No one likes to get a bad review online. The sinking feeling when you see a one or two out of five rating and the harsh criticisms of unhappy guests erode at the heart of a good hotelier, and at the reputation of your business.
Many hoteliers have come up with ways to attempt to prevent negative reviews from reaching the public, some of which are distinctly unsavoury. Some hotels have attempted to stifle poor reviews simply by preventing guests who had negative experiences from receiving the establishment’s usual review request email, and others have gone so far as to attempt to sue or fine guests for bad reviews.
Of course, everyone wishes that all their guests only ever have positive experiences, but you should never attempt to block, censor or circumvent negative reviews by duplicitous means or force. Between brand damage, operational oversight and possible legal consequences, the harm that can be done simply isn’t worth it.
How can you improve your offerings if you never hear any negative feedback from real travellers? And, after all, even if you hide the negative reviews online, you’re not going to stop unhappy guests from telling their friends and family about their experience in person, still damaging your reputation, but leaving you in the dark with no way to improve your hotel or service delivery.
Here are just a few of the reasons why you should accept criticism gracefully, and some steps for managing your online reputation the right way.
Why you shouldn’t try to block negative reviews
It doesn’t work
First and foremost, trying to silence people in the information age doesn’t work. There are simply too many ways for people to share their opinions and experiences – there are hundreds of review sites, online travel agents (OTAs) and social media platforms where people can write whatever they like, there are news outlets always looking for a story, and there is still good old fashioned over the garden wall word of mouth.
By raising expectations you could set yourself up to fail
Even if you successfully influence people to choose you rather than your competitors by keeping accounts of negative experiences off review sites, you can still be setting yourself up for failure by presenting a more positive image of your hotel than you can deliver, which will result in even more disappointed guests and more people who want to write negative reviews about your hotel online. As the Gaps Model of Service Delivery explains, it's not simply the quality of the experience you provide guests, but the difference between what guests are expecting and what they receive that leads to dissatisfaction.
For many of your guests, travel is a big investment of both time and money. By manipulating your reviews, you mislead your potential guests, denying them the opportunity to get a complete picture of what a visit to your hotel might be like, and preventing them from making an informed decision – not a good start to a relationship.
People’s opinions on what is “negative” differ
Not everyone has the same views on what constitutes a drawback in a hotel. For example, your hotel might get a bad review because the club next door pumped all night, but while Mrs Beige who was missing her cats might not have appreciated the noise, Nikki and her party-loving group of friends will be thrilled to learn about your area’s nightlife. This means that the more reviews you have, even ones that are average or less-than-excellent, the more opportunities you’re giving yourself to appeal to the right review readers and help your target traveller to find you.
People suspect censorship when there are no bad reviews, and don’t like it
It may seem counter-intuitive, but you don’t actually want to only have positive reviews on your hotel’s profiles. Research has shown that 68% of people trust reviews more when they see both good and bad opinions, and 30% even suspect fake reviews or censorship when they only see positive reviews. Considering the aforementioned investment of time and money that you are asking potential guests to make in your property, trust is not something you can afford to jeopardise. Remember, the more reviews you have, and the wider the range of those reviews, the more trustworthy you will come across to those considering visiting your establishment.
You face public backlash if you are exposed
As the Union Street Guest House in New York found out the hard way, trying to suppress bad reviews can, unsurprisingly, create a groundswell of public outrage. Although they are not the only business to have one, Union Street’s “gag clause” attracted a fair bit of criticism online in 2014. The guest house attempted to claim the right to fine bridal couples $500 dollars for every negative review posted online by a member of the wedding party. The Economist referred to it as a “car crash of a policy” and the guest house’s Yelp listing was inundated with hundreds of negative reviews within days of the public getting wind of its attempt to threaten patrons into silence. Academic research has also confirmed that censoring negative reviews weakens your brand’s relationship with your customers.
It’s against the rules, and possibly illegal
However, also among these prohibited behaviours are “selectively soliciting reviews (by email, surveys or any other means) only from guests who have had a positive experience” and “prohibiting or discouraging guests from posting negative or critical reviews of their experience”.
There are laws in place across economic regions that protect the consumer’s right to complain online, and even doing something as subtle as selectively excluding people from a mailing list can land you in legal hot water.
As the Meriton Chain in Australia has also just discovered, even doing something as subtle as selectively excluding people from a mailing list can land you in legal hot water. The group was found guilty in court of “misleading or deceptive conduct” because they were preventing their review invitation emails from being sent to guests they believed might write poor reviews.
You block your own chance to show you care and are dedicated to solving problems
People know that you can’t be perfect all the time and that things do go wrong. More important than whether a stay was perfect or not is how your hotel’s team handled the imperfections.
For example, rather than stopping review requests being sent to patrons who were at your hotel when something went wrong (as Meriton did when their lifts broke or when they had no hot water), give these guests the chance to tell others how you promptly rectified the problem or graciously made up for it.
What to do instead
Respond quickly, politely, and professionally
Your management response to negative reviews tells prospective guests a lot about your attitude to guest concerns and how you handle difficult situations. A good management response to a negative review helps you to build a better online reputation, facilitates open lines of communication with your guests, and can change the perception of both the aggrieved guest as well as any potential travellers looking for their next holiday.
