Why responding to negative comments on the web can be a mistake
Most of the chatter about local restaurants happens out there on the old Interwebs. And of course, not all of it is complimentary. Imagine for a moment that you are a restaurant owner and you encounter a negative review of your establishment online–what do you do?
This has to be extremely difficult terrain for restaurateurs to navigate since their very livelihoods are being publicly questioned. A bad review must feel like a personal insult, and most people don’t like to take insults lying down. For this reason, owners or chefs sometimes respond. Typically they try to either defend their business or de-legitimize the reviewer. Responding in a public forum is very tricky business, and it’s usually a bad idea.
Owners who are overly strident come across as mean-spirited and defensive. Writers and readers of a particular blog or website do not take kindly to a new visitor harping on regular site users. The surest way to alienate current and potential customers is to ridicule them–even if they are wrong. Earlier this year a restaurant owner wrote what could be interpreted as a rather snide response to a one star review of his establishment on Yelp.
“Happy to hear your wife likes it,” he begins, “you’re welcome to stay at home.”
When you read the entire response carefully, the content is actually not too disrespectful, but it was bad enough to warrant a lengthy thread on the Yelp Talk forums. I have received a few comments from owners on my personal blog and honestly, it strikes fear into my heart every time. The owner of a local Italian restaurant responded to one of my reviews thusly:
“In my opinion, anyone with any type of cullinary [sic] knowledge would not consider our sauce to taste sweet. It is probably a mis-interpretaion [sic] of the bold flavor of garlic, parsley and oregano which is slowly cooked over our stove top. I’ve tasted many tomato sauces including sweet ones. Ours is not, we do not and have not ever added sugar, or anything that would give it that flavor. To further discredit your critique of our tomato sauce you thought that our pasta salad contained chopped peppers when in fact they are and have always been tomatoes which highlights your lack of taste for tomatoes.”
Now this rubbed me the wrong way, but when I really thought about it hard, he was just giving me information, and pointing out errors in my review. Yes, he comes across as kind of a dick but he was merely questioning my qualifications. Of course I was just a food blogger with a readership of maybe a hundred people, and qualifications don’t matter in this brave new world, but my words were public enough to get him to respond somewhat haughtily. Indeed the KC Lunch Spots post displays above the restaurant’s own website in a Google search.
Comments like these immediately put the whole exercise of food writing into perspective. This is fun for me, but it’s very serious for restaurant owners. Eventually critics learn to publish only what they can stand behind 100%, but do owners learn anything? Most of them should just take a deep breath and step away from the computer; it is just too easy to misinterpret passion for rage.
On the other hand the Internet is full of stories about restaurant owners who reached out to reviewers, asking them how they could improve, how they could make it right. Steve Tulipana, owner of the Recordbar in Westport, keeps his finger on the pulse of blogs and social media when it comes to his restaurant, and intervenes when appropriate.
“We make mistakes, we employ humans with emotions, there are always problems that can arise that can leave the customer with a bad experience,“ Tulipana told me via email. “When they leave pissed and go straight to the internet to vent there is not much we can do but explain the situation and offer to make it up to them in hopes that they will give us another chance.” The owner of Cupini’s operates on a similar principle. I have seen Yelp threads where he tries to clarify matters rather than cut down reviewers who may not know the ins and outs of a particular dish.
These calm, professional approaches almost always meet with a great deal of respect and admiration in the blogosphere. Diners are much more likely to return and give a restaurant another chance if they feel that an owner is responding in good faith. “The customer is always right” may not always apply in the real world, but on the Internet, it should be a rule of thumb.