Softening the impact of negative online reviews

There is always something that can be learned from a client’s opinion, no matter how harsh it may be

Matthew Blum

When I think of the topic of online reviews, there is a classic scene from the cult movie The Big Lebowski that always comes to mind for me. John Turturro’s character is brilliantly and flamboyantly gesturing toward the protagonist, known only as “the Dude,” all while taunting him with vulgar puffery about how his team was going to beat the Dude’s bowling team in the semifinals. The Dude’s reply was a stoic comeback for the ages: “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” If only online marketing were so easy.

To this day, I still remember my first negative online review. I had been practicing for a few years, and things were going relatively well. A few months after I started with a new firm, I received an email alert because someone had posted an online review about me on one of my profiles. I had not practiced for long, and I did not solicit reviews from clients, so this was not a regular occurrence for me at the time. I was horrified about how degrading the review was. The review did not get into specifics, but the client did not mince words about their displeasure with my services.

Part of my shock stemmed from the fact that no one had voiced displeasure to me in recent memory. The review claimed that the client had used my services in the past six months. I racked my brain to think of anyone that may have hinted at being displeased, and could not come up with anything. I am in no way claiming that I never had a dissatisfied client, but I expected clients to come to me if they had a problem. I have since learned that this does not always happen. While some clients will give you an opportunity to make things right, others prefer the anonymity of the internet to air their grievances.

I contested it through the website, hoping that it was a fake review and that they would take it down. The wound must have been fresh still for this client, as they stood by their review and it remained up. My mind continued to search for ways to address the review legally, but deep down, I knew that this was not an option. Defamation law generally does not apply to opinion. While the review was very clearly intentionally insulting, the negative portions of the review were all subjective.

In the rare instance where someone steps into the realm of objectively false and damaging statements, this presents a separate set of problems. The first is identifying the culprit. The website is not going to identify the individual without a subpoena. Then, even if you are able to identify the individual, it quickly becomes a question of what you are willing to spend in order to protect your reputation. A strongly worded cease and desist may resolve the issue, but if the problem persists, how much do you want to spend to make it go away? If you a large business, or if the factual errors are egregious, it may be worth your time to pursue. However, for the little guy, it often may not be worth the effort.

The reality is that some of the most effective ways for dealing with negative online reviews lay outside of the legal realm. In my case, I was able to speak with a few former clients about the negative review. Several expressed how unfair the review was, and were more than willing to write positive reviews to help offset the negative review. This immediately buried the negative review, softening its impact.

The second and probably most effective way for managing these types of interactions is to manage client expectations. This starts at the marketing level, and continues throughout your relationship with the client. While it may be tempting to “sell” a potential client on your strengths, do not oversell yourself or make promises that you cannot keep. Doing so is a recipe for disaster. You cannot please everyone. Even the businesses with the most sterling reputations have had a client that they did not see eye to eye with. With that said, you can reduce the frequency of these negative experiences and minimize the impact of these interactions if you are fully upfront with the client. This will weed out the problematic clients, who are perhaps looking for guaranteed results or unconventional methods. While the business is always nice, it is not worth the hit to your reputation to deal with their inevitable disappointment when you fail to deliver on their unreasonable expectations.

Finally, there is always something that can be learned from a client’s opinion, no matter how harsh. While it is tempting to deflect blame for negative reviews, in most cases, there is something that you have done which directly contributed to that result. If you are getting a lot of negative reviews, there may be a valid reason for that, and changes should be made. Even if the negative review is an isolated occurrence, perhaps there is something that can be learned from their comments that allows you to improve your services in the future. Think about what has led to this person airing their grievances. If you truly cannot come up with something to take away from it, then maybe it is time to quote “the Dude” and move on.

Matthew T. Blum is an attorney for Arwood & Blum, PLLC, focusing on family law, estate planning and probate matters. He can be reached at 360.693.8471 or matt@arwoodblum.com. You can learn more about Matthew at www.arwoodblum.com. The above editorial contains general information and not legal advice. If you have questions about specifics of your own case, you should consult with an attorney.

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