How to handle bad restaurant reviews?

Every restaurateur will tell you that good reviews boost takings while bad ones can close you down. And, in an age when everyone can be an online critic, ratings have never been more important. A recent study in the US has shown that a restaurant with a rating improvement of just one point can increase trade significantly without any change in menu or prices.

By Jeremy Ryland


Indeed an experiment in London last year proved the power of the internet. A restaurant called The Shed at Dulwich was rated number one on TripAdvisor, with dozens of reviews praising its original approach. It became one of the most in-demand eateries with people clambering to get a reservation. The only problem was, the reviews weren't real and the restaurant did not exist. The whole thing was made up as a practical joke, to prove how easily it can be to manipulate things online.


Conversely – a bad review can turn people off. One well-known reviewer is quoted as saying, “Bad reviews do not close restaurants, bad food closes restaurants” – which may, in essence, be true. However, people rely on reviews and word-of-mouth to decide where to go. So a bad review will affect sales and unlike a complaint or feedback at the time of dining, a bad review does not give the restaurant a chance to redeem itself. And sadly a bad review may not be the result of poor food or service but due to other factors out of the restaurateur's control.


At Gault&Millau, we do not write “bad” reviews. As reviewers, we all have a responsibility. A restaurant is a business. And it will have good days and bad days. Gault&Millau believe that it is our role to support the industry. So it is important that we take our responsibility seriously. Any restaurant that receives a score of less than 11 points is not published in the Guide. If you cannot say something nice, don’t say anything at all!


A review is like a photograph – a snapshot. Back in the 1960’s, it took over a month or more to publish a review – which was good as it allowed the restaurant to find it’s feet and iron out any issues. Even today at Gault&Millau, although we may review, we do not score a restaurant that is less than a year old.


However, the internet and social media can result in a restaurant being reviewed by bloggers and guests within hours of opening.


So – how should you respond to those few but damaging negative reviews?


Firstly, read the review carefully. Don’t react too quickly. Read the comments carefully before responding to any of it. Make sure you understand the issues and see the complaint from the guests' point of view - then plan a course of action and formulate the best response.

Review the issue and what you can do to resolve it. It is very important to review the issues carefully. With an on-line complaint compared to one made within the restaurant at the time of dining – you may not be aware of the problems for sometime after the event, and after it has already been posted on Yelp and TripAdvisor.
Find out where the problem occurred and which staff members were involved. Listen to their side of the story. If the issue has validity, do something about it. And make sure it cannot occur again. Knowing every detail behind the complaint will help you address the issues, learn from any mistakes and respond to the consumer in the best way possible. Remember “every complaint is a gift” – a valuable piece of feedback.


“The customer is always right"! Whilst you may think they are mistaken, their perception is powerful. Perceptions are reality. Today, due to the collective nature of social media, customers DO have the power to make or break a business. So respond with an apology and a promise to do better. Make them feel that your business cares about them enough to address any issues they may have.


Most complaints can be diluted by agreeing with the customer and appealing to their emotions. Whether the problem was caused by the restaurant or other parties out of the business's control, it's always best to apologise and follow it with a simple short explanation, including any remedial action taken if necessary. Reassure the consumer that you understand the customer's viewpoint and the issue will be dealt with.

If the review had any positive input, make sure you reinforce the customer's positive experience. Thank the customer for their feedback. You may wish to consider offering them some sort of incentive to return such as a two for one meal. Avoid giving away free meals or deep discounts as there are people out there who post bad reviews just to get free meals.


Regardless, it's important to make the customer feel understood and to be empathetic. With a good response to a negative review, you can turn a disappointed customer into a returning loyal consumer – who will leave positive reviews for others to read.