To Respond or Not To Respond: how to deal with negative online reviews


Hi Alex, I have a small bakery. Recently someone posted a review on Yelp that was just horrible and full of total lies. The review said that our food was bad, that the bakery was dirty, and they said foul things about one of the counter girls. Yelp is impossible to work with.

My husband says ignore it, but other people say that I have to respond and call out the person who posted these lies. What do you think? I’m so upset that someone would attack my bakery like this.     Barb

orndee negative comments

As the old song says, “into each life a little rain must fall.” A bad review is a fact of life. How you deal with a negative review can be the difference between endearing current and future customers and turning people off to your products and services completely.


Is the Review a Legitimate Review?

That doesn’t mean that you agree with the review. You probably don’t, but a legitimate review is one in which the consumer shares a genuine experience or an honest feeling about your goods or services.


A legitimate review might be:

1. Worst blueberry muffins I have ever eaten!


2. The bathroom was filthy…makes you wonder about the kitchen!


3. The counter person was rude to me!


Before you post a scathing response, check out the validity of their complaints. Is it possible that the batch of muffins didn’t taste quite right? Maybe an ingredient was off or you used a different brand? I love to bake, but once (while trying to multitask) I forgot to add the sugar into a recipe. The cupcakes looked beautiful, but tasted awful.


Plus, you can’t account for or control other people’s taste. To that reviewer, that may be been the worst blueberry muffin they ever had. But to others, it might be the best. I like Branston’s Pickle in my Tuna Salad…I have never met another person who does. I prefer coleslaw instead of sauerkraut on my Ruben. Is it fair that I based my review on my own weird preferences? Probably not, but most people who read the review will be aware that taste is subjective.


Was the bathroom filthy? It’s possible that the person who used that facilities before the reviewer, had left quite a mess. It’s possible that staff was too busy to stay on top of bathroom maintenance. Small businesses sometime have to turn a closet into a toilet to meet zoning laws. These bathrooms can be cramped, dark, and difficult to clean. Does the reviewer have a point?


Rudeness can also be subjective. When someone is having a bad day, it can be much easier to take offense to imagined slights. Plus, counter people are people too, they have bad days and maybe aren’t always as friendly as they could be. Maybe it was a combination of tired counter staff and crabby customer. But, let’s be frank. Some counter staff are rude. Is it possible that that acerbic wit that you find charming isn’t appreciated by customers?


Have others made similar complaints? Even if it hurts, honest reflection and assessment of your business is an essential part of success.


Is the Review a Malicious Review?

Malicious reviews tend to focus on things that are irrelevant or unrelated to the actual consumer experience or are allegations by disgruntled former staff, vendors, ex-romantic partners, etc. designed to damage the reputation of the owners, staff, or business itself.


A malicious review might be:

1. The bakery is run by people who don’t pay their staff on time.


2. The owner is an ex-con.


3. The owner is a___________ fill in the blank with religion, political party, sexual orientation, etc etc etc.


Malicious reviews are easy to spot. Former employees or vendors or even competing businesses sometimes take to review sites to vent and try to cause embarrassment or harm.  Most consumers can see a malicious review for what it is. That being said, if there are a lot of former staff complaining, you need to review your business practices. Former employees are less likely to vent on review sites if they don’t have legitimate complaints.


<<Reviews that are designed to shame a business or a professional can unfortunately be very effective.

One way to combat these is through creating a Good Karma Bank.>>


TOS Violations Reviews

Most review sites have TOS or Terms of Service rules that posters must adhere to in order to post their review. Posts that include threats, make disparaging remarks about the sexual orientation, racial or ethnic origins, religious or political affiliations, or include personal attacks are usually removed quickly once the site is made aware of the situation.




Do NOT Respond to TOS Violation Reviews Directly.

TOS Violation reviews should be handled by the web site. People who post threats or these sorts of remarks are IMO mentally ill. It is never a good idea to engage these types of posters, as they tend to fixate, obsess, and can become dangerous off line. And don’t I know it!


