What can retailers do about negative online reviews? – Drapers

What can retailers do about negative online reviews? – Drapers

2 December 2021
As more consumers head online to shop, Jasmine Fearnley, a solicitor in law firm Irwin Mitchell’s reputation management team, gives top tips for how retailers can handle negative online reviews in a digital age.
Since the start of the pandemic, the retail sector has been – and still is – having to cope with huge changes. Without warning and with little time to prepare, store closures meant that retailers were forced to shift focus to online sales and grow (or establish) their digital presence to adapt and survive.
This global acceleration towards ecommerce comes at a time when it is quicker and easier than ever before for customers to leave reviews of their experiences (both good and bad) on an ever-increasing number of online platforms. A report commissioned by review platform Trustpilot called The Critical Role of Reviews in Internet Trust, published on 27 February 2020, shows just how much influence that feedback has on the decisions of potential UK customers:
In 2021 and beyond, retailers’ online presence has never been more important. In this article, we explore what retailers can do to effectively manage their reputations when faced with negative online reviews.
Although they may be damaging, not all negative reviews meet the threshold of being defamatory (damaging the good reputation of someone), slanderous or libellous that is required for them to be legally actionable. For a review to be considered defamatory, it must:
A review will not be defamatory unless a business can demonstrate as a fact that it has suffered or is likely to suffer serious financial loss because of it. This will require an analysis of the actual impact the statements within the review have on, for example, the loss of customers/revenue to the business, and is often quite difficult to prove.
Even if the review does meet the threshold of being defamatory, litigation should not be your first consideration as it will be costly and time consuming. In some cases, it can make a bad situation worse by inflaming the reviewer and making them more vocal against you.
In the first instance, your main priority should be to contain the problem and limit the potential harm caused by the review. This may involve reaching out to the individual directly, if the online platform’s functionality allows, and engaging with them to learn more about what is driving the review, with a view to getting the post removed. If this does not work, there are other routes available. So what are your options?
Some online platforms will work with you to remove comments that are defamatory or otherwise violate the site’s community guidelines or terms of use. However, most host websites are protected from liability for defamatory content posted by third parties because they are not considered to be “publishers”. As such, host sites usually have discretion as to whether or not particular reviews are deemed to be inappropriate or defamatory, and whether or not they are to be removed.
Many businesses worry that apologising to customers may involve some legal liability. That may be the case in certain situations, but it could also be an appropriate and effective way to take the sting out of the negative experience that prompted the customer to leave the review in the first place. Showing some form of empathy with that individual’s experience may actually result in the review being taken down. The key is to ensure that the risks either way have been fully weighed up beforehand.
Trustpilot’s research found that 82% of UK consumers have a positive view towards businesses that respond to reviews. It may therefore be in your interest to take the opportunity to “set the record straight” by way of a factual response, all the while demonstrating excellent customer service. This way, you may be able to change the negative impression that may otherwise linger online in a way that best serves you. In this sense, the speed of your response is central to limiting any potential damage.
Another consideration is who should respond. Whether it is a customer service agent or even the CEO would depend on the seriousness of the issue. Making top leadership visible may serve to reinforce the message that the matter is being taken seriously.
PR agencies can assist businesses in successfully responding to reputational risk as well as rebuilding public trust. If your business has been hurt by negative reviews, such agencies can help to drum up and showcase positive content and media coverage, which may help to mitigate damage and restore your company’s reputation. From our experience, PR firms and legal teams should work together on such issues to protect and manage business reputations from all angles. That is why we often work closely with PR companies to provide holistic solutions for our clients.
If all other attempts are unsuccessful and you are still losing business, it may be necessary to consider taking a form of legal action against the reviewer. Sometimes instructing a solicitor can help to resolve matters quickly as it shows the reviewer that you are taking the issue seriously. The first step would be to prepare a legal letter that sets out why the review is defamatory of your business and what the true position is, and then invites the poster to remove the review to avoid any further action being taken against them.
Should the matter still not be resolved, legal proceedings in the High Court may be necessary. This is an unattractive prospect for any reviewer, given that the burden will be on them to prove their words are substantially true. If they fail to do this, they face being ordered to pay damages as recompense to the reputational harm caused, as well as legal costs (which can be substantial).
In today’s digital age, it is vital that retail businesses of all sizes take stock of their online reputation and monitor it closely so as to enable them to act quickly when faced with negative reviews. The value of having some kind of dedicated resource in place to actively monitor what is being said, in and out of normal working hours and across all platforms, cannot be understated. No one is immune to negative reviews, but no company can afford to get it wrong.
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