Online customer reviews and your business: What are the best practices?

11th Feb 2011

The growth in popularity of on-site review functionality presents numerous problems to brands. Tamara Littleton, CEO of eModeration, a social media management and moderation company, gives some advice.

Systemgraph, a Greek Apple reseller, attracted much criticism when it sued a customer for defamation after he posted negative comments about the company on a public forum (reported here on The case highlighted how powerful reviews have become, acknowledging the influence they have over how we buy both consumer goods and business services.
Thanks to review functionality, we can now see behind the brand’s own marketing speak to see how real people rate their experiences with the company, or its products and services. We use these testimonials to make an informed purchase decision, trusting the views of relative strangers within an extended social network.
It follows that this isn’t always plain sailing for brands. The planned class action by US hoteliers against TripAdvisor shows the power that reviews have on the reputation (and sales) of a company, and the responsibility that review sites have to protect users from fraudulent or even defamatory reviews.
It’s fairly common practice for consumer brands to offer a review or ‘rate this’ option on their sales site (some retailers, such as Argos and Amazon, use popular reviews as a way of promoting their most popular products). And it is becoming every more common - according to the Institute of Customer Service research, just over two out of five UK customers believe that the provision of an online review service should now be standard in all good corporate websites, with 54% of respondents using one if it is available.
Giving customers the option to give feedback is one thing, but what happens when the feedback is negative – and public?
The transparency that reviews offer is driving a real shift in culture in consumer-facing organisations; away from one-way marketing messages and towards a culture of listening to customers, learning from feedback and, ultimately, changing behaviour based on that feedback. Used well, reviews can help a business get under the skin of its customers, find out what they really think of a product – good and bad - and use that information to drive sales strategy, customer service improvement and even product development.
But reviews must be constructive. A series of generic ‘hate’ reviews (“I hate XX product, never buy it, it sucks”) that are non-specific and unconstructive, don’t do anything to inform potential buyers (and are often an indication of a ‘fake’ review). Clear user guidelines can really help to keep reviews constructive and informative, and help to spot fraudulent reviewers.
Reviewer guidelines should be clearly written in accessible language, and – importantly – enforced. Note that we never advocate censorship. If a negative review conforms to guidelines, it should stay up and be addressed by the relevant brand.
Creating user guidelines:
  • Set the tone. Google’s guidelines (worth a read, here) include a series of ‘tips for writing great reviews’ which emphasise the positive aspect of review writing, keeping the tone upbeat rather than punitive.
  • Consider banning anonymous reviews. People are generally more spiteful anonymously than they are when they have to put a name to a review. Anonymity increases the chances of fake reviews (particularly by someone with a grudge, or acting on behalf of a competitive product).
  • Have a clear procedure for reporting fraudulent reviews. For example, if you believe a review is fake, you might ask for verification such as travel dates, a product number, or a store reference.
  • Be clear why you won’t accept some reviews. If you state that certain reviews (for example, those that are anonymously posted (which you could prevent by using a log in system), too generic to be credible, or that are abusive) won’t be published, you’ll deter casual fraudsters. To avoid censorship, you could send a review back to the reviewer explaining why the review was rejected and suggesting ways to make it constructive (such as giving specific information on why they didn’t like X brand or product, where they bought it and asking whether they’ve approached the brand in question for a resolution to the problem).
Handling a negative review
If you run have review functionality, the chances are at some point you’ll get some negative feedback about a product. If you’re going to go to the trouble of including reviews on your site, it makes sense to listen to what they say. Too often, negative reviews go un-noticed, or left without the core issue being addressed.
Listening sounds simple, but can be incredibly hard to do well. Hearing that a customer hates something you’ve poured your heart into creating can be hard to hear, and it’s easy to dismiss criticism. But the process could be a positive one. Testing products early and acting on negative feedback can prevent costly development mistakes. And if a batch of products is faulty, it’s far better to know about it early on, to avoid serious issues further down the line.
If a customer has a specific complaint about a product or service, do what you can to put it right. You might try to take the discussion off the review site, by responding to the individual and inviting them to talk to you directly about what went wrong, so you can rectify the situation. Of course, you must then act on this – promising to do something and not delivering will simply exacerbate the situation. If you have a positive relationship with the reviewer, they will be more likely to talk to you direct than in public, and may even update the review at a later date, explaining how you corrected the situation.
It’s worth spending some time analysing who are the influential reviewers on your site, for example by introducing a ‘rate this review’ system, and giving the highest-rated reviewers priority. A review from an influential reviewer will hold more weight than from an anonymous ‘grudge’ reviewer, and so should be treated as such. Equally, there are customers who just want to rant, and have no interest in engaging in constructive discussion to put a problem right. Failing to recognise this, and getting into a protracted negative discussion that could overshadow all your positive reviews could give the negative review more prominence than it deserves. Sometimes, it’s best to leave well alone.
Interestingly, there is an argument that says negative reviews actually add to a site’s authenticity, and so users are more likely to believe the positives. The BBC news website quotes Rochelle Turner, head of research for the Which? Holiday magazine, as saying that “bad reviews actually help legitimise the site, unlike early efforts by travel companies which removed unfavourable reviews.” 
But there is no requirement for a brand to accept abusive behaviour, even from disgruntled customers. The usual rules apply: reviews that should be deleted include off-topic reviews, spam links, abusive posts, expletives and hate language. No brand wants to be associated with these and suffer the resulting reputational damage. Defamation also comes into this category and should be clearly prohibited in the site terms. But there is no justification for deleting a negative review under the guise of moderation: it will create more negative feeling than leaving the review up and dealing with the issues within it.
Tamara Littleton is the author of A guide to managing and moderating customer review sites”, which can be downloaded from

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