My family and I recently rented a beach house on the Texas coast. The rental included a wrap-around porch with spectacular views of the ocean, a spacious and modern kitchen, three bedrooms, two bathrooms…

And a dude and his pit bull.

Can you guess which items the owner did NOT include in the VRBO listing?

We first noticed the dude and his pit bull when we arrived. He was hanging out in the yard having a smoke. He introduced himself as the “maintenance guy” and disappeared a few minutes later.

Between his car never moving, his 30 second response time to any maintenance issue, and the dog barks and smoke smells emanating from the garden shed, we quickly realized dude and his pit bull were in fact living in the shed. The shed had no windows (or running water or electricity).

We contacted the owner thinking the dude and his pit bull were pulling a fast one on him. Nope, the owner confirmed that the dude and his pit bull live in the garden shed. No, “Oops, I’m sorry I forgot to mention the house comes with a squatter and a dog that looks like it could rip your four year old’s head off. But don’t worry, they’re harmless.” Nothing.

In the end, the dude and his pit bull pretty much kept to themselves. And we left some basic groceries for him. If you’re living in a garden shed, you must be pretty down on your luck.

So I bet I can guess the question you are all thinking. Did we write a bad VRBO review?

The answer is no. One bad VRBO review (and this one would have been a doozy) could really sink the owner, who is, after all, a small business owner. Writing a bad review about a big, faceless corporation is one thing, but writing one about someone who’s ability to put food on his family’s table is on the line is another.

Now if there had been bed bugs, it would have been a different story. NOTE: If God forbid you ever find yourself surrounded by bed bugs, before you race to your computer to write a bad review, take care of the situation first by following this guide I came across recently (just in case, there are no bed bugs in my house).

So why am I sharing this story? I want to talk today about what you should do if you, as a small business owner, get a negative online review.

This issue really strikes a nerve with small business owners. As Warren Buffet famously said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

There are lots of reasons why you might get a bad online review. Perhaps it’s one of your competitors posting a fake review to hurt your business. Or one of your customers who won’t pay his bill because he thinks it’s too much. Or a genuinely dissatisfied customer who is upset because you screwed up.

Regardless of the reason, we need to get one thing straight. Review websites exist for one purpose—to give genuinely dissatisfied customers a forum to air their complaints (and hopefully get the attention of the company). While all of these websites have policies requiring reviewers to be legitimate customers, there’s no way to enforce these policies before the review hits the website.

So what are your options?

First and foremost, you should investigate the review. Who posted the review? Was it one of your customers, a competitor, or an unknown person? If it is one of your customers, consider whether or not you can reach out to the customer and resolve the issue.

If the review is fraudulent, you can flag or tag a review as inappropriate or in violation of the review website’s term of service. With most review websites, this will result in the review being temporally hidden while the reviewer is given a week or two to respond to your complaint.

Be sure to always publicly respond to the review on the review platform. Did you reach out and resolve the issue with the customer? Include that in your response. Is the review false or misleading or even fraudulent? Post a well-crafted response.

So let’s say you have taken all of these steps, and the review has completely torpedoed your business. There’s been a precipitous decline in new customers and your existing customers are jumping ship. What are your options now?

If the review truly is false or misleading or fraudulent, you can consider suing the reviewer for defamation. To win a defamation suit, you must prove that review is a false statement of fact (as opposed to an opinion), the reviewer was either negligent in posting the review or acted with malice, and your business suffered actual damages.

We’ve all seen an example of how this would work in real life. Do you remember the Dallas area wedding photographer whose business was destroyed after a bride and groom launched a social media campaign against her? She sued them for defamation and won $1.08 million. Whether or not she will ever be able to collect the judgement, is another story. In case you missed it, click here.

One person you won’t be able to sue is the review website. The U.S. Communications Decency Act prevents any lawsuits against websites for publishing third party content. This includes reviews, comments, forums, etc. As long as the review website doesn’t change the meaning of the reviewer’s post, they’re immune from any libel or defamation suit.

I’ll leave you with a few well-worn sayings. The customer is always right. The best defense is a good offense. And never let them see you sweat.

Has your business been the recipient of an unfair online review? Leave a comment or send me an e-mail.

Disclaimer: This website is made available for educational purposes only as well as to give general information and a general understanding of the law, not to provide specific legal advice. By using this website you understand that there is no attorney client relationship between you and the publisher. The website should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.

Copyright © 2018 by Siobhán Fitzpatrick Kratovil. All Rights Reserved.

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