With Legitimate Reviews: Acknowledge, Offer an Engagement or Detail an Action, and Thank

Reviewers who provide legitimate reviews tend to want the business to do better, to fix whatever their particular issue, and to be responsive and thankful for the constructive critique. The critique may not feel constructive to you, but most legitimate reviews are just that….legitimate reviews.


Your response should have three elements:

  1. Acknowledge their feeling

  2. Offer an Engagement or Detail an Action

  3. Thank the reviewer for the review

That’s it….don’t offer your opinion, don’t justify your position, don’t blame the reviewer, don’t make excuses and DO NOT make negative comments back.


Keep it brief!


Here is how you might respond to legitimate complaints:

1. Review:

“The blueberry muffins were the worst I had ever eaten”



“I am so sorry that you didn’t care for the blueberry muffins, they are one of our most popular items. Was there a particular aspect that you didn’t like? Not sweet enough? Too sweet? Too many blue berries? Too few? We take our customers critiques very seriously and details help to insure that we have a terrific product.

We produce two dozen muffin flavors daily, not including seasonal additions. We would welcome a return visit from you, maybe we can find a different flavor that you will love!

Thank you again for your review. “


In this sample review, you have acknowledged the complaint, asked the reviewer to provide further assistance by providing details, offered to engage the reviewer by suggesting that other flavors might be preferred and finally thanked the person for their review.  That is a winning response.


2. Review:

“The bathroom was filthy…makes you wonder about the kitchen”



“I am so sorry that you had a bad bathroom experience. The bathrooms start the day freshly cleaned and we have a routine check after the lunch rush. But things can go wrong between.

In the future, if there is an issue with the bathrooms, please let staff know right away so that they can address any issues immediately.

Thank you for your review, we will be adding an additional routine check time after the breakfast rush.”


In this review, you acknowledge the main complaint (dirty bathroom) while avoiding the snarky kitchen remark. You have suggested a future engagement (let us know right away when we can do something about it) outlined an action that will be taken (adding an additional check to the routine) and thanked the reviewer. That is a winning response.


3. Review:

“The counter staff was rude.”



“Our goal is to insure that our customers have a wonderful experience, both with our food, for which we are passionate and with our staff members. I am sorry that your experience with one of our staff members was less than expected.

We take your review very seriously and are looking into the situation.

Thank you for letting us know about your experience.”


In this sample, you acknowledge the complaint without offering a justification or throwing the staff member “under the bus.” You make it clear that you take the complaint seriously and you thank the reviewer for making you aware of the problem.  That is a winning response.


With Malicious Reviews: Respond to Policy NOT to the Reviewer

Reviewers with malicious intent want you to do one of three things:


1. Give their accusations credence by responding with details or justifications or personal attacks back.

2. Get you to engage in a response war, which makes you look unprofessional.

3. Compel you to ignore the accusations, making them look true. Silence is seen by many people as a tacit acknowledgement.


Don’t fall into these traps!


Here is how you might respond to malicious reviews:


1. Review:

“The bakery is run by people who don’t pay their staff on time.”



“It is unfortunate that your employment didn’t work out. We wish you success in your future endeavors.”


In this sample response, you don’t give any credence to the allegation, you don’t name the poster or descend into personal attacks, and you don’t invite further comment. A casual reader would assume that the reviewer is exactly what he/she is, a disgruntled ex-employee.  You have responded in a professional manner and have taken the “high road.”


 2. Review:

“The owner is an ex-con.”


Response – If True: “It is so fortunate for us that we live in a country that allows people who made a mistake to have a second chance. Now, in addition to operating this terrific bakery, we work hard to be positive members of the community and to help others less fortunate. Please check out the “community” section of our website We participate in training programs for disadvantaged youth and non-violent ex-offenders, teaching them a trade. We also donate our leftover goods at the end of the day to the local food bank”


In this sample, you acknowledge the accusation, without detailing, justifying, or lying. But you also remove its sting by taking the moral high ground and invite people to work with you to make the community better. 


