Leave the Best Possible Negative Review for a Local Business

If your face is still hot from having a really poor experience at a local business, you can forget to ask the most important question. Before you take to your phone or keyboard to dash off a negative review, ask,

“I’m about to invest more of my valuable time in this business that failed to serve me well; what do I want the result of spending this time to be?”

Do you want:

  • A response from the business owner?

  • An apology?

  • Your money back/your product exchanged/work to be redone/a replacement experience?

  • Assurance that something has been fixed so others don’t experience the same issue?

  • A good reason to give the business a second chance?

  • To prevent an important local business from failing by letting them know what’s going wrong?

  • Something else? If so, can you name it?

While there may be scenarios that are so absurd that your best option is just to walk away and try to forget the whole thing for your own peace of mind, deciding to leave a review signals that you are still somewhat invested in the scenario you experienced.

Take an additional minute to examine your possible motives:

1. Leaving a review for the sake of revenge

This is the worst possible reason to leave a review and the least productive use of your time. While you might enjoy a brief sense of relief from the process of venting by harshly upbraiding a nearby business in hopes of damaging its reputation in the community, it’s unlikely to lead to a good-feeling resolution of the problem you experienced.

The urge to make a dramatic declaration of your anger via a review is likely to arise from the feeling that you’ve been treated especially poorly. I see the word “ripoff” being thrown around very carelessly in reviews, and think it’s a useful practice to gauge whether it’s truly accurate in a given scenario:

  • Have you actually been ripped off by a company with nefarious business practices, such as intentionally overcharging, intentionally not providing a service as agreed upon/advertised, deliberately using tactics like bait-and-switch or price gouging? An example of a ripoff would be a chain of businesses that intentionally lists one price on shelves while secretly charging customers a higher price at the register.

  • Or, is what you experienced possibly the result of a one-off mistake, an unusual failure at the business, a lack of staff training, a misunderstanding, or a business that just isn’t run very well and needs to improve if they don’t want to fail? An example of a non-ripoff would be your pizza arriving cold because the delivery person’s vehicle got stuck in a traffic jam; your bad experience wasn’t the result of someone trying to defraud you. Most businesses do not operate on the basis of ripoffs.

If you suspect that something illegal is occurring at a business, taking revenge via a review is your weakest possible option. Instead, you may wish to contact a lawyer and local reporters or consumer protection groups to explain your experience. This may then lead to local or national reporting that blows the whistle on alleged practices. Where enough money is involved, it may also lead to a legal settlement.

2. Leaving a review as a PSA

A better motive than revenge is leaving a negative review because you want to warn your local community that something is dissatisfactory about a neighborhood business. In fact, Moz’s own review survey found that telling others about their experiences (both good and bad) is the #1 reason consumers write reviews. 73% of respondents are motivated by this impulse, meaning it’s basically the main reason online reviews exist.

It’s laudable if, after being treated poorly, you want to make a public service announcement that protects your neighbors from having a similar negative experience. However, in the spirit of fairness, ask yourself,

  • Do I need to use blistering language to let my neighbors know that when I ordered a pizza, it arrived cold? Am I meeting my goal of advising others with language like, “These utter fools can’t even deliver a hot pizza”? Or can a PSA use milder words like, “The one time I ordered, I was disappointed that the pizza arrived cold and no one seemed to care, and I’d like to know why that happened before I’d consider giving your business a second chance”?

  • Will my community be better served by my warning them directly via this review or by using my review to make an effort to get the attention of the owner, which I didn’t receive at the time of service?

It’s a sad fact that there are, indeed, careless or uncaring business owners who won’t act on public feedback no matter how hard you try. Particularly in the case of large brands, leadership is frequently so far removed from the customer that no amount of effort on your part is going to succeed in getting policies and practices changed at the local level. In this common scenario, a PSA may be your best bet for contributing your unfortunate lived experience to the pool of community knowledge so that others can read it and decide whether or not to give the business a try. If this is what you choose to do, try to be as detail-oriented as possible about what went wrong and to show your wisdom, rather than your anger, in hopes that it may help a neighbor make an informed choice.

But in other cases, where the owner of a business is accessible and empowered to make positive changes, a PSA may be only a second-best option; instead, a review that takes your complaints straight to the top may be your best hope of achieving your desired results.

3. Leaving a review as an opening to dialogue with the business owner

While our survey found that nearly ¾ of review writers leave reviews to share their experiences with the public, I think it’s a real problem that only 38% write to tell the business it needs to improve, and only 21% write in order to receive a response.

Too often, this is the timeline of what happens during a dissatisfactory local business transaction:

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