The practice is especially prevalent in the hospitality, wedding, and food industries. But every company gets a handful of customers who want to engage in a little low-level extortion.
They sound something like this:
"I want this meal for free, or I'm going to leave you a one-star review."
"Comp my room or I'll trash your business online."
In a review-based economy, these threats can be enough to send any business owner into a tailspin. Few companies can afford to give out a freebie every time a customer expresses a little discontent.
Before there was Keep Calm and Carry On, geeks like me had The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The science fiction satire with its iconic green happy face cover just so happens to offer the perfect bits of pithy wisdom to handle this situation. Here they are, with, perhaps, some mild apologies offered in Douglas Adams' direction.
Two Heads Aren't Always Better than One
Or, if you prefer, the customer isn't always right. Even a customer with a legitimate issue is taking things awfully far by threatening your company's reputation, while demanding free stuff right out of the gate.
A legitimate customer with a legitimate beef usually just wants you to fix the issue.
So stay calm. Review blackmailers aren't just counting on your fear of a bad review. They're counting on you feeling guilty, stressed, flustered, and embarrassed, too. They want you to feel like a bad business owner so you'll capitulate to them.
If you read What Customers Really Want When They Leave a Bad Review, you know most customers aren't even out for freebies. Most don't even want to leave you a bad review, and most won't do it until they've tried many other avenues.
They usually don't threaten. They talk to your boss. They talk to customer service agents. They talk to your boss' boss up at corporate.
Then they leave a bad review. After everyone else has ignored them.
Blackmailers go straight for the jugular, which is how you recognize one. When you know you're looking at bad review blackmail, you can take a deep breath and stand firm. This person isn't worth wasting your time on.
Or your energy.
If the food is burned, by all means, bring out another plate like you would for any other customer. But don't let yourself be intimidated.
Adam McIntyre owns two restaurants, Cafecito and The Pedlar. He deals with these customers on the regular.
"No matter what you do," he says, "you'll never make this person happy. Do your best to be hospitable like you would for any other customer, but don't lower yourself to their level."
Inc.com says good customers complain and bad customers leave.
Great customers give constructive criticism and want your business to get better, normal customers shrug and go somewhere else, and terrible customers try to use your company's slip-ups and imperfections for their own gain.
The issue's worth fixing, because you care about your business integrity, but terrible customers aren't worth saving.
Always Carry a Towel
Or in this context, always be ready with a reply. It's great advice for every review, but it becomes especially necessary when you're dealing with a review blackmailer.
In the world of reviews, a measured reply can act just as well as a towel, cleaning up after customers who want to play these sorts of games.
Photographer Moritz Schmittat stands by the power of the reply.
"If you word it concisely and stick to the truth, it will look very reasonable and honest to the ones reading it.
It won't make your business look bad. It will become obvious the customer is being unreasonable and that you, despite the pressure you find yourself in, make professional and fair decisions."
Of course, you have to take a deep breath and edit your reply once or twice just to make sure no frustration or anger leaks out. Schmittat recommends keeping you review response short, focusing on why the review is unjustified without allowing yourself to grow defensive.
This last bit of advice—don't panic—may in fact be the most important.
Don't panic. And don't give in. Contrary to popular hysteria, one bad review isn't going to put you out of business. We've come a long, long way from the days when review sites were novel and a 1-star review was the kiss of death. At least, as long as you don't lose your cool.
Indeed, a bad review or two can make your business look more trustworthy, not less.
Photographer Elizabeth Williamsberg says she got more calls when she lost her 5-star rating than she did when she had it.
"Having 4.8 or 4.9 stars and a few bad reviews actually lends authenticity to all the good reviews. Because clearly you're not deleting all bad reviews, and clearly they're not fake reviews written by friends or non-clients."
She says Facebook actually upset her by merging two of her business pages in a way that lost her all her valuable negative reviews. Which means you shouldn't even scramble to try to get the unfair review removed. Just leave it, and let it do its work.
Matt Erickson of National Positions helps clients deal with problems like this all the time, and he agrees.
"When reading reviews that are mostly positive, a negative review here or there is usually looked at with more scrutiny."
He reiterates that an unreasonable person tends to show his or her true colors in a review, just as Schmittat said.
But he has words of encouragement to offer, too.
"Above all, don't let this one person and their bad day or attitude affect your overall goals. You have 100s or thousands of opportunities ahead of you for great reviews!"
And you do, starting with the very next customer who walks through your door. Keep calm, and carry on, indeed.