I read an interesting article online recently that confirmed many of the things I already thought about a particular kind of negative review – the unreasonable one – and how useful and powerful they are for the businesses that receive them. 

The study, to be published in the Journal of Marketing, is titled “Negative Reviews, Positive Impact: Consumer Empathetic Responding to Unfair Word-of-Mouth”, written by Thomas Allard, Lea Dunn, and Katherine White from the Nanyang Technical University, University of Washington, and University of British Columbia.

“Using six studies and four supplemental experiments (studying over 3,000 consumers), the research team provides converging evidence that unfairness in negative reviews evokes empathy for the firm from third-party consumers reading the reviews. This empathy is associated with increased purchase and patronage intentions. A study on the content of one thousand 1 and 2-star hotel reviews from Trip Advisor finds that more than a quarter of these negative reviews contained elements that were perceived to be unfair, offering preliminary evidence about the prevalence of ‘unfair’ negative reviews.” (Source: “Make the best of bad reviews by leveraging consumer empathy,” www.sciencedaily.com, August 6, 2020).

“Our findings suggest that unfair negative reviews consistently result in more favorable responses to the reviewed firm than fair negative reviews and, at times, even better than positive reviews. We highlight the role of empathy for the firm as a motivator for increased favorable firm intentions. We also identify how firms can leverage empathy from consumers reading reviews, even for those reviews that do not naturally evoke empathy,” says co-author, Thomas Allard. (Source: “Make the best of bad reviews by leveraging consumer empathy,” www.sciencedaily.com, August 6, 2020).

I have encountered hundreds of such reviews and I have always been aware of the fact that their unreasonableness is actually a motivator to create attraction to a company and a brand. Why? Because factors raised are so obviously out of the realm of the rational or fair that the whole review then creates a sympathy for the company.

Reviews are, after all, opinions, subjective accounts of events and experiences and they are not always universal. A 5 star review for most people may be a 3 Star for others. it’s important to remember, like bad companies, there are also bad customers – the sort who do not listen, do not communicate well at all, have exceedingly unreasonable expectations and refuse to listen to solid, sound advice.

These sort of reviews are very often encountered in the hospitality industry, essentially because people are very fussy about what they eat and where they stay. The thing is, and this is where the value lies in them, that reasonable people see right through them and then transfer their connection to the business, away from the reviewer. They can result in contact with the business, but I would suggest that would be if they have a healthy overall review profile.

There is one more thing that will create even greater value for the business, and that is responding to the review, with a calm, and level headed reply that doesn’t engage with or even acknowledge the ludicrousness of the feedback.