Why Bad Reviews Can Be Good Reviews

good-bad-reviewsSeveral months ago, a small hotel in upstate New York faced a PR nightmare when a policy on their website went viral. The policy stated guests would be fined $500 for every bad review.

The owner of the inn, the Union Street Guest House in Hudson, NY, later apologized, but not before angry Yelp users retaliated by leaving over 3,000 negative reviews of the property. Yelp responded by removing the negative reviews they deemed inappropriate.

While obviously this is an extreme case of trying to engineer one’s online reviews (which backfired spectacularly), it illustrates how tempting it is for businesses to keep all of their online feedback 100% positive. A new industry has developed that is devoted to burying bad reviews, called reputation management.

But in an interesting twist of human psychology, bad reviews aren’t always a bad thing. In fact, a little bit of negativity can work in your favor.

Can a Bad Review Help You Get More Business?

In his book, Everyone’s a Critic: Winning Customers in a Review-Driven World, author Bill Tancer looks at how online reviews affect businesses.

I recently caught a radio interview with Tancer on The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, where he talked about how small business owners are making negative reviews work to their advantage.

One of the most interesting points that Tancer brought up is the growing trend for businesses to include ALL reviews on their website, good and bad. They discovered that doing this actually increased the number of people who booked a room through their site.

It seems counter-intuitive…

Why would having negative reviews INCREASE a website’s conversion rate?

The answer lies in the way people perceive reviews. People don’t take all reviews at face value. They filter them as they would any sales messaging.

And there are a few different factors at work in this filtering process.

Factor #1: Transparency

It’s no longer enough to have a website. That isn’t impressive anymore. Customers want to get to know the business behind the website, and get a sense that there are real people there who can help them get what they want and need.

Customers want to see the whole picture.

If you show both positive and negative reviews on your website, it shows that you have nothing to hide.

And to be honest, some of the negatives are things the customer may already be aware of or concerned about. They may be looking for more information about their concerns, and seeing them addressed by other customers may give them comfort in their decision to go with you.

As a small business, you can’t be everything to everybody. You won’t always be the right fit for someone, and that’s a good thing. You should focus your efforts marketing to your ideal customer, not every Joe on the street.

For example… Maybe you offer fast and good service, but your service is not cheap. Your ideal customer is more concerned with time and value than with price. If a potential customer reads a review or testimonial that says…

It was more than I initially expected to pay for the service, but they finished quickly and fixed a problem I didn’t even know I had. 

…it probably would put them at ease about your pricing. That’s because this review addresses their concern while framing it in a way that speaks to your ideal customer.

People KNOW that negatives exist, and they are going to do research to find out what those negatives might be. As Tancer points out, if you force them to go outside of your site to find out any negative information about you, they leave your purchase funnel and you could lose the sale. Better to address their concerns right on your website, and keep them in your sales funnel.

Factor #2: Credibility

It may seem strange, but testimonials and reviews are more credible when they contain a little bit of negative.

It’s frankly suspicious if you have all 100% positive, 5-star reviews. It trips a person’s bullsh*t detector. They assume that the reviews must be fake, or that only the negative reviews have been removed.

So that little bit of negative makes the positive more credible.

Sean d’Souza talks about what he calls the “reverse testimonial”. Rather than the sugarcoated testimonials that most businesses feature on their websites, d’Souza recommends featuring the testimonials that contain a small amount of skepticism upfront.

d’Souza points out that this mirrors how we give recommendations in real life:

A reverse testimonial works because it speaks to us in the way we speak to each other. When we’re recommending a restaurant or a movie to a friend, we naturally lace our recommendations with doubt.

We say things like: “You know that seedy-looking restaurant, and how you don’t really feel like going inside? They’ve actually got the most amazing food.”

Or we say things like: “You know that fancy looking restaurant that you think may be over-priced? Well we went there last night, and we had the most delicious food, and the bill was far less than we expected.”

So when testimonials and reviews reflect how we actually talk, they pass our BS detectors. People believe that they are true, because a business probably wouldn’t make up something negative about its own services.

Factor #3: Community

Incorporating reviews and testimonials into your website shows that you value what your customers have to say.

