Don’t fear negative reviews – embrace their authenticity

As Valentine’s Day approaches, and with it the thick of engagement and wedding planning season, the pressure is on hotels and restaurants to deliver special, romantic experiences for their guests. With heightened expectations come harsher scrutiny – and sometimes, negative reviews.

While it’s always the mission of any hotel owner or manager to deliver a high standard of service, satisfying every guest every time is difficult. Negative online reviews are inevitable. But you can flip the script, and use them as valuable input for your business—and even more. Negative reviews can provide an opportunity to demonstrate transparency, listening and continuous improvement to future guests.

Digital natives tell it like it is

Online reviews are a much more natural and frequent part of the buying process for a wide variety of products and services, particularly for younger consumers: 55 percent of millennials feel it’s important to look at reviews when booking hotels, according to American Express Travel research. They expect to see a mix of negative and positive reviews; it signals authenticity. An Accenture survey found that college students perceived companies with mixed reviews on Facebook as being more honest, genuine and trustworthy than those with all-positive reviews. When everything is all roses, red flags go up.

Negative online comments don’t have to be a danger to business; instead, take the following steps to turn them into an opportunity to create new and repeat customers: 

Step 1: Listen

The most important step: Know where people are talking about you and what they are saying. An abundance of tools and services are available to help monitor online comments (many free) and flag when your brand is mentioned; more sophisticated tools can generate sentiment reports and identify words that come up repeatedly. For example, if the word “mattress” is mentioned in a growing number of comments, there might be a larger issue to address.

The importance of listening to offline comments is equally pressing. Properly trained staff plays a huge role in de-escalating problems that can lead to a negative review. Still, customers might use negative reviews as a threat to gain some sort of leverage or discount. A recent New York Times article highlighted hotels’ concerns with this growing problem, noting that TripAdvisor staffs more than 300 people to examine reviews before they are published and encourages hotels to report any threatening behavior to the site, so they can investigate it before a review is posted. Being proactive about problems quickly is essential.

Step 2: Respond

“Negative reviews have the ability to influence thousands of others — it’s imperative that we not only monitor for them, but respond to every single one in a timely and empathetic manner,” said Theresa O’Leary, marketing and events manager for our Hotel Phillips property in Kansas City. “We’ll take the conversation offline, only after leaving an online response, so that we can address the situation in a more personalized way. On occasion, we even have customers who will go back online afterward to express their thanks.” 

Responding to negative comments can be a great way for hotels to highlight responsive customer service and showcase their “care factor.” In the customer service book “Hug Your Haters,” digital marketing consultant Jay Baer highlighted research demonstrating that answering customer complaints actually increases customer advocacy; ignoring them decreases it. While only 41% of people who complain on Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, TripAdvisor and other review sites anticipate a response, when they do receive a response, they’re almost twice as likely to recommend the company afterward.

Research from Forrester and TripAdvisor further emphasizes the need to respond: 68% of travelers they surveyed said they would choose a hotel where they can see management has responded to customers over a comparable hotel without them.

In an environment where online comments are heavily influencing decision-making, responsiveness can be a competitive advantage. Authenticity matters, so avoid automated responses that sound like a robot; respond with the same empathy you would use in face-to-face interactions. 

“Responding to negative reviews is an extension of customer service and building customer loyalty. It’s must more cost-effective to address the concerns of existing customers and generate repeat business than it is to dodge problems and attract new customers. Responding to online reviews serves the dual purpose of fixing existing customer problems, as well as hitting the eyeballs of new customers,” said O’Leary.

Step 3: Focus on the positive  

The best way to counter negative comments is to focus on strategies that will generate positive reviews. Most consumers consult multiple reviews; the key is for the good reviews to outweigh the bad.  

While forced or fraudulent reviews are restricted by sites like TripAdvisor, the best way to get a guest to write a review is to encourage satisfied guests to leave one. Train staff to weave it into their check-out conversations, and have staff provide cards with a link to the site that encourages guests to give honest feedback about their stay.

It’s easy to get caught up in the downside of reviews. Instead, look for the opportunities. Whether it’s an opportunity to build brand trust, develop more loyal customers or identify areas for improvement, nearly all comments have an upside to consider.

Guest reviews are also useful for internal review and course correction. At NVN, one of our guiding principles is “be accountable.” Guest satisfaction is one of the measures we track continually, and together, our staff creates and implements solutions to problems before they become recurrent.

Take the long view

Ignoring online chatter typically only exaggerates the problems and threatens to drive away business. While online reviews aren’t necessarily read by all customers and can seem mundane in the moment, it will only become a bigger risk as tech-savvy consumers become a more powerful force in the travel industry. Monitoring online comments is a fundamental for all businesses today; developing a thoughtful strategy for responding to comments can help your business rise above the noise.


Sheenal Patel is co-founder and CEO of NVN Hotels and co-founder and principal of Arbor Lodging Partners, Chicago. Vamsi Bonthala is co-founder and principal at NVN and co-founder and CEO of Arbor Lodging Partners.