Thumbs down icon for negative business review

Can a Contract Stop Customers Leaving Negative Reviews?

Negative reviews are not pleasant, and in my experience when your business is seriously focused on delivering good customer service, a negative review is like a public slap in the face. There has been some movement to control what customers say about a business after the sale, including a highly controversial use of penalty clauses in the sales contract.

The bottom line is “No!”

If you do use them in your terms of service and sales contracts, then (a) they are likely to be unenforceable; (b) they are very likely going to land you in a lot of trouble with the online consumer community if you try to use them; and (c) the practice is illegal in California, and thanks to federal legislation awaiting the president’s signature, it will shortly be outlawed across the country.

Palmer v. KlearGear is the leading case on this: in 2014 a federal judge ruled in favor of a couple from Utah, who bought from an online retailer. The items were not delivered, so they left a negative review on RipoffReport.com detailing what they felt was very poor customer service.

KlearGear then demanded $3,500 based on a “non-disparagement clause” in their terms of service agreement, even going so far as to set a collections agency on the couple.

By the time this case got into court, KlearGear decided not to contest the lawsuit and allowed a default judgment to be entered against it, landing the company into a host of problems with garnishment of assets and levies on credit card receipts.

Ouch!

There have been similar instances with hotels and wedding planners, but all of this is about to become illegal.

Thumbs down icon for negative business review

Spurred on by the KlearGear case, California enacted legislation banning fines or penalties for leaving a negative review. Now, the federal government is all set to follow suit with bipartisan legislation only waiting for signature from President Obama – The Consumer Review Fairness Act (CRFA).

CRFA will prohibit and void any contract provision which seeks to restrict or prevent customers from leaving any type of review. In addition, it will cancel out any financial penalty or fees who post online reviews, and places enforcement powers into the hands of the Federal Trade Commission, including issuing penalties on businesses who violate CRFA.

Dealing with Negative Reviews

Negative reviews do happen, and there are ways to deal with them.

First, ensure you are providing great customer service and communication is key with this. That said, at some point someone is going to be unhappy no matter what you do, and it is so very easy to go online and complain.

When a negative review is issued, having them removed is almost impossible – freedom of speech and legal protections for publishers who are not liable for what customers write on their websites.

My advice when receiving a negative review is to respond initially in a way that shows you are listening to what the customer is really saying, and offering to make good whatever the complaint issue is about. Sometimes the customer has valid feedback, but equally they can just be having a bad day, or be a jerk with too much time on their hands. Once you have offered to work out the issue, it’s out of your hands – do not under any circumstances act defensively, or do things such as demanding the removal of the offending review – this just makes you look like the guilty party looking to brush things under the carpet. In fact, once you have offered to rectify the issue, the only reason to make any further comment is to show you have dealt with the problem, either fixed the issue, or made your position clear you don’t feel they are justified (I once had a client with a bad review, where the complainant demanded $10,000 to remove her complaint of being given a dirty glass in a bar). Beyond that, I would not recommend any further online commenting or involvement, because this adds fuel to the fire and helps gain wider exposure for the negative criticism, justified or not.

You should look at the feedback to see if it is justified, and take corrective action to prevent it from happening again. When negative reviews are complaining of the same things, you quickly will get a deserved bad reputation, whereas a one-off is more easily dismissed.

A reputation management specialist will be able to help you reduce the impact and exposure of the negative reviews too. This involves promoting good news about you online, and relegating the bad to deeper within the search engine results, or elsewhere on Social Media. Be careful though, as this can get very expensive very quickly and mishandling negative reviews can blow up in your face – just ask KlearGear.

About Karl Hindle – Frederick SEO & Reputation Management Expert

Karl Hindle is the founder of Wellspring Search, and highly experienced in reputation management issues.

If you have a reputation management issue, including negative reviews on consumer websites, you can speak to him on (240) 415-6191 or email him at karl@wellspringsearch.com

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