The ubiquity of internet access and the popularity of online review sites and other forms of social media, have led to an increase in the opportunity for customers to share their consumption experiences with others. For instance, sharing an entry in Trip Advisor, posting an update on Facebook, or even uploading a video to YouTube.
While there has been ample research on the effect of these reviews on the perceptions and behaviours of other customers, not much is known about how they impact on the perceptions and behaviours of the employees themselves. Hence, it was with much interest that I came across a study on the impact of negative online reviews (NORs) from restaurant customers on restaurant owners, managers, and employees.
The study was authored by Graham L. Bradley, Beverley A. Sparks and Karin Weber, and surveyed 421 restaurant employees, managers, and owners in Australia. It was published in the Journal of Service Management (paid access, only).
The researchers found that most of the respondents reacted negatively to NORs, particularly restaurant owners and those working in mid-to-high range restaurants. The respondents considered the reviews a threat to the restaurant industry and a source of stress for workers. Moreover, they tended to see NORs as unfair or unwarranted, even an offence to themselves or their teams.
The project also investigated how staff react to the negative reviews. Bradley and his colleagues found that, when confronted with the NORs, staff mostly responded with anger. Some also reported feeling embarrassed or even guilty. This finding is concerning as it means that staff are unlikely to be receptive to the lessons that can be learned from customers’ complaints. Indeed, staff may even exacerbate the problem, for instance, if they reply to the comments in haste, or if they engage in defensive behaviour. And, of course, such negative feelings will impact on staff-wellbeing and their vulnerability to stress.
Interestingly, the longer the experience in the current job, the more likely respondents were to feel anger when confronted with ONRs. Also, anger was most likely to be felt among business owners, which is concerning as customer complaints can be an important source of customer insight. Negative sentiments were least likely among employees in cafes and casual restaurants. In contrast, the longer the experience in the industry (as opposed to specific job), the less likely respondents were to react negatively to the ONRs. That is, commitment to a particular restaurant may increase feelings of resentment towards the negative reviews, while industry experience and seeing the work as a source of income rather than a vocation leads respondents to downplay the importance of ONRs.
Furthermore, the emotional responses (anger, embarrassment and guilt) were NOT related to the total number of NORs. Instead, the more specific the customer’s complaint was (e.g., mentioning a specific member of staff rather than the business or the industry as a whole) the more emotional the response.
The authors go on to outline some possible solutions to the problem, including diverting customer feedback into channels that are more private and more constructive. I completely agree with this. Many times, customers try to voice their dissatisfaction directly, and it is only when they feel that they are not being heard, or not getting anywhere, that they go on public platforms such as social media – an example of this is Dave Carroll, who only produced the United Breaks Guitars video after months of being ignored by the airline.
There are occasions, of course, when customers are being unreasonable or unfair. Or they simply want revenge – a phenomenon particularly likely among those customers who were, previously, very loyal to the brand. But, in most cases, it’s the process of complaining directly to the firm that is (perceived as being) too complex or too confrontational; so, dissatisfied customers go for the “easy” option of posting a tweet or a review.