What to do when online reviews are fake news

18th August, 2017

Should hospitality business owners be afraid of their customers’ power?

Last month Gold Coast café Goji Granola Bar & Café foiled an attempt to blackmail them by two women demanding cash – or they’d leave bad reviews of the business on popular restaurant-rating sites.

People demanding a refund for no reasonable reason isn’t new – but online reviews have added an extra dimension to it.

Instances of people literally blackmailing restaurants in exchange for not trashing them online remain extremely rare – but there’s no arguing the relationship between customer and venue has shifted.

Do review sites matter?

Customers are now more empowered, and people are listening to their opinions.

Sites such as Zomato, TripAdvisor, Yelp and Facebook play a role in where we ultimately choose to eat.

A 2012 study from the University of California, Berkley [PDF], found that restaurants with an extra half star in their Yelp rating had “reduced reservation capacity” of up to 19 percentage points.

The bigger the rating, the more likelihood the place being reviewed will be packed with customers.

Online reviews fit into the phenomenon of social proof – the idea that people trust strangers’ reviews more than expert opinion or marketing claims.

Industry consultant Ken Burgin told The Pulse that while review sites do play a role in how people choose where to eat, it’s only in certain circumstances.

“Most of traffic through a restaurant on any given night is from locals. Reviews come into it when there’s the ‘destination place’,” said Burgin, “or when the restaurant is in unfamiliar territory.”

He also noted that hospitality business owners were now more likely to put any negative online review in context.

“They’re starting to realise that a one- or two-star review is going to wash out if they’re getting 50 to 100 reviews…it’s not going to have a big impact,” said Burgin.

“They’re also getting better at dealing with online reviews because it’s now part of the scenery.”

READ: 5 golden rules for opening a café

Burgin said consumers were getting better at spotting fake reviews designed to game the system.

“People will question a snarky one-star review – especially if everything else seems to be four or five stars,” he said.

“People are skeptical of the effusive five-star review as well. To me, that’s more fake than the one-star review.”

So you’ve been hit with a fake review

Negative reviews do have the potential to cast your business in a bad light through social sharing.

Burgin said café owners and restaurateurs were getting better at dealing with negative online reviews, but still more needed to be done.

The key is to stay calm to avoid becoming part of what Burgin calls ‘the-restaurant-owner-who-hit-back’ sub-genre.

Instead, Burgin suggests the business owner tries to take the conversation offline – after making it publicly clear that this appears to be an anomaly.

“If you did get an [unwarranted] one-star review, follow it up. Let them know that you’re disappointed to hear it, ask them about their experience, and apologise for letting them down,” he said.

“It’s about saying ‘Sorry you feel that way, but this is a real mystery to me. We had such a smooth service on Tuesday and I can’t understand how this happened. Can you get in touch with me to discuss this further?’,” he said.

“Your follow-up is your statement.”