They won the money but have they killed the goose?
It’s been all over the national news. Summerfield Browne, a UK law firm, sued a client for £25,000 over their negative one-star review on TrustPilot.
They won the money but their heavy-handed response to a disgruntled customer drew widespread condemnation and people flocked to review sites to make their feelings known.
Sadly for this firm that advises on “all aspects of Internet Law and Websites,” the widespread attention also made people notice their website is apparently non-compliant to GDPR laws that came into effect in the UK on 25th May 2018.
It seems their response to the one-star review has had a knock-on effect on their credibility, professionalism, PR, and future business. On 9th February, they abandoned their facebook and twitter accounts and are now trying to stem the flow of negative reviews appearing on their Google and Trustpilot pages.
This article is not a commentary of Summerfield Browne’s legal right to take action over a negative review. This is a review and discussion of what happened afterwards and the marketing and branding lessons for your business.
Accept the bad with the good
Consumers have come to depend on reviews when making their purchasing decisions and looking up online reviews and testimonials is now a major part of the buying process. Businesses recognise reviews are a powerful marketing avenue.
But inviting online endorsement, whether it’s on your own website, Amazon, Google, Etsy, Trustpilot or elsewhere, is a double-edged sword. To enjoy the widespread exposure and trust you gain through testimonials, you’re expected to accept the bad with the good.
Summerfield Browne claimed the volume of calls had dropped in the weeks following the negative review. This was apparently accepted by the judge and considered in the amount awarded. To me, it raises business questions:
- If negative reviews have an impact on call volumes, then positive ones do too. If a negative review results in compensation to the company, then should positive reviews result in compensation to the reviewer?
- How can consumers exercise their right to leave a 1 star review if they’re at risk of being penalised for the company’s loss in business?
Trustpilot themselves were shocked that Summerfield Browne sued a customer for voicing a genuine concern and posted the following message on the Summerfield Browne Trustpilot page on 9th Feb 2021.
Negative reviews inspire trust
While a blanket of 5-star reviews would be amazing for any business, it’s not the end of the world if you end up with a few negatives too.
Being careful in your handling of negative online reviews doesn’t mean you have to be timid and cave into every customer demand. Review-readers understand the difference between a customer trying it on and a customer in genuine distress.
- People actively seek out negative one and two-star reviews because it gives them a way to work out the worst-case scenario with your product or service and assess if they can handle it.
- People want to see your response to negative feedback. A firm that apologises or explains the background behind the negative review is reassuring review-readers they will be looked after.
If all your business ever gets is negative reviews, take it as a sign you’ve got bigger things to worry about than online reviews.
The customer’s voice matters
Nobody goes to a law firm because they’ve got nothing else to do on a sunny day. They go because they’ve got a problem and usually it’s a problem piling on the stress and pressure.
They’re looking for reassurance you’re the right person to help them. They want to know you’ve got time for them. In the future people are going to google Summerfield Browne and find out this company sued a disgruntled client for £25,000 “just because” he wrote a bad review.
£25,000! That’s potential bankruptcy! What’s a stressed-out person looking for a law firm to think?
But the reviewer called the company a scam! That’s defamation and libel, you say.
The word scam has become colloquialised and people use it to let you know they feel cheated. Legally, the judge took it as defamation and libel but since the defendant didn’t have representation, we don’t know if it could have transpired any other way.
However, I’m not a lawyer and can only speak from a business and marketing perspective. Truth be told, even writing this brand-focused article about Summerfield Browne is giving me the willies in case they scour it for something to sue me with.
My point is that the reviewer felt cheated and the company could have turned off the heat before the milk boiled over.
How much easier it would have been if the company had simply addressed the negative review in-situ and let the people of the world make their own judgement. People are smart. They know one-star reviews are left by the horrifically offended or by those with an axe to grind. Either way, these reviews need to be read.
Review sites that vet for verified customers and give sellers tools to raise flags against innapropriate reviews have forged a path for moderated free speech. In these Internet times, consumers see their right to comment as almost sacred and people shouldn’t be stifled or scared away from their right to complain online. Most customers are priced out of pursing anything legally against a company and online negative reviews are generally a last option if they feel they have been wronged.
Resolve the issue, or take it on the chin
The client’s issue was one that comes up in every business across the world every day. The client says the company did not provide the £200 service he paid for.
This is a subjective matter and the way to resolve it is formulaic:
- Engage with the client to resolve the matter and ask the client to remove or update the negative review.
- If the matter cannot be resolved then respond on Trustpilot in an open forum stating your side of the story. Always be polite even if the client has been rude.
- Ensure the required customer service and service delivery lessons have been learned to ensure that future customers will be satisfied.
That’s it. Nothing more needs to be done.
If you feel future business will be impacted by this one review then it’s a learning experience for new procedures to be put into place.
In life nobody will always get 5 stars from every interaction. In fact if they do, that in itself is a cause for suspicion as it is not statistically possible to be liked by everyone all the time.
Rather Summerfield Browne have provided a masterclass in what not to do with a genuine negative review. Their story will be found again and again and will probably impact them negatively far into the future.