The rules have changed! How to battle unfair Internet reviews (Proceedings)


The rules of marketing aren't what they used to be! I remember "back in the day," before cellphones, smart phones, or the Internet, we knew how hard we had to work to keep our clients happy if we made one unhappy.

The rules of marketing aren't what they used to be! I remember "back in the day," before cellphones, smart phones, or the Internet, we knew how hard we had to work to keep our clients happy if we made one unhappy. You probably remember—if we made someone happy they would tell three people, but if a client left unhappy they would tell ten people. We had to work over three times as hard to keep clients happy for everyone we irritated! And, I've always contended that even this was an underestimation because most of us that are satisfied with a service provider probably expect some degree of satisfaction, so when we get it we don't necessarily jump for joy. If I like my plumber, which, by the way, I do, I'm probably not going to pull out my Rolodex (electronic, of course) and call my entire friend list. If, however, I'm out with my friends socially and one is complaining about a plumbing problem or actually asks if I know a good plumber, I would absolutely refer mine. But, if someone is really upset or feels taken advantage of by a service provider, they seem to want to tell the world! Well, guess what? In today's age of the Internet they can—and do!! Now, instead of complaining to their ten friends, they'll complain to ten thousand, or one hundred thousand, or even more!! So, if you still want to follow that three-times rule of keeping clients happy, you are going to be a very busy doctor!!

The few complaining clients I used to have never really bothered me that much, mostly because I had way more happy, loyal, long term "fans." Of course I would follow up with the complainers, listen to them and try to dissect the problem, and do my best to resolve the issue to keep them happy. Their complaints were often legitimate, usually the result of some breakdown in communication, and we could frequently make these criticisms constructive to improve us and our staff. The key, however was that these "interactions" were typically one-on-one. What I've discovered of late is that these interactions are now more frequently one-on-thousands!

Unfortunately, on the Internet, there are currently no rules or regulations in place with regards to "free speech." The concept of "professional slander" is non-existent. The review web sites are totally immune to legal ramifications citing their policies that their printed reviews are solely the views of their contributors. They accept no responsibility! Oh, sure they may screen the reviews for vulgarity, or maybe even, so they say, for viciousness, but have no interest in screening for the truth! Basically, you're on your own! Unlike a journal article where an author will be notified in writing and given the fair opportunity to respond, in print, to challenging viewpoints, negative Internet reviews are sitting out there, unchallenged, for everyone to see.

So, who are these complainers? Many, believe it or not, seem to be professional complainers! You can see that they've contributed several reviews—mostly negative. I think they feel it is their obligation to protect the world from the terrible people that we are! I read one fairly obnoxious, very caustic review from a client whom I recognized immediately. She cites an experience where her dog was vaccinated during a boarding stay at our office. Our policies regarding boarding pets needing to be current on vaccines is very clearly printed on our boarding intake forms. Since, according to our records, her dog was overdue on his vaccinations, and no notation regarding vaccine updates were provided on his boarding form, my technicians updated the vaccines as per our policy. Upon pick-up, while reviewing her invoice, the client noted that we gave the required vaccines and she just about "had a cow," claiming that she "told" our receptionists on the phone when she scheduled the boarding appointment that she recently had her pets vaccines updated at a local vaccination clinic. Unfortunately, no notation was made. Of course, given the client's long standing association with our hospital and our desire to make things right, we removed the charge and advised her that these vaccines would not harm her pet, and even advanced the next due date to reflect the more recent vaccines. This sounds like a "no-brainer," right? Well, here are the many "kickers!" Firstly, this review appeared in September 2010, but the actual event took place in 2005! What's more interesting is that this client has been in many times over the past five years, as if nothing happened. And, even more upsetting, is the fact that she's an attorney—a service provider just like we are. Amazing! Well, I called her to ask her about her review, in which she also mentions, by the way, how competent and knowledgeable our veterinarians were, and she told me she felt she had an "obligation" to share that experience because she felt we provided the additional service without permission "because we wanted to make more money!" I guess our explanation as to why we gave those vaccines to make sure her dog, and our other hospitalized and boarding dogs remained protected, and that we reversed the charges anyway without objection, did not resonate with her at all! In reality, she just wanted to complain. I am sure, that as a lawyer no less, she's never had a client leave her office dissatisfied! Judging by her constant concerns about our fees and the lousy old clunker she drives, I don't think she's a very good attorney anyway!!!

