How to turn negative reviews into positive experiences

by John Jones | May 17, 2021

For restaurateurs, publicans and cafe-bar owners the internet is a great way to promote their businesses. In fact, the potential for extending their online reach has never been greater but with this comes the potential for negative and very visible reviews. 

In this short blog we will look at how to placate the disgruntled customer and actually generate more business from the experience.

1. Deep dive

It is so important to spend some time reading and re-reading the review, to really understand the crux of the customer's grievance and why it happened. At first glance the review is likely to raise your hackles and your defensive mechanism may kick in, but don't let that cloud your view. Take a deep breath, walk away, have a coffee then come back and re-read the review with an analytical mindset, by filtering out the reviewer's emotion and noting succinctly what it has angered them It could be that their review is actually 90% emotion and 10% problem.

2. Get your facts right

Before you leave a response, establish the true circumstances and actions which framed the event – this will help you to formulate a fact-based response. Think back to the date and time in question: did you have a “global” problem that day, such as a staff shortage, equipment breakdown or performance issues? Talk to staff about their recollections, too. Remember, this isn't about seeking evidence to justify a points-scoring retort, it is about being honest with yourself and the customer. 

3. Know your guest

One response size doesn't fit all, so try to understand the reviewer's personality before putting metaphorical pen to paper. Look at their online profiles: do they write a lot of reviews, and if so do they follow a pattern? Are there examples where a response style from the vendor has apparently calmed them? We're not suggesting you psycho-analyse the reviewer's mind here, but do try to understand how what you write will strike a chord, or aggravate them further.

Forearmed with these insights, you will be in a great position to determine if the complaint is genuinely a big deal for the reviewer, or if they just like shouting online about the smallest thing. A customer who has little history of complaining but has left a negative review is the one to resolve quickly, however.

On a commercial note – and let's not beat around the bush here – it helps your decision-making to understand the customer's value to your business. Use your restaurant management system to see previous bookings, spend to date and any former issues.This should in no way influence the tone of your response, but writing with this in mind will help you formulate your approach.

4. Don’t get mad (or even)

Getting personal with the reviewer online is a sure-fire way of alienating other diners and ruining your reputation. In truth the worst reviewer may have completely disregarded this rule, but that isn't a green light for you to do the same. Be the bigger person and write not just for the reviewer, but crucially, for the whole world. Your response will be seen by many potential customers so it is critical that you come out of the exchange as the reasonable party. 

5. Empathy and more empathy

Sometimes your empathy will be in short supply if a reviewer has just character-assassinated your pride and joy, but empathise you must. After you have had that coffee, put yourself in their shoes for five minutes and visualise the customer's experience. Would you have even the tiniest of grievances, if you were them? Be honest and if the answer is yes, then let that empathy shine through. 

Even if you can't bring yourself to empathise with the severity of the complaint's nature, you must empathise with the customer that, for whatever reason, they feel aggrieved. Stating publicly how sorry you are for their dissatisfaction is subtly yet completely different to agreeing the service was terrible that day. By showing empathy you begin to soothe the customer's angst and retain a dignified high ground.

6. Want you back

It is an odd fact of business life that sees many disgruntled customers become the best. Once a dispute is settled and the customer feels you've listened, you actually stand above the competition in their eyes. It is also a hard fact of business life that, particularly in the current climate, you'd like their revenue again.

The absolute priority is to turn a complaining customer into a returning customer, so publicly inviting them back really puts the ball in their court to either flee or agree. Turning back to what we said about writing for a wider audience, warmly inviting your reviewer to return will be seen as the epitome of reasonableness by other readers.

Putting it all together

Restaurateurs, publicans and cafe-bar owners work so hard to create a fantastic customer experience, so when bad reviews arrive, they hurt. Don't knee-jerk reply in kind, you're better than that – walk away, then evaluate the complaint with as impartial a head as you can. Be honest about the facts and get to the nub of what is eating the customer – under all that bluster it may be something very minor and easy to resolve. 

Strike an empathetic, conciliatory tone which is never personal and always geared towards winning back the customer's business. The number one rule for review responses is “write for the wider reader” so that future customers will see your response and be even keener to try your establishment.


favouritetable is the leading technology provider for food and drink businesses in the UK. For over a decade, favouritetable has provided world-class and easy-to-use systems to enable restaurants, pubs, bars and other businesses to maximise their revenue.

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