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Reviewing a bad situation

Getting a bad review online isn’t the end of the world – if you know how to handle it properly. We spoke to hospitality media experts, Hilary McNevin and Holly Formosa, to get their advice on how to best handle a bad review.

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Written by Richard Cornish
31 October 2020
Food writer and author, senior contributor of Bidfood's appetiser. magazine

There is a famous story about a well-known Australian restaurant that received a shocking 10/20 score. The accompanying review stated that the revered establishment was “so far from world class, it’s an insult to our best restaurants.” Five years later, the restaurant is stronger and busier than ever. How did it deal with such a bad review? “They stuck to their guns,” says Hilary McNevin from Turnip Media. “They did not react emotionally,” says the former restaurant reviewer who is now a hospitality industry media advisor. “They took on board the criticism and when the dust had settled, reached out to their regular diners and thanked them for their ongoing support,” she says. “They had the discipline and self-belief to take their time and not react emotionally. That is the secret to handling bad reviews – patience and the ability to turn a bad situation into a positive.”

With commentary intensified by social media, it is not just the tall poppies of the dining world that can come under public scrutiny and criticism. Cafés, bistros, pubs and clubs can have a bad review left by an unhappy client. Customers can leave reviews on their own social media and consumer-fuelled sites such as Facebook, Google, TripAdvisor, Yelp and Zomato. CommsClass founder and hospitality media expert Holly Formosa says, “consider reviews as free market research.” She says when reviews come in, look to both good and bad reviews for common threads. If possible, create a spreadsheet for tracking the number of reviews, star rating and general sentiment. If there is a pattern of comments on good service, this becomes positive feedback for the front-of-house team. On the other hand, if more than one person comments on the level of music in the dining room, a particular waiter with attitude or dirty cutlery, then this should be considered a call to action to set things right.

Holly says the best practice is to react in a positive way to all reviews. “But,” she says. “If you’re a popular venue with a small team, it’s likely you won’t have the administrative support to manage the volume of online feedback.” Holly adds that you’re better off working to improve the standard of food and service than spending time thanking every five-star reviewer.

When it comes to complaints, this is something that has to be addressed. Negative reviews must trigger action. The complainant needs to know they have been heard. This might involve relisting some of the points and saying that you take them seriously and that you are doing something about it. One of the worst responses is the ‘non-apology’ which goes “we are sorry you feel this way.” The idea is that by offering an apology – or better yet, having them come back in to experience the venue as it should be experienced – is that they’ll share their incredible customer service experience with friends and family for free,” says Holly. “That is the ultimate goal.”

Both Holly and Hilary agree there is no joy getting into an argument with a reviewer, especially if it spills into the public sphere. “The only people who get anything out of this are the bystanders,” says Hilary. “It is almost inevitable you will get some bad feedback because no matter how hard you try, you can’t make everybody happy all the time,” she says. “Don’t obsess over it. Don’t get angry.” She recommends that you walk away and give it some time. “Come back and deal with it without emotion and use the thinking part of your brain. Take your time and respond carefully. You don’t want to add insult to injury.”