Online reviews are an important and inevitable aspect of any community’s digital presence today. Learn how to combat negative reviews and encourage positive reviews in this week’s Leaders’ Board podcast.

Listen to Love & Company’s latest podcast or read the transcription below! Chris Carruthers, VP of Health Services Marketing discusses how to overcome negative reviews with Kayla Caw, PR and integrated media manager.

CC: Thank you for joining us today for the Love & Company Leaders’ Board podcast on overcoming negative reviews. I’m Chris Carruthers, vice president of health services marketing, and today, I will be talking with Kayla Caw, our PR and integrated media manager here at Love & Company. Kayla is a three-year veteran at Love & Company, with six total years in the digital communications realm, and holds a master’s in leadership and communication. Thank you, Kayla, for talking with us about negative reviews today. Let me start by asking you, why is there such an emphasis placed on online reviews today–particularly for senior living communities?

KC: Great question. So, we’ve heard a lot about online reviews and they’re really important because, often, it’s the first interaction someone may have. They go online, they’re looking for retirement communities, senior living communities, and they see these results pop up. Then they see these little gold stars, and some communities have five stars and some have three and others have one. The star rating system is pretty universal–everyone knows at first glance that, “oh five stars is better than one star”–so that initial first impression can be based solely on these online reviews. If they see a lot of negative reviews, they’re going to be less likely to want to check out your community–especially if the negative reviews have no resolution, or if they’ve just kind of been left out there with no return comments from the community’s team. Beyond that, too, positive online reviews can help boost the placement of your community’s search ads. So, there are a lot of things that go into what search engines choose to put onto the first page of the search results, which is where you want to be. Part of that, at least with Google, is the location section. So, when you search retirement communities in a specific area, you’ll have some ads and then usually you have Google Places, and typically the places that rank higher are places with positive reviews.

CC: Well that certainly makes a lot of sense. Good, so, because online reviews can have a tangible effect on a community’s reputation, and even sales, overcoming negative online reviews can seem like an impossible task. How should communities react to a negative review?

KC: So, the first thing to keep in mind with these negative reviews is that whether they’re happening online or whether they’re happening person-to-person, people are talking with each other about their experiences and what is being said about your community is going to be said. The real benefit that I see is that when people are saying it on online review websites, you have the opportunity to respond in a way that you don’t if one of your residents is at dinner with someone else. It’s so important to acknowledge the positive, but also acknowledge the negative. I mean, if you reframe the way that you’re thinking about it, [you can] look at negative reviews and the opportunity to respond to them as an extension of your brand. I’m sure every person who works at a retirement communtiy that’s listening to this, you know, you want to be known for taking your residents and their feedback seriously, and making things better and for being responsive when someone’s not happy. So this just gives you the opportunity to provide that same excellent customer service that you provide in-person, in the digital sphere. The first thing is to monitor; to know what’s out there and know what’s being said. Then create a policy; be prepared. So, know that if you get a negative review, here’s how you’re going to respond. Having that policy in place kind of allows you to take what can be a little intimidating at first–you know, this awful thing that was said about your community–and come up with a way to respond to it quickly and efficiently and effectively.

CC: Okay! So what should a community’s response be to a negative review include, Kayla?

KC: The first thing that you want to do is acknowledge that they had a bad experience, because whether you believe that your community right or wrong, the fact is that if they’re posting, in their eyes, they had a bad experience. You need to be sincere, you need to apologize for their bad experience, you need to give them someone to talk to in person, because ideally, you’ll try to resolve this personally, on the phone or in-person and not digitally. So, our typical suggested response is to say something along the lines of, “Dear Chris, I’m so sorry had this experience at our retirement community. The experience that you had is not acceptable, so please reach out to our patient advocate (or executive director, or whoever the person in your community may be) so they can resolve this with you personally.”

CC: Right, I think people are really looking for acknowledgement, and just want to make sure that their voice is heard, so that’s a good point. Ignoring a negative response is only feeding their anger, so you have to just take the steps necessary to confront the situation, make sure it’s resolved, make sure they get satisfaction because, you know, that’s word-of-mouth marketing that you can’t afford to have if it’s negative word-of-mouth.

