Businesses grapple with negative online reviews by making nice, hiring knights

TORONTO – Canadian businesses are taking aim against negative online reviews that can often inflict crushing blows on a company’s bottom line and reputation.

Some businesses have made headlines for the unsavoury tactics they’ve employed against their detractors.

One Quebec hotel even sued a guest for $95,000 after he posted a review decrying bedbugs in the room, while an Ottawa restaurateur was found guilty of defaming a customer who complained that her pasta dish was not prepared according to her stated preferences.

But other businesses are instead taking a more professional approach by politely addressing the online jeers head-on.

Amid a sea of five-star reviews for the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise was this recent Trip Advisor pan:

“We were travelling with a tour group and this was supposed to be one of the holiday highlights. It was not!” read the lengthy gripe, which raised several alleged problems ranging from luggage delivery to a “disappointing” breakfast.

“The rooms were small and the bathroom a challenge for one guest let alone two.”

The hotel immediately responded with an apology and a promise to follow up.

“We assure you your experience is indeed not exemplary of the typical Fairmont stay, our high standards, and our dedication to turning moments into memories,” a hotel spokeswoman replied.

“It is unacceptable to read the many times we failed to deliver an incredible rocky mountain experience in this special destination.”

Other businesses are hiring companies to help them to both fight back against reviewers — or to avoid the negative feedback altogether.

One of those companies,, helps businesses manage the way they’re perceived online. Matt Earle, the founder of the company, says that passively accepting or ignoring negative feedback can be devastating to a business.

He points to a 2011 Harvard Business Review study that found that a one-star online increase in an organization’s overall rating could lead to a five to nine per cent boost in revenue.

Earle says he suspects that finding is even more relevant today, citing the exponential growth of online review sites and the increasing influence they exert over customers.

He cited another 2013 study of several thousand Canadian and American businesses completed by U.K.-based BrightLocal — a search engine optimization company — that found 79 per cent of consumers put as much faith in online reviews as they do in personal recommendations.

There’s a human tendency to downplay the positive and give unpleasant experiences more prominence, Earle said.

“People go and report negative things about businesses but can’t really be bothered or don’t remember to report positive things,” Earle said in a telephone interview. “We correct that bias by allowing businesses that are running fine to get the reputation they deserve.”

The main tool in his clients’ arsenal is software that allows companies to aggregate their reviews over the most popular websites and analyze them for trends.

Earle said businesses that hear consistent feedback about a difficult employee or an unwieldy protocol can then change their operations to address the problem directly.

Companies also have the option to track customer info and actively request reviews from them.

Not all of those requested reviews make it online, however. Earle conceded that the most negative ones are flagged for management and not posted, ideally allowing a business to contact the disgruntled customer and try to address their concerns more directly.

“People aren’t pointlessly vengeful, and they actually do want to resolve their issues. So they get their issue resolved, they’re happy,” Earle said.

“The business is happy because they don’t accumulate a negative review. It’s also a good business practice.”

That approach — recommended by Earle and other consultants — is more above-board than strategies used in a couple of notorious Canadian cases.

In 2013, the Hotel Quebec launched a $95,000 lawsuit against a guest who posted a scathing review about finding bedbugs in his room while staying there for a hockey tournament.

Laurent Azoulay filed a countersuit alleging abuse of process, and the issue was not resolved until three years later, when the parties agreed to settle out of court.

As part of the deal, however, Azoulay had to write a letter approved by the company indicating that he saw only one bedbug three years ago.

In another case, Ottawa restaurant owner Marisol Simoes was found guilty of defamation in 2012 after launching an aggressive campaign to discredit a customer.

Elena Katz had posted reviews complaining that staff at the now-defunct Mambo Nuevo Latino restaurant ignored her request to leave olives out of her pasta.

Court found that Simoes first retaliated by saing Katz had mental problems, but later followed that up by setting up defamatory dating profiles on adult websites in the customer’s name.

Psychologists say the need to take revenge against slights or insults is fairly hard-wired — and often laid bare in online review situations.

University of Ottawa psychology professor Tracy Vaillancourt once conducted a study that found students who received negative feedback from professors were highly likely to reciprocate with a negative online review of that professor.

Her findings, which suggested the most vitriolic reviews came from more narcissistic personalities, suggest that fighting a negative bias is a sound strategy.

“There’s an entitlement that’s attached to it, the perception that their opinion is going to be something that everybody’s going to want to hear, that it should be shared,” she said.

“There’s a lack of insight that maybe this was just a unique experience where it’s not reflective of a company’s overall profile,” she said. “In saying that, though, if the negative comments mount, obviously there’s truth in what’s being said.”

Earle agreed, saying no reputation management tactic is a match for a fundamentally flawed company.

“What we’ve found in reality is that it’s completely unsustainable and a very uphill battle to run a bad businesses given how much consumers can fight back with these review sites.”


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