In those bygone days before the rise of the internet and online search engines, people often cracked open phonebooks (remember those?) and turned to the Yellow Pages whenever they needed to find a local business or service (including healthcare). These days, however, very few people use phonebooks anymore (at least, not for locating businesses or finding phone numbers). I would challenge you to find just one person under the age of 20 who remembers ever seeing a phonebook in real life, but that’d just be a monumental waste of your time.
Today’s consumers, more often than not, go straight to an online search engine (or smartphone app) to conduct research on products, services, or businesses. A side effect of this widespread consumer use of online search engines has been a sharp increase in the number of people who regularly consult online reviews—such as Yelp, Angie’s List, Google Reviews, etc.—when making decisions about what products, businesses, and/or services they buy/use. This also means that today’s healthcare professionals not only make sure they can be found in online searches (and on GPS/map tools), but also develop and maintain an awareness of how their practices are being depicted in online reviews.
How Does Your Practice Stack Up?
If you have never Googled your practice before, I would highly suggest doing that… right now.
Seriously… here, I’ll even give you a link to Google.
Don’t worry, the rest of us will still be here when you get back.
Great, now that everyone is up to speed, let’s move on. Most of the time, when business owners who have not kept up with online reviews search their business for the first time, they discover that they fit into some variation of the following categories:
- No Online Presence: Did you Google your practice and couldn’t find any reviews or information about it? That’s pretty bad. In fact, this can be worse than having negative reviews. Having no online reviews means no one is finding or discussing your practice online. It also means that prospective customers/patients have no way to evaluate your services or to compare you to competitors. If you fit into this group, your best move would be to first consult an SEO (Search Engine Optimization) specialist, or at least some discuss SEO options with your in-house IT specialist or web developer.
- Minimal (but Positive) Online Presence: Did you find that your business has at least one or more online reviews? Good for you. But you could do better. Having only a handful of online reviews can actually scare away some consumers. In fact, some will consider anything less than 5 reviews useless. After all, anyone can get a few of their friends or family members to post positive online reviews for them. Or, even worse, they may suspect that you have posted fake reviews or paid someone to do so (trust me, this happens so often it’s gotten kind of creepy). While what few online reviews you do have might be positive, the more reviews your practice has (even if that means getting a few negative ones) the better off you’ll be.
- Negative Online Presence: Did you discover that most (or all) of the online reviews available for your practice are negative? Wow. It’s going to be okay… please don’t freak out. Believe it or not, if handled properly, negative reviews can serve a positive function. In fact, they can even be used to turn around your practice’s online image and might even lead some reviewers to either change their reviews to positives (or at least delete the negative ones).
When it comes to negative reviews, it all comes down to how you handle them. The right response can lessen the damage and improve your online image, while the wrong response will only end up making a bad situation even worse.
Dealing with Negative Online Reviews
You may be wondering, “Why reply to negative reviews at all?” Good question. The reason is that not replying will cause many to assume that the review is accurate, or feel that you simply do not care enough about your customers to address the issue. Neither of these will do anything to improve your practice’s online image. However, using the proper approach can do wonders.
Just use the following 7 steps to deal with negative online reviews:
- You Need to Calm Down
First of all, DO NOT POST A RESPONSE RIGHT AWAY! Trust me. That is not a good idea. Why? Because you’re probably not happy about it. Which is a totally normal way to feel. I can understand how seeing negative reviews about your practice could make you upset. After all, you’ve probably put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into your practice. So, of course it’s going to sting when someone posts negative things about your practice (or worse, about you) online. However, reacting emotionally is just going to make things worse. Take some time to cool down before you do anything else. If you do not feel that you are capable of controlling your emotions when replying to online reviews, then perhaps you should consider handing the task to a staff member who can.
Are you calm? Promise? Very well. You may now move on to the next step.
- Plan to Reply Promptly (AFTER successfully completing Step 1)
I would recommend replying to any negative review within 24-48 hours (unless you need more time to calm down; in which case, please refer back to step 1). However, I would not recommend doing it any sooner than 8 hours after it being posted. Why? Well, because there are 5 more steps that you need to do first. Right now, you just plan to reply promptly. Steps 3-7 will show you how to do so.
