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How to respond to a negative online review

Feb. 14, 2020
There is something about getting a bad online review that cuts right down to the deepest portion of our souls.

There are plenty of things that can turn my ordinary day into a really bad day. Waking up to a text from a hygienist telling me she is sick and won’t make it in today . . . bad day. Spilling my morning coffee on my white shirt right after I leave the house . . . bad day. Having a kid on nitrous yack all over my new Nike Epic Reacts . . . bad day. But for some reason, getting a bad review on Google or Yelp . . . terrible day!

There is something about getting a bad online review that cuts right down to the deepest portion of our souls. It shatters our confidence and unleashes our tempers. It makes us feel violated, misunderstood, and unappreciated. A bad online review can leave a mark on us that we never forget. Almost every dentist has a riveting story about a bad online review they have received. We never remember the five-star reviews—only the ranting one-star ones. 

The review of my practice that I remember most came from a patient who called herself “KP.” I remember getting the notification on my Yelp for Business Owners app on my iPhone. It was around 9:00 p.m., and I was watching SportsCenter after a long day. When I got the alert, I looked at my phone and clicked to open the review. After a few seconds of reading, my Apple Watch asked me if I was exercising. It noticed my heart rate had risen to 108 beats per minute. As I read further and further, my heart rate continued to rise. I couldn’t take anymore. “So sorry to everyone who thinks this place is so great. Maybe if all these mishaps hadn’t piled up, I’d be a lot happier with this practice. But I can guarantee right now, I won’t be going back.” When I read that line, I couldn’t control myself anymore. I flung my iPhone . . . my precious iPhone . . . right into my bedroom wall. 

The iPhone put a hole into the wall. The review put a pit in my stomach. It was scathing. I was raging. Without thinking, I started up my laptop and logged into my Yelp account. I started typing my public response to KP. It was fire, as the kids say. Snarky, insulting, demeaning, and scornful. It was worthy of John Oliver. My thumb hovered over the “Submit” button. Fortunately, my frontal cortex got a word in. I hesitated. It was then that I realized I needed a system for this—what to do with a bad review.

I knew that I had just executed what would become the first step in dealing with a bad review: wait and relax. Had I responded to KP publicly when I was angry—so angry that I threw my cell phone—would I have regretted what I said the next day? Absolutely. 

So, the first step is this: wait 24 to 48 hours after getting the bad review before doing anything else. Rest on it. Get some sleep. Have a glass of wine. Don’t address it with anyone (i.e., the patient or your team) for at least a day. Time affords some clarity in these situations. It allows your emotions to be less of a factor. It lets the thinking part of your brain take over. If you respond angrily, there’s a chance your response will anger the patient even more—and that’s the best-case scenario! The worst-case scenario is that your response goes viral and way more eyes end up on the original bad review than ever would have before. Give yourself one to two days to cool down. Gather your thoughts and research the situation. 

During the one- to two-day “bad review Sabbath,” I do my research. My research always starts with talking to my team members to gather background. Did this really happen? Did it happen like the patient said it happened? Was the patient’s issue with one of our systems that doesn’t work correctly? I have gotten a couple of bad reviews that opened my eyes to a system in my practice that wasn’t working well. Don’t let anger cloud your ability to improve your practice’s systems. We should always take criticisms that can lead us to having a better practice. 

Another thing I research during this time is the content guidelines of where the review appeared (i.e., Google or Yelp). The content guidelines are the rules of engagement that the patient has to follow when leaving a review. If you’ve never read the Google or Yelp content guidelines for reviews, search for them and read them. There is too much to list everything here, but if the patient violated any of the content guidelines, Google or Yelp will delete the review. You just need to flag it in your business owner’s portal. That process takes all of 30 seconds. If the reviewer violated the content guidelines and you flag it, the review goes away forever, and you never have to deal with it again. 

