The experiences that your clients have with your business and share online is more than word of mouth advertising; it’s where potential customers can get a sense of the kind of service you may provide them with. Studies tell us what we already know; most consumers used the internet to find a local business in the past year. If those people that read online reviews are anything like us, most of them also read the owner’s responses to reviews.
The majority of business owners have experienced the horrible feeling sparked when a customer posts a negative review publicly about their business. The immediate sense of concern can turn quickly into maddening frustration when you see that the review contains inaccurate information and completely false claims. You may find yourself stuck between wanting to list out every lie they told in your response and realizing that the last thing you want to have with this person is a back-and-forth posted on your business listing, and you may even find yourself wondering, perhaps even hoping… is it possible to sue someone for writing an online review?
The answer is that you can indeed sue over a negative review, but most reviews are protected under the First Amendment, which provides safety for the expression of opinions. The First Amendment does not, however, protect accusations that are factually inaccurate. Let’s say that a reviewer writes, “John was horrible to work with and the cost of his service was ridiculous”; this is the expression of an opinion. However, let’s pretend that they write, “John stole $20 from my wallet, and his business is not certified to operate under state law.” This statement contains false information and serious accusations that can be incredibly damaging to your reputation.
While it could be possible to bring a suit for false accusations posted online, a business has to consider the heavy burden of taking the fight offline and into court. Lawyers are not cheap, and the commitment of time that comes with a lawsuit might be too daunting. The escalation of your response to a nasty legal battle just may not be worth it!
We have seen stories in the news and examples of these suits. Back in 2015, a Colorado couple was sued for posting a negative review on Yelp about their experience with a flooring company. The couple claims to have spent over $65,000 in legal fees, including a $15,000 settlement to the company. The press surrounding the story also opened up criticism of the business and gave additional attention to the negative claim originally made by reviewers.
Businesses suing customers for online review content is not rampant. It did garner the attention of Congress, who in 2016 passed a law called the Consumer Review Fairness Act (CRFA), which aims to protect a consumer’s ability to leave an honest online review without punishment.
The CRFA bans businesses from the use of non-disparagement clauses in any contracts that aren’t reasonably open to negotiation. This has allowed the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to get tough on businesses that use the threat of a lawsuit and the associated legal fees that may coerce consumers into avoiding writing negative reviews or taking them down after they’ve been written.
The FTC even used the law to issue complaints against businesses that the agency claimed used non-disparagement clauses in contracts that threatened to sue consumers who left honest reviews online. As of 2019, 29 states have put in place anti-SLAPP laws (“Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation”), intended to prevent people from using courts and potential threats of a lawsuit to intimidate people who are exercising their First Amendment rights.
In a recent story out of Nashville, a small business owner is suing a competitor who he claims posted over 700 negative reviews in a year, using different profiles and names, all with the goal of taking his clients and undermining his reputation. It’s hard to imagine the time this person allegedly spent posting hundreds of reviews, many of which had detailed descriptions and would have required the creation of many different user profiles. It’s also disheartening to think of the amount of time spent trying to clear up these reviews, let alone the number of people that these reviews deterred from even reaching out to his business after an initial online search. In our opinion, a campaign like this one of such malicious defamation might require legal counsel and intervention!
In the world of online reviews and reputation, there is nothing that feels more personal than the barrage of untruths that can come along with a negative review posted by an unhappy client. This can enact our sense of justice when the situation they describe is simply not true. Since we know that business owner responses are read by consumers who are looking for goods and services online, how you handle this conflict matters. The most important step that you take is to mindfully point out inaccuracies when responding to the review. The goal should be to take the high road and address the false accusations directly, and to show your potential clients the other side of the story without jumping into attack mode. Though you may dream of seeing this bad seed of a customer in court, prepared with proof and with your evidence in hand, this is probably not how your stand-off will end. It is better to boost your confidence as your good work continues and more positive feedback is posted on your page.
We are certain that in every case, a thoughtfully crafted response, written by someone who can illustrate your side of the story without showing your frustration at being slandered online, is always your best counterpunch!