Another very negative review came from a non-client who shared her experience when she came to our office to purchase a case of prescription diet. She goes on to say that she came in and told our receptionist that her regular veterinarian is farther away so she wanted to come to a more convenient hospital to pick up the food. For me, this was a golden opportunity to make a new client, but my receptionist, in her infinite wisdom, explained to the client that since we didn't have a "doctor-patient" relationship, we could not sell her the food. Obviously, this client was not very happy, and, boy, did she share her dissatisfaction for everyone to see. Trying to "make nice" and explain the "method to our madness," I clicked on the icon under her review where I could respond to her directly in private (at the time I didn't think it appropriate to share my comments with the world). In my first line, I apologized profusely for her negative experience, and explained that my receptionist was not totally wrong in that in order to sell any prescriptions, including diets, we really need to have that "doctor-patient" relationship. I did mention, however, that it would have been possible to contact her veterinarian's office and get an okay to sell the food, and that we would be acting more like a pharmacy than her primary care provider. Telling her how badly I felt, I also offered a courtesy exam (since she mentioned we were more convenient), if she were ever in a bind or had an emergency and needed immediate attention, as a way of apologizing. I thought the way I handled this was pretty impressive—what more could I do? Well, it obviously wasn't impressive enough because she never responded to my note. Not even a "thanks, but no thanks!" Again, another who clearly wasn't looking for resolution, just looking to complain.

How should we be handling these negative reviews? One thing for sure—don't ignore them! At the very least, use them to truly evaluate your service goals and practices. If you see a pattern, maybe these reviewers have a point and their concerns need to be addressed. Are you considerably more expensive than your competition? Are your clients not appreciating the value of your many services? Is your wait time in fact too long? Does your receptionist staff need a refresher course in customer service? Should your estimates be more accurate? Should your technicians spend a bit more time with clients upon discharge making sure they understand the medications and post-care instructions? Are clients getting the impression that you no longer "care?" Reviewing the on-line reviews from several hospitals, these are some that seem to pop up the most.

The internet marketing mavens seem to agree that when possible your negative reviews should be answered. If you know the reviewer, you may elect to call them and try to resolve the issue(s) at hand, if not, you can answer via the same review site. Whether or not to answer directly to the client, or publically is up to you, but I think it depends on the situation. Given my experience in that most often, the complainer isn't really going to care what you have to say, and apparently isn't looking for resolution, my recommendation now is to answer publically. For those many internet surfers who look at these reviews in the first place, I think it wise for them to see the "other side" of the situation, and, more importantly, to see how you handled it. I should have responded to that woman complaining about the prescription diet episode publically so everyone can see why there was an issue, and how well (at least I think) I handled it. Anyone reading my response may say: "Wow, what a nice guy—what more could he do?" I may even pick up a client just because of how I handled the situation!

When you prepare your response, always take the "high road." Don't challenge the reviewer in a public forum—that's a lose-lose. If there's a viable explanation—share it, if there was truly a screw up from your office—apologize. If there's a lesson to be learned—thank the reviewer, and learn it! Try to resolve the problem offering whatever you can that will make you appear to be the classy one. Some of these reviews are true "lemons," so try to make them into lemonade!

It is not recommended, at least at the first pass, to ask the reviewer to remove or modify the negative review. You don't want them to think that your only reason to seek resolution is to remove the negative review. The reviewer needs to think that your true motivation is to solve the problem and bring satisfaction. If successful, and your positive relationship with the client is re-established, after a while if the review is still posted you might want to politely ask them to re-consider and remove the old one and even write a new review. Tread lightly!!

If you feel very strongly about the inaccuracy or clear misrepresentation of a negative review, you do have the option of contacting the site responsible for posting the review and disputing it. If you can prove the review's false information, there is a good chance they will remove it.

Good luck with these reviews! In Part II we'll cover how to fight back and increase your "internet" image with great reviews and a positive web presence.

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