How restaurants can use negative reviews to boost customer loyalty

While no restaurant is immune from receiving bad reviews, there are ways to transform them into positive



Nov 25, 2019 - 3 min read

How restaurants can use negative reviews to boost customer loyalty

No restaurant is fully exempt from the impact of bad reviews; even businesses with numerous awards and acclaim will feel the brunt of negative feedback at some point. However, if you catch it early, negative reviews can actually help your restaurant in the long run.

In the age of Yelp and Google, everyone's a critic and a trusted one at that. Before visiting a restaurant, customers are almost guaranteed to turn to one of the various review sites available to decide whether a restaurant is worth dining at. Yelp alone receives 145 unique million visitors per month; so while it's important to have a solid website and social media strategy in place for your restaurant, it's equally important to make sure you're monitoring your review sites. For customers, reviews rank much higher than word of mouth or descriptions from manufacturers. 69% of consumers have their purchasing decisions directly influenced by reviews they've read online, which gives online review sites a huge amount of authority.

As anyone can now be a restaurant critic, the impact of negative reviews on restaurants in the modern world is immeasurable. With stiff competition across the board, customers will use online reviews to discover new places and make judgment calls between two similar eateries. The difference between negative and positive reviews is huge for restaurant revenue. One single negative review can cost you on average 30 customers: four or more negative reviews can take away up to 70% of your business. That one star can be the thin line between battling for reservations and being completely booked for an evening.

A negative review in itself is not the end of the world: it's how you deal with the review that matters. A survey reported that 90% of customers would return to a restaurant where they'd had a bad experience if they could directly communicate with the manager. It's also been shown that future customers reading review sites are sometimes often more inclined to choose a restaurant because of how they've handled a negative review. They interpret that interaction as a better reflection of your business than whatever initial experience the reviewer had. Alongside having an in-depth customer relationship management system that makes sure your customer service is already as smooth as can be, decide which review sites you want to prioritize for your restaurant. That way you'll be fully prepared if a bad review should happen to come your way.

So, how do you iron out relationships with any disgruntled customers without offending them, and potentially win some new customers in return? Read on for our advice on how to respond and turn online criticism into something positive for your business.

1. Read the review and gauge the tone

Read the review carefully and gauge the tone. Make sure your response is not labored–most experts estimate that within two days works best for consumers. Take that time to look and consider what the customer is trying to tell you. The negative element may just be one part of the review: maybe the food was good but came out a little too late? Maybe the customer didn't like the starter but thought your atmosphere was good? It's easy to cherry-pick negatives but look for positives you can thank the customer for too. If you can, pick out key phrases to repeat in your answer to indicate you read through their review carefully.

2. Respond not react

If the tone is more negative and critical, try and empathize with the guest. It’s tempting to immediately want to be defensive but ultimately that will just turn the bad situation to worse. Once you’ve read through the review carefully you can think about how to address their concern in a way that will neutralize the situation quickly. Start your reply by thanking the customer for their feedback and apologizing for any bad experience they had.

3. Solve the problem

Establish the dates of the visit and check with any staff working at the time to see how and if any mistakes were made. If you have any evidence that goes against one of their claims you can ask them for details but try and avoid giving excuses. It won’t give the customer the impression that you’re sincere about responding to their complaints. Remember customers are mainly looking for an acknowledgment of their experience. Mention their criticism in your response as a way to show you’ve read and understood their feedback and then move the conversation on to how you will improve the next time they or any customer visits your restaurant.

Offer to contact the customer further via email and away from the review site if they would like to take the discussion further. It will show both the customer and future readers that you have taken their feedback seriously but also move a prolonged discussion away from the public review site. A third of customers who initially left bad reviews removed the review after they were contacted by the business they were talking about. Your motive shouldn't be to get the customer to remove the review but oftentimes this can be the result of handling a bad review successfully. It's been shown that a one-star increase on Yelp can drive revenue up by 5–9% for restaurants so besides offering great service, monitoring and responding to your online reviews can be a great way to make sure your booking rate stays up and your customers stay happy.

4. Offer a solution

You can also provide compensatory vouchers or discounts as an apology and an incentive to visit again. Avoid focusing on their previous visit but keep the emphasis on their next: "We're sorry that on your last visit we had run out of the vegan option but next weekend we'll make sure to have plenty available!" Beware though how you phrase your offers of vouchers and discounts. Yelp penalizes restaurants which it considers to be offering freebies in return for removing a negative review.

It's important to note that this interaction won't end with just this one customer. You're also dealing with all the future potential customers who may be reading your response and making decisions based on what they find. Consumers appreciate sincerity and honesty above all else, and if you're lucky that's what they'll make their judgement on, not the criticism in the review.

5. Report fake reviews

There are times when your restaurant can face reviews that seem to be made up of false claims or confusing statements. One of the dangerous elements to review sites are the growing number of fake reviews. It explains how one Vice writer was able to manipulate online reviews so a fake restaurant in his back-shed became the number one restaurant in all of London.

Provide any evidence that backs you up if you need to. If you think the review is defamatory or completely false, report it directly to the review site's administrators: most will have steps in place to remove fake reviews as quickly as possible. Remember that consumers are smart: if there's one openly malicious review which says they had a horrific experience next to lots of other positive 5-star reports, most customers will likely put it down to the reviewer and not the restaurant.

There are other tactics to put in place alongside responding to negative feedback like actively promoting positive feedback from guests but overall take online criticism as an opportunity to learn and get free market research. Play your cards right and you may even get a crop of new guests walking through your doors as a result.

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