforce the fact that your hotel is engaged and attentive to customer complaints.
- Say something to the effect of, “We are so sorry you had a bad experience.” Even if the review was rude, unfair or petty, expressing sympathy signals that you take all complaints seriously and are not dismissive of your customers.
- Take the opportunity to note any changes you have made in light of the complaints. Illustrating your property’s commitment to providing a superb customer experience in the future might not placate the complaining guest, but it will be noticed by other potential customers.
Taking legal action
Sometimes negative reviews can be damaging to business. In these situations, legal recourse is available. However, it is best to proceed with caution when taking litigious action against a libelous online reviewer.
First, before rushing to court, consider whether the negative review contains false statements of fact. If it is merely subjective opinion (e.g., “this hotel is awful”), then it is typically non-actionable.
However, where an online reviewer is indeed posting actionable disparaging statements such as false information about a property (e.g., “this hotel is infested with bedbugs”), litigation is a viable option. Be aware, though, that many states have enacted anti-SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) laws. Though such laws were originally enacted to prevent businesses with deep pockets from using litigation to deter vocal criticism, they are a formidable weapon in the arsenal of the defendant and are often invoked in cases where there was never any real intention to infringe on free speech rights.
At present, anti-SLAPP laws exist in 38 states and Washington, D.C. When a consumer is sued under a cause of action sounding in defamation (among other potential claims), the consumer may respond with an anti-SLAPP motion, forcing the plaintiff to produce evidence supporting the merits of its claim at a very early stage. If the plaintiff is unable to do so, the case will be dismissed at the outset and the defendant is entitled to recover attorneys’ fees from the plaintiff. Such motions are a way for defendants to obtain quick termination of litigation against them, often even before the plaintiff has had an opportunity to uncover favorable evidence. Accordingly, a plaintiff contemplating suing a defamatory reviewer must take extra care to thoroughly investigate the facts in advance of filing its claim and structure its complaint to avoid falling into an anti-SLAPP trap.
Some business owners have sought ways to insulate their companies from negative reviews altogether by including non-disparagement clauses in their online terms and conditions (referred to as “clickwrap”). However, such methods are questionable, and a recently-enacted California law (California Civil Code § 1670.8, known as the “Yelp” law), actually prohibits these agreements.
As of 1 January 2015, the law explicitly prohibits businesses from requiring their customers to agree not to comment on the business’s services or from penalizing customers who give bad reviews. Hence, clickwrap, and similar consumer restrictions, are not only unenforceable in California, but unlawful. Moreover, the new law does not contain any geographic limitations, applying equally to out-of-state entities doing business in California. The Yelp law provides maximum statutory penalties of $2,500 for the first violation, $5,000 for each subsequent violation, and a maximum penalty of $10,000 for willful, intentional or reckless violations.
Perhaps most alarming is the vaguely worded portion of the Yelp law making it unlawful to “otherwise penalize” a consumer for a review. Because the law does not define what may be considered a “penalty,” this portion of the statute is likely to gain definition through case law. It does not require much imagination to predict that creative plaintiffs’ counsel may seek to tie a guest’s adverse review to a number of wide-ranging alleged “penalties” that may be entirely unrelated. These could include the expiration of rewards program points, or a guest’s inability to obtain a favored room or service booking.
Accordingly, it is crucial that management handle responses to negative online reviews carefully to avoid giving the impression that the property has any intention of “penalizing” the consumer at that time or during a future hotel stay.
Despite the risks associated with the improper handling of negative online reviews, responding to criticism on the Internet is imperative to the health and future success of hotels.
As millennials increasingly affect hoteliers’ bottom line, many are learning too late that guest relations in the modern era extend well beyond the hotel lobby. Creating and implementing policies for appropriately managing social media communications with customers and potential clientele is no longer just a means of getting a leg up on less tech-savvy competition, but an essential component of running any sustainable hospitality business.
Ilse Scott is an attorney in Michelman & Robinson, LLP’s (M&R’s) Hospitality Group. She can be reached at email@example.com. M&R is a national law firm with offices in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Francisco, Sacramento and New York. For more information, please visit www.mrllp.com. This article is not offered as, and should not be relied on as, legal advice. You should consult an attorney for advice in specific situations.
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