For the owner of a small eCommerce store, negative reviews can be terrifying.

Customers rely on reviews to make purchasing decisions, and a negative review can dissuade potential buyers. For a small store operating on thin margins, the loss of sales can be deadly. But, with the right approach, it’s possible to turn negative reviews into a positive for the business.

Negative Reviews Can Be Valuable

No product can satisfy every customer, and negative reviews reflect that. A customer bought a product from your store and found it did not meet their expectations. As a store owner, you want to make sure that buyers are happy with their purchases, and negative reviews can help customers make the right decision. Provided the review is detailed enough to explain why the product was not suitable for that customer’s particular needs, don’t be tempted to remove it.

As Mark Smallman explains:

"Displaying negative reviews can help users identify whether a product is a good fit for them, and a mix of positive and negative reviews simply shows each customer has different tastes and needs."

You might also consider why the customer bought a product that wasn’t suitable. Is the product page copy sufficiently detailed and clear that a reasonable person would understand what the product is for? Use the negative review as an opportunity to learn how on-page copy and images can be improved.

Responding to Negative Reviews

If a negative review is thoughtful and you have decided to leave it in place, you should respond to it.

First things first: Don’t argue. Don’t take it personally.

Remain professional and polite at all times. A defensive and angry response to a negative review can do more harm than the review itself.

Respond to the review briefly and succinctly. Give the customer the benefit of the doubt. Your response to a negative review can also prove valuable to future buyers, so make sure you address the customer’s issues if at all possible.

Feel free to push back gently if the customer is being unreasonable or making untrue claims, but avoid arguing with them directly or accusing them of being dishonest. Don’t be tempted to use data from the customer’s support requests or purchase history to back up your point. Simply state the position of the company, and offer the customer an opportunity to discuss the matter with you or your support department.

Use the Future Tense

One of the most effective ways to avoid falling into the argumentative trap is to use the future tense where possible. When you discuss issues in the past tense, the temptation is always to quibble about exactly what happened, leading inevitably to conflicting interpretations of facts and events, and, even more damaging, to a questioning of the customer’s experience with your company. That’s an argument you cannot win.

We’ve all had arguments with our friends and family that quickly degenerate into nitpicking examinations of who said and did what. Everyone has a different experience of events, and each has different motivations for the spin they put on them.

Rather than wallowing in the past tense and deliberating about what happened, acknowledge the content of the review, and attempt to shift the focus of the conversation into the present and the future: talk about what the company is doing now and what it can do in the future — the opportunities and choices the company makes available to its customers and employees.

Be Direct and Sincere

Everyone who keeps abreast of recent events is aware of the incident involving United Airlines staff in which a passenger was violently removed from a flight after having taken his seat.

The incident itself was appalling, but what really got to people was the statement made by CEO, Oscar Muñoz, which was a masterclass in using euphemisms, passive voice, weasel words, and an unusual characterization of the facts to absolve the company of responsibility for what had happened.

It’s often tempting — not least for legal reasons — to reply to serious negative reviews in the same way as United’s CEO responded to the incident just mentioned. But from a customer relations and PR perspective, responding like this can be a disaster — it’s a technique almost guaranteed to generate ill-will.

When responding to negative reviews, use plain language and don’t attempt to employ rhetorical techniques to evade responsibility. I’m not suggesting that you should accept false accusations of wrongdoing, incompetence, or inadequacy, but don’t use evasive and depersonalized language.

Focus on the Reviewer’s Experience

At the core of any negative review is their experience of your product or service. If they have taken the time to write a negative review, they have not had the desired experience — and you can’t argue with someone else’s experience.

That experience may be entirely due to their misunderstanding of the product, but the negative experience is a reality, regardless of the cause. Apologize for the reviewer’s poor experience, no matter who you believe is responsible for that experience.

If the customer reports a poor experience, offer them a free return or replacement, even if they’re in the wrong. It will help build confidence in other potential buyers.

Don’t Be Afraid of Negative Reviews

Counterintuitively, a negative review can be a great opportunity for you to demonstrate the professionalism and customer-focused approach of your business. If handled well, they can be a positive asset rather than a liability.

A focus on the reviewer’s experience, the use of plain and direct language, along with the olive branch of a refund or replacement, can turn a negative review into a positive customer relationship.