Don't let bad Internet reviews bite


Let's say you're casually googling your practice one day when you find a review that makes your eyes pop out of your head ...

Let's say you're casually googling your practice one day when you find a review that makes your eyes pop out of your head:

They have the highest clinic death rate. That's because no certification is required to work there! There are four investigations pending against this clinic, including animal cruelty. Records prove that most of the deaths occur either when the pet is left alone overnight or during procedures. I don't recommend this clinic to anyone who values their pet's life.

This is an actual posting I found on the Internet about a veterinary clinic I was consulting with. The folks at the clinic had no idea this review existed until I brought it to their attention. I was curious about comments like this, so I searched six ratings sites using 40 practices I work with. Five practices had no reviews or weren't listed on the sites, and 27 had positive reviews. Eight practices had negative comments.

Illustration by Steve Pica

The practice mentioned above conducted a complete investigation of the comment, and it turns out the review wasn't written by a client, but by a disgruntled employee who had been fired. This is why it's important to keep an eye on these Web sites. How much damage has this employee done to the practice?

Know your stuff

First things first. You can't do anything about erroneous or bad reviews if you don't know what's out there—so start surfing. You need to look at the ratings sites and find out what, if anything, has been said about your practice. In "Check These Out," on the next page, I've listed the most common sites in order of popularity, based on my research.

This list is certain to change as the ratings industry grows and more customers log on, so it's important to search for your practice on the Web regularly. If you don't want to do the legwork yourself, there are online "clipping" services you can hire to monitor the Internet and e-mail you any comments, good or bad, about your practice.

The bottom line

The advantage: You

Despite all the potential problems they create, online review services are the wave of the future. Don't ignore them. Instead, use them as marketing and client communication tools.

In a recent edition of American Spa, columnist Karl Bantleman described how he turned online ratings services to his favor. If someone complained, he'd contact the person, invite her to revisit the spa, and attempt to resolve the problem, real or perceived. He even ended up using some of these people as mystery shoppers. According to Bantleman, here's what you need to do to make online ratings services an effective tool for your practice:

> Respond promptly to bad and indifferent reviews using the resources available on the site. Post your own reply, but be open about the fact that you're the business owner.

The legal lowdown

> Offer to rectify the situation if the review was negative or indifferent, and enlist the reviewer's help in improving your service.

> Join a site and write reviews of businesses in your area (but not your competition or your own practice). This makes you a member of the community.

> Participate in featured business advertising programs, such as a sponsored listing or a banner ad.

Next steps

So, you've done your research. How should you proceed? Keep these tips in mind as you navigate the online review landscape:

> Don't try to "outpost" comments about perceived bad experiences with made-up positive ones. People will know what you're up to, and it looks unprofessional. I've identified posts from hospital owners or team members who were obviously parading as customers.

> Contact site administrators to let them know false information exists on their site. Maintain a high level of professionalism. Most online administrators are receptive to honest, articulate requests that refute erroneous claims, and they'll often take these posts down.

> Keep in mind that consumers use online reviews as a way to learn about businesses in their area. Don't overlook this opportunity. Once your practice is listed on these sites, your Web site will get more hits. Each site you're reviewed on will link back to your practice.

Look online

> Spend some time responding objectively to unhappy clients and turn them into happy clients whenever possible. It's no different than if a client were to write a letter or complain in person. Once you respond in a sincere manner, he or she will calm down and may even retract the review. Almost without fail, irate reviews come from customers who are incensed because nobody from the business listened or responded to them in the first place. The rant is their last resort. On the other hand, positive comments are a strong indicator of a good relationship between the business and the customer.

> Ask satisfied clients to use the sites. You can say something like, "If you're happy with our service, will you share your experience online at"

> If you're overly worried about bad reviews, maybe that's a red flag. If your service is excellent, you shouldn't have much to worry about. I read hundreds of reviews for all types of businesses and they're almost always positive. There are times, though, when the sheer volume of negative responses with the same tone indicates otherwise. In those cases, the business probably needs to heed the comments.

Behind the scenes

> While there are definitely some unstable clients out there ranting, they usually give themselves away by their tone, rushed typing style, and heat-of-the-moment grammar and spelling mistakes. Most Internet users will be savvy enough to take these comments with a grain of salt. (If they're not, you're probably better off without them.)

Just as you strive to develop a strong reputation through word-of-mouth, use these review sites in the same way. Ask clients to post positive reviews, and join the Internet ratings community so that your practice becomes part of the system. Once you've tamed the beast, you're a lot less likely to get bitten.

Mark Opperman, CVPM, a Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member, is owner of VMC Inc. in Evergreen, Colo. Send comments to

Mark Opperman, CVPM

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