 KC: Right, and it’s the same thing as if someone were to come into your main office and say, “Hey, I’m having this bad experience.” Treat the people online with the same amount of respect that you would treat someone face-to-face.

CC: Exactly, good point. Now, what about reviews that are completely and utterly false or inflammatory? Should communities respond to those? And if so, how should they respond?

KC: These are a little bit different than your typical “I had a bad experience” [review]. There are some people that we call “professional bad reviewers,” and if you go to their profile that they left the reivew with, you’ll just see negative after negative after negative across the board on what feels like close to every business they’ve ever interacted with. So the best thing you can do, though, is still treat them with kindness. Respond calmly, don’t use inflammatory words or response. Outline how you’ve remedied their concerns, or provide them an outlet for continuing the conversation offline. If this person is being vulgar, if they are being defamatory, if they are using fowl language or inappropriate language, if they are attacking a certain individual, it is possible that you could report their review to whatever review site they’re on–whether it’s Google or Yelp or whoever, and a lot of them have policies regarding vulgarity and things like that, so you might actually be able to get it taken down if that is the case. So another thing that you can do is, once you respond, there are some people who will just kind of let it be at that point; they have said their piece, you have acknowledged it, you’ve given them an opportunity to reach out and connect off of line, and for some people that’s enough. Often, I find that people don’t take the time to call, but responding is still the right thing to do. But then there are the people who you respond, and then they come back possibly even more upset. So in that case, I would recommend responding one more time–so a maximum of two responses–and then if they keep continuing to come back, you can cease to respond after the second time. At that point, part of the reason that you respond is so that when others see this negative review, they see that the community has responded and takes these things seriously, but for pretty much everyone looking at them, they recognize the difference between when a community is honestly trying to rectify a situation and when someone is just trying to cause more mayhem by repeatedly saying the same things and not allowing the next steps to be taken. So it is kind of key to respond, respond politely, professionally and with empathy, but don’t respond more than twice because it’s kind of dimininshing returns at that point. The other really important thing that you should do is to encourage people who have had good experiences, [like] residents that are really happy with your community, and ask them to leave reviews if they’re willing to. Tell them what review sites you are looking for help on and show them how and where they can go to leave a review, if they so choose. You know, the more positive reviews you have, the less impact the negative reviews will have on your overall star rating, and then they also provide a nice balance so that the only reviews that people are seeing are not people who are unhappy with your community.

CC: All right. So I know you mentioned malicious or profane comments, but if a community does encounter such a malicious or false review or comment, is there any benefit to reaching out to that person directly?

KC: You know, you can. I think it’s always good to respond at least once, and say, “We’ve flagged this for removal. It violates our social media policies. If you would like to discuss this, please reach out to us offline.” In my experience, someone who’s profane, [isn’t] always looking for an actual solution, but once again, this is about perception and about how others see your community, so responding to the inflammatory posts and the negative posts with kindness and empathy helps build your reputation for others who see this. Because even if you flag it for removal, it’s possible that it won’t get removed. You know, Google may not agree that it violates policy or violates standards, so having your kind and considerate response up there is definitely the way to go.

CC: Yeah, it’s hard to keep being mean with someone who’s being kind in return. So not feeding that anger is important, which isn’t always easy to do, I know. So, why does it matter why communities respond to negative or even positive online reviews?

KC: It’s seen as an extension of the service that people can come to expect. So, if you are looking online and you see negative reviews and no response, that doesn’t build confidence that if you had a challenge and came to [the community] in person that they would handle it appropriately. Not responding to positive reviews can look, to some people, like you aren’t grateful, that you aren’t happy, or that you don’t engage regularly and hear the feedback from residents even when it is positive. It’s really a look for people into how your community interacts with residents, so of course you want to be engaging. Be human, avoid the canned-sounding responses, engage on a human level because corporations are made of people, companies are made of people and the people at your community have a personality, so feel free to not use the exact same text every time you respond to an online review. Each one should be tweaked a little bit to reflect what that poster is talking about.