- Research the Complaint
The internet can be a chaotic and frightening place. Don’t believe me? Just go check out the comments of just about any news article that’s ever been posted to the internet (all kidding aside, though, reading internet comments can sometimes feel like staring into the mouth of madness). Anyway, my point here is that there are some crazy people on the internet, and so you need to try to verify the validity of negative reviews or comments.
Start by seeing if you can identify who posted the negative comment (if not posted anonymously or under a username). If there is no way to identify the person, jot down the details of the complaint and consider holding a staff meeting to see if anyone can remember it. This will help you decide how best to reply to the comment. If nothing seems familiar about the complaint, even after you’ve done all that, there is a possibility that the comment was left by a troll. Internet trolls come in different forms—some might be people who are trying to discredit a competing business by posting fake reviews, using the internet to passive aggressively attack you; some may have a personal problem with you or someone in your staff; others are strange and bitter people who just sow chaos across the internet by doing things to anger people for no other reason than it makes them feel better about themselves.
No matter what a review says about you or your practice, and whether or not the review is actually a legit complaint, you will still need to reply to it… nicely.
- Be Polite. Be Non-Hostile.
I cannot stress this enough. No matter how bad a review is, no matter how rudely or meanly it is worded, no matter how angry it makes you… your reply must sound polite and non-hostile.
For example, let’s say you find a negative review for your practice that says something like, “Worst experience I’ve ever had in a doctor’s office! I spent hours in the waiting room just so I could be seen by the doctor for ten minutes! And I don’t think he even diagnosed me right! Avoid this place at all costs! UGH!”
I know it can be hard to do the whole “kill them with kindness” thing, but you are going to have to do just that. This is not the time to fight fire with fire.
Therefore, your reply should be something like, “I would like to personally apologize to you for the negative experience you had at my practice. My staff and I do our best to schedule our patients in a way that keeps all waiting times to a minimum. Unfortunately, it would seem that we did not succeed in your case. I would like to invite you to please contact my office at (phone number or email address) so that I can personally make amends for your dissatisfaction. Our patients are very important to us, here at (name of practice), and we will do whatever it takes to make sure this does not happen in the future.”
See? Now, didn’t that sound polite? Replying this way has a twofold purpose. First of all, if the review is legitimate, it may make the person who posted it feel that perhaps she or he judged your practice too harshly. This might lead them to either remove the negative review, or to give your practice a second chance that, if better, may cause them to revise/improve the review later. Secondly, it acts as damage control. If this is the work of a troll, it won’t help to change the review itself. However, it will lessen the damage caused by the negative review by showing those who read it that your practice cares enough about customer service to reply to negative reviews and is willing to make amends with patients who might be dissatisfied.
- Offer a Line of (Private) Communication
In the reply example in Step 4, notice that it included a phone number to call. Offering a direct line for future communication shows you are sincere in both your apology and your willingness to correct the situation. Doing this also makes it where anyone who sees your reply to the review will also see your practice’s phone number. Whether by giving a phone number or email address, you should always provide some line of communication for the review.
- Apologies are Nice. Solutions (with Apologies) are Better.
Note that the reply example in Step 4 begins by apologizing to the reviewer for her/his experience. Any reply should definitely begin with an apology. However, just saying “I’m sorry” is not enough. You need to make it clear that you are willing to work with him/her to fix the situation, and (as discussed in Step 5) how they can reach you to do so. Again, this will help to sway the reviewer as well as lessen the damage when others read the review.
- Accept the Fact That Some People Will Always Complain.
You can’t please everyone. It’s just a hard fact of life. Accept it. Some people are going to complain, no matter what you do. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should just give up and ignore negative reviews. All you can do is apologize and offer to make things better. To be honest, the rest is up to the people on the internet (which, I know, is not a very comforting thought). However, if you follow these simple steps for replying to negative online reviews, you will be able to reduce the damage to your practice’s reputation while encouraging positive reviews in the future.
Now get out there and show those reviews that they’re not the boss of you, and that you know how to win the internet!