Can a company sue for a bad review?

Online customer reviews are one of the most trusted forms of marketing because of their perceived authenticity through ‘word of mouth’ promotion. Increasingly becoming seen by businesses as an opportunity for development and improvement, customer reviews had long been maligned and even feared by those having their product, brand or service written about online. The turn of the tide into appreciating and working with genuine customer reviews as a tool for business development has seen their popularity soar with companies, but now a new obstacle has appeared.

For the first time, a business in the UK is taking legal action against an individual for having left a negative review – but can a company sue for a bad review? What are the repercussions? Feefo investigates…

What happens when a customer leaves a bad review online?

How a business reacts to negative or neutral reviews online is often a reflection on their working practices, but it's also a reflection on how willing they are to learn and to improve.

The ways in which a company can react to a review they’re not favourable online largely depends on where the review is and what control they have over it. For example, a review left on a Facebook profile may only facilitate a short, written response. A review on a site such as Feefo presents considerably more opportunity to react, review and reflect upon the feedback left through analysis tools, customer surveys, interaction for furthered understanding and business insights and intelligence gained from the reviews left.

Usually, when a customer leaves a bad review online it will warrant, at minimum, a written response from the company; if posted somewhere they’re able to do so. This is the most basic form of response and oftentimes includes an email address or other contact details for further interaction – ideally with the aim of remedying any issue. Should the business decide they’d like to actively improve upon customer feedback and use it as a tool for business development and growth, they move to employ a software such as Feefo to increase their facilitation for analysis, engagement and understanding.

So… can a company sue for a bad review?

Well, there’s certainly no precedent for it in the UK, but it can be attempted. What has happened in the current case in the news is that a business (in this case, a firm of solicitors) that hosts consumer reviews on Trustpilot has disagreed with the content of the written review and taken legal action against the reviewer - it's not clear whether they have had any interaction with the reviewer otherwise. The language used in the review is extremely negative and accuses the company of being a “scam”. Whilst in the legal field there are often extremes of feeling around services - largely because of an end ruling that is not the final say of the solicitor involved - the courts will now have to judge whether the review’s content is defamation.

Some may say that a company suing for a bad review – or in this case, what they feel to be an inauthentic review – is an inevitable event on an open-ended review platform, as there is no moderation, service verification or guarantee of authenticity. Whilst businesses are often granted the ‘right to reply’ on open-ended review platforms, they can do little else.

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How can businesses and reviewers protect themselves from legal action… but still stay truthful in their reviews?

It is critical to both consumer trust and business growth that customers feel empowered enough to leave genuine and honest reviews of their brand, product and service experiences. In an ideal world, customers and businesses would engage directly before any conclusion reviews are left, but where this is not possible, reviewers and businesses can follow the below to improve their review experience:

Closed review platforms – for reviewers

A business using a closed review platform such as Feefo immediately demonstrates their willingness to work not just for, but with, customers in order to deliver a brilliant service. Close-ended review platforms only allow reviews to be submitted from those that can prove they have made a purchase or had an experience with the brand, so you can rest assured that all reviews posted are authentic. The back-end of these solutions also allows for increased customer interaction, so chances are, reviewers will receive a genuine response from the brand offering to work with them and rectify any relevant issues. What’s more, Feefo prompts reviewers to check language if it’s overtly coarse or derogatory, so any heightened emotions can be checked and re-assessed before the post button is hit.

Closed review platforms – for businesses

Whilst it’s unlikely that a negative review received through a closed review platform such as Feefo would be evidently defamatory because of its language checkers, using a platform like ours converts negative reviews from a slant against a company to an opportunity for improvement. The facility to respond directly and engage the consumer is provided alongside customer insight tools to feed into further and onward business development.

Treat the feedback as professionally as possible – for reviewers

If your feedback is to be taken in the manner it is intended and used as a true catalyst for change, it needs to be done so as professionally and accurately as possible. Constructive feedback is often better received than negative feedback, and often, the person who reads it has no control over the service given. Reviewers should try to write in a level-headed manner without compromising on honesty.

Treat the feedback as professionally as possible – for businesses

Businesses should consider neutral, negative or constructive feedback as a growth and development opportunity. Whilst remaining mindful of heightened or frustrated emotions customers may be experiencing, as much information on the circumstances involving the feedback should be gained, and all concerns taken seriously.

Whilst it is extremely rare for a company to go to the length of seeking legal advice and proceeding with legal action, precaution can be taken from both parties to mitigate risk. Following Feefo’s guidance should allow for honest and real reviews to be left without a second thought – and will allow both customers and businesses to benefit from them.

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