Last week, I took the the Internet to find a new dentist. After searching for practitioners in my insurance network and finding a few within walking distance of my apartment, I plugged their office names into Yelp and started browsing the reviews. As many people probably do, I first gravitated toward the office with a 5-star rating.
Of course, the reviews were great. I felt confident that I’d go to this place and have a good experience, but I also value convenience, and this office was farther from my home than some others in my network.
Bad online reviews aren’t a dealbreaker for me. I don’t expect businesses to be perfect, and some consumers’ expectations are way too high. The dentist’s office closest to me had a 3.5-star rating, and as I read some of the reviews, I got the impression that it was an OK place. Some people had fantastic experiences, while others ranted about unpleasant office staff. I noticed the owner had responded to some of the negative comments, which I thought was good: I think it’s important for companies to follow up with dissatisfied customers.
Worse Than Unmet Expectations
I was considering calling that dentist to ask about appointment availability, until I clicked “read more” on the owner’s responses to negative reviews. He picked apart the customers’ reviews with lengthy, passive-aggressive posts that can be summarized as “We’re sorry you had this experience, but it’s not our fault.” Even if the customers had not been justified in all their criticisms, the owner’s responses came across as defensive and unprofessional. It made me think that if I had an issue with my visit to the dentist, the owner would work harder to avoid blame than to help resolve the problem.
In short, it wasn’t a couple of negative reviews that made me take my business elsewhere, but rather how the company handled them. Trying to discredit or shut down negative feedback doesn’t make businesses look good, though many are trying it anyway. As online reviews have become increasingly common, so have reports of companies adding non-disparagement clauses into consumer contracts and businesses threatening to sue consumers for posting poor reviews online.
For example, a fertility company recently threatened to sue a woman over her compliant to the Better Business Bureau for violating a non-disparagement clause in her agreement. There seem to be a lot of legal problems with the company’s threat, as explained in this Consumerist article, but it’s scary to think a company can come after you for sharing an honest experience so others don’t make the same mistake. Non-disparagement clauses in consumer contracts have been outlawed in California, and there have been attempts at federal legislation in the same vein, but it remains a bit of an uncertain territory.
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Alex Stern, a consumer law attorney in Florida, said consumers worried about non-disparagement clauses should look at the fine print of agreements. If there’s a non-disparagement clause (sometimes in a confidentiality section) it’s more likely to be enforceable if it’s specific, like if there’s a damages clause saying disparagement is punishable by a certain amount of money, Stern said.
“In most instances a non-disparagement clause is difficult to enforce, because it’s hard to know what someone’s one negative review on Yelp cost this business,” Stern said. Still, threatening letters and lawsuits have popped up. “If a consumer is really afraid of a non-disparagement clause, obviously I would encourage you to do business with someone else.”
What’s ironic is how companies are willing to sue over negative reviews, when the very action of going after a customer is bad PR. Spreading harmful lies is one thing — and that’s what libel and slander laws are for — but trying to scare people away from posting honest feedback about your company doesn’t make you look good. I think a lot of consumers understand that businesses can’t make everyone happy, but it’s often how you deal with unhappy customers that matters most to your company’s reputation.
This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.
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