<<If you aren’t giving back to the community, it’s time to start a “karma bank” right away.>>


Response – If Untrue: “ I do not have a criminal record of any kind, however we do participate in a wonderful training program helping non-violent ex-offenders and disadvantaged youth learn a trade. Please check out the “community” section of our website to learn more about this wonderful project. We also donate our leftover goods at the end of the day to a local food bank.”


In this sample, you refute the allegation simply and briefly. You also detail your community involvement.


3. Review

The owner is a___________ fill in the blank with religion, political party, sexual orientation, etc etc etc.”



“We are a bakery and a family that values and appreciates the diversity of our community.”


In this sample response, you effectively shut down a hater.


The one thing that all of these responses have in common is that they defuse the situation by not taking the bait and instead being brief, positive, and not responding with a personal attack.




People are more likely to make negative reviews then positive ones. It’s just a fact. So it is silly to let a negative comment ruin your day. Think of how many happy customers you have that just don’t give reviews!


<<Have you been showcasing your happy customers? If not its time to learn how now!>>


If the review hit a nerve because you know in your heart of hearts that they may have a point, don’t wallow in self-pity, fix it!


It’s Not About YOU

Legitimate reviews, even ones with which you don’t agree or seem hostile or seem to be about you as a human being, aren’t really about you.  People often post reviews from an emotional place. They may be sad, or disappointed, or angry and the review was a safe way to vent their frustrations. That doesn’t mean that you should dismiss their critique, but rather that that is all it is…the opinion of one person. It’s a valuable opinion, but it’s still just an opinion. It doesn’t define you.


Accept it, reflect on it, make changes if you need to do so, and then let it go.


It is NOT Your Job to Convince People to See Things Your Way

I talk with a lot of small business owners that seem to want to either convince a reviewer that their opinion is wrong or who want to challenge the reviewer as to their right to have that opinion at all. Both of these are so wrong.


It is NOT your job to convince people to like you or like your product. It is your job to make the best product or provide the best service that you can and expose as many people as possible to your product or service so that you build a customer base large enough to insure your financial success.  Notice that I didn’t say that it your job to convince EVERYONE to like your stuff, that is simply not possible.  People have different tastes, likes and dislikes, and experiences and sometimes people just don’t have a rational reason for not liking something. They just don’t. That is THEIR business.


If you are going to work with the public, you have to accept that not everyone is going to like you or your business, no matter what you do. Respect their opinion, respect their right to have an opinion, and let it go. 


You Can’t “Fix” Malicious People

It is a complete waste of time to try and “fix” a troll, an online bully, or a malicious person. They may be directing their attention to you, (though they are likely directing their attention at anyone and everyone who responds to their nastiness) but you can’t reason with them. All you can do by engaging with them directly, is to give them the attention and ammunition that they crave. It’s just not worth the effort and it makes you look just as crazy.


In the previous review and response examples, did you notice that the legitimate reviews included a respectful acknowledgement of the reviewer while the response to the malicious review focused entirely on the principles of the business, without acknowledging or engaging the reviewer?


You can’t ignore a malicious review completely, because in silence there is a tacit confirmation.  But what you can do is defuse the sting, take the high ground, dismiss the reviewer for the bully that he/she is, and let it go.


Dealing with negativity can be a blow to your ego, it can hurt your feelings, and in situations where the negativity is from a malicious or unstable person, it can make you feel quite anxious and depressed. But the fact is, how you deal with a negative online review can actually increase your customer base. If potential consumers see that you respond to legitimate complaints with respect and an honest desire to improve your business, they know that they will be treated with respect if they have an issue.  That is a powerful motivating factor in people spending their money in one place over another.


If you have already made missteps in your response to negative reviews, which harmed your business and brand even more, you might consider taking one of the repair your reputation workshops.

updated from original April 2017 article
Alexandrea Merrell