Research has produced an abundance of statistics the difference that management responses make to public opinion:
- Academic research has shown that responding to online reviews, especially negative ones, increases the trust prospective customers have in your hotel, making them more likely to believe that you care about your guests.
- According to Podium’s State of Reviews research, “56% of consumers say that a business’s responses to reviews have changed their perspective on the business.”
- 87% of Tripadvisor users say that an appropriate management response to a bad review improves their impression of the hotel,
- 69% of Tripadvisor users say that a defensive or aggressive response makes them less likely to book.
We asked some experienced hoteliers for their top tips on responding to reviews, and they suggest that you:
- Write unique, personalised responses
- Respond to all your reviews, regardless of sentiment
- Sincerely thank positive reviewers
- Exercise empathy and reply honestly
- Respond promptly
If you want some real-life examples of how to respond to a negative review, and what kind of tone to avoid at all costs, take a look at these where these Tripadvisor management responses went right and wrong.
Use the feedback in reviews to improve your hotel
Reviews don’t only provide valuable information to potential visitors to your premises, but also provide you with the opportunity to improve. The more reviews you get, the more detail you see about the experience that you provide, allowing you to see your hotel from your guest’s perspective.
This may help you to identify strengths or weaknesses you never knew existed. If you keep track of trends in criticism and act appropriately upon negative feedback to rectify problems, you will improve future guests' experiences, and ensure that you earn more positive reviews by providing a superior offering.
As owners, managers and staff, it’s always difficult to see what you offer objectively. Try as you might to experience your hotel as a guest would, unless you undergo an Undercover-Boss-style makeover you will always be treated differently by those who you work with on a daily basis, and will never get to see what your average visitor experiences.
Reviews can offer you insight into that experience, pinpointing what you’re getting right and what could be better, and, as The Coaching Inn Group found, offering insights that can help you to make improved operational decisions.
Dilute negative reviews with more positive ones
More reviews are almost always better – and recent reviews are generally the most important. The algorithm that calculates your ranking on Tripadvisor doesn't just rely on review ratings. It also takes into account the number of reviews you have, as well as the recency of these reviews. This is mirrored in local search engine optimisation (SEO) with Google Map Packs requiring recent reviews to push you up the SERPs (search engine result pages).
These factors are important to potential guests as well. According to search and marketing giant Moz, the most frequently selected review filter is “most recent reviews first” and this is reiterated by BrightLocal's study stating “73% of consumers only pay attention to reviews written in the last month”. While glowing recommendations from ten years ago are fantastic for reminiscing over the wonderful experience that you provided even back in the day, they won’t count for much without more recent reviews to confirm that those wonderful experiences are still what travellers can expect from you.
By proactively asking guests for reviews, you can encourage people who were satisfied but who may not have been inclined to write a review on their own to give you a review. Often, the guests compelled to write reviews online are either of the very happy or very angry variety, while the "silent majority" – those whose expectations were met but not exceeded or fallen short of – don't bother to go through the effort if left to their own devices.
If you’re still worried that indiscriminately asking all guests for reviews will result in more negative reviews, remember that a Cornell University study, which examined 1.28 million reviews on Tripadvisor found that the vast majority of reviews (more than 70%) were positive, with ratings of 4 or 5, while only 15% had ratings of 1 or 2. This means that getting more reviews will often (70% of the time) translate into more positive reviews for your hotel.
Provide guests with a way to communicate with you
Not all guests feel comfortable giving their hosts negative feedback in person. If their only alternative channel to let you know where your hotel fell short is on public platforms like Tripadvisor, Google Reviews or Booking.com, you may find that they vent all their frustrations where everyone can see them.
Rather, than letting guests think you don’t care about their experience with you, give them the opportunity to tell you directly what they thought of your property and services after they have left your property through an automated, customised questionnaire. You will receive honest and invaluable feedback from your guests that will help you improve your hotel, team and service delivery, and you will show your guests that you genuinely care about their experience, and are listening to their complaints.
GuestRevu data shows that guests who have gone through the process of filling out a direct online questionnaire from a hotel before they submit a Tripadvisor review tend to give the hotel a higher rating.
Knowing that management wants their feedback and will pay attention to their complaints often alleviates some of the guest’s frustrations, meaning they are less likely to want to air all of their grievances publicly. Even if guests do opt to leave a negative review at this point they are generally calmer and more objective with their points.
Fight review blackmail and fraud the right way
No hotelier should accept unjust reviews or allow themselves to be bullied and blackmailed. If you suspect a review is fraudulent in some way (for example if it was written by someone who wasn’t a bona fide guest or was posted in an attempt to blackmail you) there are ways to bring these reviews to the attention of review site moderators and combat review fraud and blackmail.
By receiving, recognising and acting upon negative feedback, you are given the opportunity to rectify problems and improve the quality of future guests’ stays with you. Your responses to online reviews can salvage and even enhance your online reputation and your actions taken to address the issues in your hotel lead to a better quality experience for every subsequent guest. In this way, you will end up with more positive reviews because your guests had more positive experiences and not because you were dishonest.