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Lessons in handling online complaints

Ted StreuliBruce Rinehart was fuming.

His Oklahoma City restaurant, Rococo, suddenly had a stinging negative review on Urban Spoon, an online restaurant guide that aggregates reviews from professional critics, bloggers and diners.

No restaurateur wants an unhappy customer airing grievances in a public forum, but Rinehart was especially upset because the post wasn’t from a customer; it was an angry former employee posing as a patron, and there was no immediate recourse.

In the ensuing two years, the comment was pushed down the list by comments from real customers, most of whom had something positive to say. But the availability of the online critique can help or hurt a business, and negative comments, even if they’re fake, can damage a reputation.

Consider the best-known example, Amy’s Baking Co.

The Scottsdale, Ariz., restaurant was featured on the Fox reality show Kitchen Nightmares, on which chef Gordon Ramsay is invited by the owner of a failing restaurants to spend a week helping revive the business. Amy’s Baking Co. had been the subject of many negative comments on social media and local review sites, which led to Ramsay’s invitation.

In the now infamous episode that aired May 13, 2013, owners Samy and Amy Bouzaglo became so defensive and argumentative that Ramsay gave up, concluding he could not help them.

In an effort to minimize the damage done by a negative review seen by 3.34 million people, the couple hired a local public relations firm. But they had already responded to a deluge of negative comments on Reddit by using fake accounts, and they had fired back at posters on the restaurant’s Facebook page, which they soon took offline, claiming their accounts were hacked.

Forbes contributor Kelly Clay writes about social media. She jumped into the Amy’s Baking mess after watching the social media fallout after the episode aired. It led her to draft a list of seven rules for business owners on social media: Don’t reply to everyone; don’t respond to trolls; don’t react to everyone; Reddit is not for the weak; don’t insult people; learn to walk away; don’t lie.

Jay Shek, the CEO of business comparison site Locality, which publishes reviews from Yelp, said negative reviews are inevitable. And the business owner’s response can make matters worse. Shek boils it down to four mistakes: Posting fake reviews; overreacting; being too passive; and keeping the conversation online.

The common lesson is that there’s no way to win when a business owner decides to argue publicly with an unhappy customer.

That’s a lesson for social media use that should have been learned from in-person customer contact. No restaurant patron enjoys the meal when an owner or manager is in a shouting match with a customer. Pouring gas on a disgruntled customer’s fire via Yelp, Facebook or Reddit has the same effect, but with a much larger audience and on a much more permanent stage.

Shek said the best practice is to read all the reviews and take them seriously but to keep emotion out of it. It’s important to manage the online reputation, and potential customers do look at reviews when they’re ready to make a buying decision. They look at the owner’s responses, too, and a calm, reasonable resolution to a complaint can outweigh the original complaint.

Urban Spoon deleted the fraudulent negative reviews from the former Rococo employee, but Rinehart said no one’s perfect, and on any given shift it’s possible to make a mistake. When he sees a legitimate complaint online, he tries to make contact by telephone or private message, but never makes the conversation public.

“We’ve had some great success stories,” he said, “where reluctant customers not only came back but became very good friends of the restaurant.”

Ted Streuli is the editor of The Journal Record in Oklahoma City, published by The Dolan Company, which publishes the Idaho Business Review.

About Ted Streuli