It’s about to get harder to suppress negative reviews from your customers

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(This post originally appeared on The Washington Post)

Ask any small business owner about their experiences with social review sites like Yelp, Trip Advisor and Angie’s List and most will tell you how valuable those services are for attracting new customers. In fact, almost 70 percent of consumers rely on online reviews before making a purchase.

But there’s a downside: People can leave negative reviews, and online criticism can be damaging to a company’s reputation. Most business owners will admit that handling these types of comments is a huge challenge. And it’s about to become even more challenging.

A bill was passed by Congress Monday that will make it harder to stop people from saying bad things about your business. It’s sitting on the president’s desk – and he’s probably going to sign it. The law is called The Consumer Review Fairness Act. Some are calling it the “Yelp Act.” Whatever it’s called, the law will make it illegal for companies to limit a customer’s right to make and share bad reviews.

It all stems from a 2013 lawsuit, according to this report by The Verge, accusing a company of demanding that a customer remove a negative review that she posted online or be slapped with a $3,500 fine because she violated a “gag clause” that was included in the company’s terms of service (which nobody really reads anyway, do they?). The plaintiff apparently refused to pay. The company allegedly reported the non-payment to a collections agency. The plaintiff’s credit history was affected. So now Congress made a law.

“Reviews on where to shop, eat, or stay on websites like Yelp or TripAdvisor help consumers make informed choices about where to spend their money,” Internet subcommittee ranking member Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said in The Verge report. “Every consumer has the right to share their honest experiences and opinions of any business without the fear of legal retaliation, and the passage of our bill brings us one step closer to protecting that right.”

If you’re a business owner you understand that you can’t please everyone and you shouldn’t suppress negative comments. The smartest managers know that it’s best to respond to unfavorable online comments quickly, professionally and with an apology. Now even Congress agrees.

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