CC: Right, there’s nothing more annoying than feeling like you’re just another number out there in the world and you’ll get the exact same feedback. You need to feel like you’re heard and respected.

KC: Yeah, and that’s really at the root of online reviews–people want to feel validated and they want to feel heard and respected, as you said. Your job as the sales and marketing team is to ensure that people feel that about your community to ensure that people feel like they can come to you and you’ll respond.

CC: And we do find that a lot with the relationships that are built with that sales and marketing team. They’re often the first person that might hear of something that’s not going quite right.

KC: Right. And the sales and marketing team deals with this every day in person; it’s really not that different than dealing with it online, it’s just that online seems a little bit scarier because you are behind a computer, so you can’t maybe do as much as you would in person, but you can still do something.

CC: Yeah, you can’t see their body language and those kinds of things. So now that we know how to address negative reviews, how can communities encourage positive reviews?

KC: It’s really important to do this. The other thing that’s important to keep in mind as you do this is that you don’t want to be a review farm. You don’t want to set people up in a room, get ten people in there and say, “Okay, we’re going to walkthrough how to leave reviews and we’re all going to do it together right now.” Search engines, as much as we might not like to admit it, are very intelligent, and Google, in particular, has been picking up on online review stuffing, where people would get a bunch of people to all review at the same time on the same day. Well, when they see that now, that’s a red flag, so it’s important to look at online reviews as a long-term process. It’s not going to be a one-and-done. I would recommend that you set up a check-in somewhere between three to six months after someone moves in, and send them a quick email. Say, “Hey, we hope you’re having a wonderful time! We hope you really enjoy your residence. If you are so inclined, would you mind leaving a review on these websites?” And of course, if they have questions, if they want to do it and they don’t know how, of course you can help them with it, but putting a bunch of people in one room and having them all review at the same time is not a great strategy anymore. So, another thing you can do that we find valuable, is a lot of times the sales and marketing teams that we work with get handwritten notes. [In this case], draft a quick letter in response and say, “We received your note, it was so wonderful to hear from you, if you’re comfortable would you mind leaving a review on Google+?” or “Would you mind leaving a review on Yelp?” or “Would you mind leaving a review on Caring.com?”—whatever sites you’re focusing on right now, and then ask them if they would take what they’ve already said great about you and just put it online. These are people you know have had good experiences, who have great things to say, and are fine with sharing them, so that’s a good way to every time you get a positive letter, to respond with a “Thank you so much, would you mind posting it online?” And in that letter you can explain how online word-of-mouth is just as important as in-person word-of-mouth. Other things to keep in mind, you don’t want to provide the residents with a script. You want these reviews to be authentic, and if seven people all of a sudden post, “I love this retirement community! The food is wonderful” and that’s it that starts to look a little suspicious and your average user, when they come across that listing online, will be able to flag that as maybe not the most authentic and that can actually hurt. You really need to strive for authenticity and consistent uploads, so not all at once, but over a period of time.

CC: Okay! I think we’ve covered a lot here, Kayla. Wrapping things up, what are some ways that communities can become more comfortable with the idea of online reviews?

KC: I think the key here is to reframe the thought process about online communications and social media and digital communications. It’s not something to be scared of; it’s something to embrace and something that is simply an extension of the care that you provide and the personality of your community and your staff. These are all elements of a larger digital marketing strategy–of a larger marketing strategy, period. So reframing your thought process to just include it as something that you need to do, and something that is just commonplace and natural, and something that can yield returns. That is the best first step. And you know, having a culture from leadership down of embracing digital and not being afraid to comment and respond, that’s important, too.

CC: Well thank you so much, Kayla, for joining us today! This has really been a good topic, [and one that] I know that many people always struggle with, so we appreciate you reviewing the whole process for us.

KC: No problem, thanks for having me, Chris!


If you would like to learn more about Love & Company’s online review services, please call Tim Bracken at 410-207-0013 or Rick Hunsicker at 214-906-3801.

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