Why Terrible Online Reviews Are Actually Good For You

Your Customers Are Telling You How to Make Your Product Better

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Everyone loves a compliment -- especially marketers, who light up when people say great things about their brand or products. As the former CMO of Dell, I know there are few things more satisfying than seeing positive testimonials from real people spread across the web in posts, tweets, and five-star reviews. These voices tell us we're doing things right -- and that we know what our customers want.

But even the most beloved products attract disparaging comments. Customers might not understand how your product is supposed to work, or perhaps they had the wrong expectations based on your marketing copy -- or maybe they just really don't like your products. But whatever the source, one thing is certain: If you open the door to customer conversations, you will attract the occasional one-star review.

And you should be grateful when you do. These comments build credibility, improve sales, reduce returns, and, most importantly, point out product flaws that can be fixed to make your offerings even better. The mere presence of a mix of positive and negative feedback is seen as more authentic and builds trust. It proves to customers that you value their voices and embrace transparency. In fact, we've found time and time again that authentic customer feedback about a product or service, whether positive or negative, improves conversion when compared to having none available.

Take Intuit. The company lets customers review its ProAdvisors, experts-for-hire who help customers with QuickBooks implementations. The company found that not only did ProAdvisors with reviews get more clicks than those without feedback, but the number of reviews was more important than the rating. For example, a ProAdvisor who rated four out of five stars but had nine reviews got more clicks than a five-star-ranked ProAdvisor with just two reviews.

But most important, negative feedback opens the door to do two things: reach out to disgruntled customers to turn them into satisfied customers, and improve products based on their very real feedback.

For example, after a popular sink mat was reformulated for bacterial resistance, Rubbermaid saw a rise in negative reviews, with many customers complaining the revamped product was less stain-resistant. Instead of getting upset by the bad reviews, Rubbermaid saw this information as invaluable feedback, and quickly reverted to the previous formulation, thanked customers for their comments, and resolved the core issue.

Furniture retailer Land of Nod found that negative reviews were not only beneficial, but actually more useful than positive reviews. The company offers a kids activity table that many customers really loved; it had an average rating of 4.8 out of 5 stars, and 90% of reviewers said they would recommend it to a friend. Despite these overwhelmingly positive reviews, Land of Nod dug into specific comments and found that the one common negative comment was about how the surface of the table tended to scratch easily. The merchandising and manufacturing teams put their heads together and designed a new table with wood that was less likely to scratch. But Land of Nod didn't stop there. They contacted every customer who mentioned the table's soft surface and offered them a new and improved table -- free of charge.

L.L. Bean is another brand that acts fast on poorly-reviewed products. When the company sees more than six negative reviews on a product, a manager must immediately respond to disgruntled customers and begin investigating the product's potential flaws. If there are no immediate ways to improve the product, L.L. Bean doesn't hesitate to remove it completely from the site.

"There's value in these conversations, but if you're not acting upon them, you're missing it," L.L. Bean's senior VP-CMO, Steve Fuller, recently told a packed room of brand managers and marketers. "The real power is in the action you take."

Today, marketing is a conversation. Brands that act on both positive and negative customer feedback emerge as the global leaders -- with products and a brand image crafted not just by their managers, but by their customers all over the world.

Erin Mulligan Nelson is CMO of Bazaarvoice, which powers online reviews for major marketers and e-commerce sites. Prior to joining Bazaarvoice in 2010, Nelson was CMO of Dell; she has also worked in brand management at Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo.
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