When customers feel that their opinion matters to you, it makes them feel good about doing business with you. It creates a sense of community around your business. Humans have evolved as generally community-based creatures, so we look for ways to belong.

What’s interesting is that customers also filter out reviews based on their perception of the person doing the reviewing.

Just like there are many different types of people in a community, there are different types of reviewers. Bill Tancer distinguishes between what he calls “communitarians,” who want to give back to the community by giving honest reviews that will be helpful to people, from the “one-star assassins” who will go as far as open a Yelp account just to bash a business with a terrible review.

But we are becoming more conditioned to understand that these different types of reviewers exist.

So when a potential customer is researching reviews, they may have their own method of evaluating reviews based on what they perceive as the reviewer’s bias.

I personally tend to throw out the highest and lowest of the reviews (like an Olympic judge) and look for what I perceive to be the reasonable people like myself. Or I will look for clues that the person leaving the review shares the same goals that I do.

Some websites like Amazon have a built-in mechanism that allows people to vote on whether they find the review helpful. Users can sort to show only the most “helpful” reviews.

What’s the Lesson?

These findings underscore just how important customer feedback is to potential buyers. Tancer’s book cites a survey statistic that found 80% of people consult online reviews when making a purchase. It’s highly unlikely that will change, except perhaps to increase.

So we can’t just ignore negative comments in the hopes they’ll go away.

But a negative review can be a great opportunity to demonstrate your company’s responsiveness. If responded to quickly and generously, it can be the source of great PR for your company.

What’s more, customer feedback can be a goldmine of information to the business owner!

Don’t just think of feedback in terms of convincing your potential customers. Think of it in terms of valuable market research!

There’s nothing like getting your customer’s perspective to help you sharpen your focus, and your message. You may think you know what your customer wants, but you may be blinded by your own bias as business owner. Or, you may not use the same language that your customer uses to describe the problem they are trying to solve.

In fact, I try to start every new marketing project by calling up a handful of my client’s clients, just to get their perspective before my views are colored by the business owner’s perspective.

I’d suggest this approach to every small business owner. Getting feedback from your customers should be a top priority, whether it’s through online reviews, post-purchase surveys, or speaking with them personally.

Over to you, gentle reader… How do you incorporate reviews or testimonials on your website? Do you include any negative reviews? Let me know in the comments.


By the way, you can listen to the whole WNYC radio interview with Bill Tancer here, if you are interested:

This post contains an affiliate link to Amazon.com, which means if you make a purchase using that link I make a small commission. You could also search for the book and buy it directly. I won’t hold it against you.


  1. Interesting stuff.

    Another point to consider – negative reviews can help manage expectations. If all you have is incredible, positive reviews you may be giving people an unrealistic impression of your business/services. If you think you’re going to get an A++ 5 Star platinum service it’s going to be easy to be disappointed when your experience doesn’t quite deliver this level of service.

    Negative reviews can provide valuable feedback and give you insights that enable you to address your weaknesses and make significant improvements to how you do business. Negative comments tend to be far more actionable than just being told that “everything is awesome.”

    Make sure your comfortable with the service you’re giving your customers. Come to terms with the fact that you will get negative reviews and expect them. Be clear about how you’ll respond to them in advance. Above all, don’t take things personally and don’t get emotional when responding. Think of it as an opportunity to demonstrate to people why they would want to do business with you.

    There’s been a few stories about people using the threat of a bad review as a stick to beat the business owner with in order to get upgrades, freebies, etc. How likely this is depends on your market and your customers. Again – be prepared and remember that a single bad review is unlikely to be the end of the world.

    • Great points, Doug.

      Here’s an extreme case of managing expectations — the Hans Brinker Budget Hostel in Amsterdam, who turned their atrocious reviews into a successful marketing campaign, with slogans such as “It can’t get any worse. But we’ll do our best.”

      • I think that just shows that it’s important to understand your target audience too!

        “Improve your immune system” is one of the most extreme examples of turning a weakness into a benefit!

  2. Good stuff, Sarah. Definitely some food for thought in there.

    I really like the part about using negative reviews to showcase your responsiveness.

    Doug also makes a very good point about setting the client’s expectations, so they aren’t disappointed.


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