Back in June, I wrote an article about gag clauses and online reviews. Essentially, some businesses attach a gag clause to their terms of service, which says that they may take legal action if a customer leaves a negative online review.
The article received a fair amount of comments, some featuring differing viewpoints. But there was one common thread– business owners and marketers tend to think of Yelp as a bully.
You can’t opt out of Yelp, and you can’t remove negative reviews. So, when you feel you don’t deserve a negative review, what sort of action can you take?
Some business owners fall back on an old American classic– the lawsuit.
I understand where they’re coming from. If they could just sue to get the inflammatory review taken down, they could improve their reputation.
But, in most cases, suing a customer for a negative review goes south. A lawsuit can damage your reputation much more quickly than one negative review. Let’s look at some examples.
The Ornery Orthodontist
Back in 2004, a Kansas City woman left her orthodontist a three star review. Her experience was average, and she assumed three stars reflected that average score.
She soon received a note from the orthodontist thanking her for the review. He said he’d take her feedback into consideration.
“I thought ‘Oh wow, that was really nice of him to respond.’ And I let it go,” she said.
It didn’t take long for the orthodontist’s tone to change.
A month later, the woman received a note from the Orthodontist’s office manager.
“[The office manager] goes through the same lingo as [the orthodontist] but then demands me to take my review down telling me that there’s a difference between ‘free speech’ and ‘commercial speech’ and that what Yelp is – is commercial speech and I was not protected under my first amendment rights,” she said.
Soon, it escalated even further. Other patients were contacting her, telling her to take down the review. They were accosting her in the grocery store.
All over a three star review.
The woman soon found out the orthodontist and his attorney were threatening other reviewers, as well.
Luckily, the woman contacted an investigative reporter at her local news station. She then learned that accurate reviews are protected speech in her state, but many reviewers don’t know their rights and cave once legal action is threatened.
Well, her story made it onto the news. And it’s now one of the top search results for both the orthodontist and his business.
If he was consistently getting negative reviews, chances are there was a pattern in his care or service he needed to address.
Most businesses do get a few one-off bad reviews, just because people are hard to please. But those aren’t the end of the world.
So, to save his reputation, the orthodontist decided to sue. And now his legal threats are immortalized in Google’s search results.
I can’t think of a much worse scenario, can you?
The Disgruntled Dentist
What’s worse than having your reputation compromised by the local news?
Having your reputation compromised by someone who’s a nationally-known blogger, a well-lied twitter personality, and an attorney.
In 2013, a Texas woman left a negative Yelp review for her dentist. She said the facility was clean, but the staff was pushy, and they tried to milk unnecessary dental work out of her.
If you’re a dentist, you’re rolling your eyes. She doesn’t understand how care and treatment work, and addressing all of a patient’s issues is common practice.
Her dentist should have contacted her, explained his side of the story, and tried to make amends.
But he clearly didn’t know how to respond to negative reviews.
Instead, the dentist hired an attorney to send a very strong-worded letter to the patient.
Here’s a little taste of the letter:
“Your willfully false and defamatory comments including that my client is “just out there for the money” are false. Our initial investigation shows that your review was written PRIOR to even seeing another dentist for a second opinion; and that when you did receive that second opinion at a later date, the diagnosis you received was the same or extremely similar to the one you received from Dr. Coppola. Please note that your post to encourage individuals on the internet to “not go here” is actionable. There are numerous lawsuits regarding these types of issues, and the Courts have found that in actions where misinformation is provided, there is serious financial exposure for each and every one of the defamatory comments you have made. If our investigation shows that your actions have resulted in damages to our client and its several locations in Texas, we will pursue legal action against you.
You are hereby on notice that if you fail to retract your libelous post on yelp.com that we will recommend to our client that he pursue legal action against you. Dr. Coppola has already consulted with the authorities regarding criminal charges and the Guadalupe District Attorney’s Office stated that placing intentional false information on the internet can result in a felony charge of internet business defamation and libel. Although we have encouraged our client to pursue this avenue, he has not done so, mostly in deference to the military service of your husband. Dr. Coppola is a staunch supporter of the military and offers military discounts to his patients, such as yourself. However, he understands that if this matter is not rectified, that he must pursue all options at his disposal to protect his reputation of 33 years of exemplary service to his patients.”
A lawsuit and criminal charges? That’s pretty harsh.
The woman in question then reached out for help on social media, and someone referred her to Ken White, an attorney and blogger who focuses on free speech issues. He’s also quite popular on social media.
Ken found a pro-bono lawyer for the woman, who ended his own response letter with this gem:
“Dr. Coppola’s behavior isn’t that of a man with an “impeccable record” or an “excellent reputation.” It is the behavior of a prideful and hubristic man. It is, as you perhaps revealed in the first paragraph of your threat letter, the behavior of a covetous man-a man of envy and jealousy who lashes out at anyone who threatens his hoard.
It is the behavior of a thug. Thugs are not to be rewarded, and Jen B does not surrender to this one.”
Ken recounted the entire story on his blog in a humorous fashion (warning: some strong language), and it is still a high-ranking search result for this dentist.
What’s more, thousands of people read about this woman’s ordeal with her dentist and his lawyer. It’s one thing to get a Yelp review removed, but getting an attorney/blogger to remove a post about you? Almost impossible.
Air Conditioning Anecdote
Finally, I’ll leave you with something that happened here in Boise, where I live.
There’s no news story or blog post about it, but it did result in one local business having to erase themselves entirely from social media.
Here’s what happened, as I remember it– a local man needed his air conditioner repaired. He waited for several hours, and the company he called never showed up. He tried again the next day. They never showed up.
He left a review on Facebook saying they never showed up, and he would not do business with them again.
The business owner saw this man’s name because of the Facebook review, and came into the reviewer’s place of business. He proceeded to threaten the man to take the review down. He threatened to tell the man’s boss, and threatened him with physical violence.
Luckily, the reviewer recorded it all on his phone, which he then posted to Facebook. The man’s employer, by the way? He was just as disgusted with the air conditioning repair business owner as his employee was.
The man posted the recording on Facebook, and it blew up. It was shared over a thousand times, just among Boise residents. People left all sorts of one star reviews and angry posts for the air conditioning business.
They tried to backpedal and say it never happened, but there was proof. Eventually, they had to deactivate their social media profiles. It was the only solution.
If you find yourself in an angry situation with a negative review, I urge you to stay calm.
Take a deep breath and wait a few hours before responding, but always respond. Respond publicly telling your side of the story, presenting facts, and remaining professional. If need be, respond privately as well, and see if you can strike up another conversation with the customer to iron things out.
The worst case scenario here? Your public response remains on the record, and other potential customers can see that you care about your feedback and take your customers seriously. That alone can do wonders for your reputation.
And, in the few cases when a bad review is actually libel? Read this before you act.
Before you sue, consider your reputation. There’s only a small chance removing a negative review with a lawsuit will improve, or repair, your online reputation. In most cases, it will probably just backfire.
If you need help responding to your negative reviews, you can always contact us.
Thanks for reading!