Assuming no content guidelines were violated, you will have to deal with the bad review with traditional means. Chances are you know the patient who left you the bad review. Google places people’s first and last names on their reviews. Yelp usually puts someone’s first name and last initial or just their initials. Even if it’s just the initials displayed on the review, you will usually know who it is. I know exactly who “KP” is. If you know who the patients are who left you bad reviews, call them. Text them. Email them. Contact them via whatever method is best for them. Reach out. Show them you care. When I talk to a patients in this situation, I am always respectful, polite, and thankful for their feedback. Am I grinding my teeth sometimes while expressing my “gratitude” to them? Sure, but they don’t need to know that. I always ask patients to tell me about what happened, and I just let them talk. After they are finished with their rant, I thank them for their feedback again. I usually apologize to them about “not having the experience I wanted them to have.” The vast majority of the time, patients are surprised that I listened and cared. Oftentimes, they apologize to me for leaving the bad review and tell me pretty quickly that they will delete it. I never have asked a patient to delete a bad review. I want them to make that choice on their own. Sometimes you will have a patient who won’t want to talk to you or won’t respond. You can’t do much about that. You did your best and you tried. Time to move on.

The next step is to respond publicly on the review site. This response is, frankly, not for the patient who left the review. It’s for everyone else who reads it. It shows all those prospective new patients that you care and you want people to have the best experience possible. The truth is, at this point that you’ve probably lost the patient who left you the review. Don’t lose other patients over it. That’s why a response from you is good for your practice. When you respond, you must be careful. You cannot violate the patient’s privacy in your response. Every month, I read about HHS fines for medical and dental practices who have violated a patients’ privacy on social media. Even if a patient discusses personal health information in his or her review, you cannot confirm or discuss this on a public site. Keep your responses generic and positive. Something such as, “Here at Joshua Austin, DDS, we value your feedback. We are sorry that your experience with us wasn’t what you were looking for. We wish you luck in finding your next dental home. Please let us know if we can assist you in any way in the future. Cheers!”

There are situations when I will not respond to a bad review. If the review is a long, poorly written rant that makes the patient sound crazy, I will generally let those be. In these situations, it can be best to just let crazy be crazy, and you don’t want to engage with that. Just ignore it. Prospective patients are savvy enough to realize when someone is either too demanding or slightly unhinged. They won’t hold you responsible for that. 

The final and most important step for dealing with a bad review is pretty simple. Drown it out with positives. Make it your team goal to get five more good reviews in the next week after that bad one. The default setting when prospective patients look at your business is to sort views chronologically. The more good reviews you get after that bad one, the further the bad one gets pushed down the page. Push it to page two, then page three, then bury it on page four, never to be seen again. If it’s your first bad review, no matter how far you bury it, your score will never be 5.0 again. That’s OK! I call it the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Phenomenon. Sometimes a little salty mixed with the sweet can be a very good thing. Consumers seem to respond better to businesses that have a 4.6, 4.7, 4.8, or 4.9 ratings than they do to a business with a 5.0 rating. If you found a restaurant in your city with 5,000 five-star reviews and nothing else, what would you think? You’d probably think something was faked. Let’s not fret about not being a perfect 5.0. There are better things to waste brainpower on. 

Dentists have been dealing with unhappy patients for as long as dentistry has been practiced. People have gotten upset. They’ve called the office and demanded to speak to the doctor. They’ve cornered us awkwardly in the hallway of the office to tell us that the receptionist was rude. Yes, patients have complained as long as patients have existed. The difference now is that patients have a platform to tell a much wider audience about why they are upset. We can’t put this genie back in the bottle and we can’t control it. We can simply do the best we can for our patients. In the event that a patient is upset and leaves us a bad review, we have to keep our cool and manage the situation. Develop a system for your practice for these situations and follow your system. The effect that good reviews can have on attracting new patients to your office far outweighs the downside of a rare bad review. You got this!  

JOSHUA AUSTIN, DDS, MAGD, writes the Pearls for Your Practice column in Dental Economics. After graduating from the University of Texas Health Science Center Dental School, Dr. Austin associated for several years. In October 2009, he opened a solo general practice in a suburban area of San Antonio, Texas. Dr. Austin is involved in all levels of organized dentistry and can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

Joshua Austin, DDS, MAGD

Joshua Austin, DDS, MAGD, is a graduate and former faculty member of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio School of Dentistry. Author of Dental Economics’ Pearls for Your Practice column, Dr. Austin lectures nationally on products, dental technology, online reputation management, and social media. He maintains a full-time restorative dentistry private practice in San Antonio, Texas. You may contact Dr. Austin at [email protected].

Updated June 21, 2023

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