In social media, bad customer reviews used well are the best marketing

“How do I delete this review?”

The request from a client – a small restaurant already doing badly – was a true facepalm moment. She had received a bad customer rating, not the first for that restaurant, criticising things such as a long wait for food, small portions, some dishes served hot and some already cold, and an indifferent attitude from the front of house staff.

This client’s only response to the review was wondering how she could remove it, so it would not put other customers off coming to her restaurant. In the end, she wrote a terse, defensive apology. The customer never came back and the business continued to struggle.

People, even hangry, tend to mellow after they have eaten – assuming the food and the service reach a reasonable standard. Most people are forgiving, especially if treated with respect and warmth, and their concerns or dissatisfactions are acknowledged. So for consistently bad reviews to be turning up, maybe there was actually something wrong.

“The customer is always right.”

… the idea that a business should, from the ground up, be built around the needs and expectations of its customer. In the 20th century, for the likes of its coiner Hemsworth, the phrase was an empire-building insight that became a powerful marketing principle. Now, in the 21st century, for almost any business operating within a competitive market, it is the basic premise of survival.

Social Media Destroys Businesses

Founder of Hootsuite Ryan Holmes identified it in his unnervingly concise book The 4 Billion Dollar Tweet. Social media has the ability to strip value from a corporation within hours; but it also has the potential to utterly crush the SME.


The savvy business owner always understood the power of excellent service: even the smallest transaction should be measured not only in the dollars exchanged that moment, but in the potential revenue gained from a lifetime of customer loyalty. On the other side of that coin, where once a bad moment could be shrugged off, today a bad story, shared and amplified, can do lasting damage.

More about the sharing and amplifying soon.

It could be argued that mainstream media had the power to damage big business. But even then, it was easier for journalists to be silenced by an influential client, for newspaper execs to be persuaded to make a bad story go away. But for a small business, being attacked by mainstream was rare, and surviving generally meant keeping low, staying quiet, waiting until it “all blew over.”

But the Internet doesn’t forget, search algorithms love relevance, and brand beat-ups equal good content: it’s in our DNA to pay attention to conflict. We love a good fight. So mud, as they say, sticks.

Weighing in and Virtue Signalling

The inevitable result of a bad review or a storified gripe about a business is that others will get involved. Social contacts adding their own experience – possibly embellishing it – offering sympathy or advice, or simply using the social channel to let everyone know how outraged they, too are.

If a story has the elements of virality, for example a complaint relates to children or animals, moral outrage can explode. When a post reaches that point it can seem that everything is lost for a business, but even from there, recovery is possible.

The key consideration in responding to any bad review, complaint, or online stoush should be this:

The customer probably had a point.

From their perspective, they were unhappy with the business’ service, product, or behaviour. In the case of the restaurant mentioned earlier, the complaints were very legitimate. The front of house staff were poorly trained, the kitchen was understaffed and unable to meet demand at peak times, the food was expensive and poor quality compared to a nearby competitor.

A savvy business would take the review as helpful feedback – perhaps conducting a small survey to get a broader picture from current and ex-customers – and make positive changes. This, for an agile operation in a competitive market, simply makes good business sense.

Regardless, it is the response to the review or post that is key: deleting it is not an option.

The Apology

An effective response – yet remarkably difficult for some, especially small business owners who feel they have been personally attacked – is simply to apologise. Acknowledging the complainant’s feelings, accepting their criticism, and, most importantly, committing to change. Research shows that apologies are most effective when the apologiser incurs some level of cost, not necessarily financial, as well as making a commitment to do better. The offer of a replacement, a refund, or even some other gesture or gift can have the effect of turning a detractor into a raving fan, creating social media’s greatest gift to business: the personal endorsement.

Hated a product? Imagine being offered not just a replacement, but an upgrade to a better model. Disliked a meal? A full refund, and a shopping voucher. Unimpressed by service? A personal response from the business owner and a luxury gift hamper.

Any business baulking at the expense of such gestures should remember, this should come out of the marketing budget. A response to a complaint that has its own shareability, that is storifiable and creates engagement, is well worth the investment. Other people will see how well the business handled the complaint, they will share and talk about it, and the original reviewer goes on to become a hero, and in some cases, a champion of that business.

The Discussion


A large (unnamed) player in New Zealand’s massive dairy industry recently expressed dismay at a story run on a local news site. Although the story itself had a positive – perhaps sponsored – spin, it was taken up by social media, and the public were merciless in their crictism of Big Dairy.

The organisation’s agency, not equipped to act as community manager, washed its hands of the fallout and panic ensued. This is the driver of many bigger corporations’ fears: that public groundswell may go against them, damaging their brand, their turnover, and impacting the shareholder.

There are two appropriate responses to this, and both will be increasingly necessary for the survival of big business – and this applies even to the social media channels themselves.

The first is to acknowledge that the Big Corporation’s social, moral and environmental age of reckoning has come. Social media has forced transparency like never before on big business, and as global communities continue to grow in influence, the pressure to behave ethically will, too. The expectation for all business will be sustainability, accountability, and ethics over profit. The dinosaurs that try to hold on to the power structures of the past will find themselves facing extinction.

The second is to have the discussion. Provided the (dairy) company meets those criteria of environmental and moral accountability, it can respond honestly and openly to critics. And it should respond. It may not persuade the harshest critics, but the debate will be seen by many, the majority of whom may not contribute but will read. Timely and compelling responses can make all the difference, and change opinions.

The clap back

The riskiest, but potentially most successful response to critics is the sassy comeback. The clever or fearless business can employ this and the rewards can be significant. Most suited to businesses or enterprises that can be confident that they hold the moral or intellectual high ground, or at the very least have the support of their key customer base.  

Nuance is everything, here. The sassy response recognises that human motivation for complaining, criticising, or stirring up trouble is not always genuinely in the interest of providing helpful feedback: it may be for self-gratification, ego, virtue signalling, or personal gain. Whether the smart response is seen as a calculated smackdown of a troll, or corporate bullying of a poorly-informed or aggrieved individual could be the difference between hilarity and outrage.


Attitude can be a huge game point in making a brand memorable and winning the ongoing support of its customer base. Human beings are tribal and factional by nature, and by nourishing and capitalising on conflict, the most compelling topic to the human brain (fighting, food and sex are the top three, in descending order) the clap-back can be social media marketing at its finest.

It’s About Conversations

Whatever the response, a response is needed. Social media has changed the game for business forever. Ironically, in a sense it has turned back the clock to an age when the merchant was accountable to their community; but in the twenty-first century, it can be on a global scale.

The phrase “feedback is a gift” used to mean it created an opportunity for a business to improve on the strength of customers’ criticism. Now it is so much more: feedback in the online space itself is a creative asset to be included in the marketing.

Conversologie offers content strategy management for clients, along with in-house training in social media marketing, social advertising and much more.

Start a conversation with our Chief Conversologist, Jam Mayer.

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