Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down! Dealing With Online Criticism

Local Search

Let’s face it, as you grow your firm, eventually you’re going to run into the problem of an unhappy client (or more likely, an unhappy non-client.) It happens, and as much as we’d all prefer that they bring their grievances to us personally so that we can work things out like adults, sometimes it doesn’t work that way.

They decide to lash out and leave a nasty review. It could be on some desolate part of the web designed for angry people to air their grievances for other angry people. Or it could be on a Google page or local business directory.

The point is, it’s out there, and you won’t always have the ability to control the message. It’s the price we pay for exposure. Sure we could opt out of Google’s local search and eliminate the risk of a bad review, but we’d also eliminate the risk of getting clients online.

So what’s a business owner to do?

Well, first, take a breath. It’s not the end of the world. In fact,` it might even be seen as an opportunity to show your commitment to making sure your clients are happy.

So what are the options?

Obviously, in the moment, the reaction is to get defensive, or more accurately, offensive. The initial thought is to burn it to the ground, to go all scorched earth on the whole review site. Tell the little arrogant SOB what’s what. How you bent over backward for them, or how difficult they were to deal with and how ungrateful they are for your service. In short, you want to bring them to justice!

Well you know better than anyone else that justice isn’t always easy, and often times both sides lose. Overreacting now is almost guaranteed to make the situation worse for everyone involved.

So now that we’ve gotten the least desirable outcome out of the way, let’s discuss the option in order of preference.

Kill them with kindness and work it out offline

The first step should always be to reach out in private to try and resolve the problem in a cool and collected manner.

But first, you do want to respond to the review, so start by posting a message that shows empathy and a sincere desire to work through the problem. If it feels dirty to turn the other cheek at this point, just remember, this is more for the benefit of others that come along to see the review than the actual reviewer. You’re still going to reach out in person.

For example:

    • I’m sorry to hear about that, let’s talk offline so we can fix this…
    • Feel free to contact me personally with any other feedback to make your next experience better…
    • I’m sorry that you feel that way. We do our best and if it wasn’t good enough, we want to have a chance to make it better.
    • I apologize for your experience please let me know if there is anything I can do for you. If I cannot help you I will put you in contact with someone better equipped to handle the situation.

If you’re able to resolve things in person, kindly ask them if they’d update their review. Whether that’s removing it or even mentioning how you went out of the way to make things right.

Ignore it

If there’s no hope in trying to make things better, I would still leave the contrite message showing your  willingness to work through it, even if you know it’s pointless. Beyond that, you do have the ability to just ignore it. I know, it’s not the best feeling to let something like that just sit out there. But sometimes it really just doesn’t matter.

For example, I’m sure you’ve seen sites out there whose sole job is to shame lawyers for supposedly bad practices. I don’t know why these sites proliferate with attorneys, but they’re out there. They’re clearly vendetta machines.  The thing is, it’s unlikely that they get much traffic, so the risk your potential clients will come across it is low. And what’s more, many of those sites are so out there that a sane, level-headed individual can clearly tell that it’s a bunch of crackpots that are mad because their case went beyond their retainer and their attorney wouldn’t work for free. In other words, they have no credibility with the types of clients you actually want to work with.

So again, it doesn’t feel good, but those sites are best to let fester at the ends of the internet.

But if the review is on a reputable site like say Google, Yelp, Avvo, or a local chamber of commerce or BBB site, ignoring it probably isn’t the best option.

Contact the site owner

It’s rare that this will work as the incentives of the site owner are not aligned with you, but it can be worth a shot. If it’s a smaller site and the comment is clearly offensive or out of line, you may be able to contact the site owner and simply ask them to take down the post.  Put your letterhead on it and maybe make a veiled threat of “considering legal action” (you’re not going to, it’s not worth it) just to let them know that it might just be easier to take down that single post.  Keep it polite and respectful. Again, the odds aren’t good, but as a website owner myself, I’m happy to side with a polite professional over a nutjob.

Legal action

This is included only for completeness. In all but the most egregious of cases where there’s proof of fraud and/or a substantial effect on your business this isn’t this even worth considering. I’ll leave it to the lawyers in the house to discuss legal recourse, but again, this is a last ditch, I’m losing multiple clients because of this review, kind of an option.

Drown out the bad

Regardless of how this particular review turns out, you should still be actively soliciting reviews from happy clients as part of your outtake or project handoff process.  If you’re effective at getting a decent number of reviews from happy clients then the good will invariably drown out the bad, and further minimize the impact of the review.

Ethical Considerations

Not only do lawyers have the difficult job of trying to please each client that comes through the door but now you also need to be concerned with what these clients are saying online and what the repercussions will be if you choose to respond. Across the country responding to those pesky reviews has become a hot topic. States such as New York and Illinois have released statements that have determined that releasing any confidential information, even in defending yourself, your practice, or employees, will result in disciplinary action. Lawyers, look out. It is time to be careful. Unhappy clients will say anything under the moon, true or untrue but the response you choose to use could affect your more than losing some clients from some crackpots ridiculous review. Responding online could cost you so follow some of the strategies we have suggested and steer clear of trouble!