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No business owner wants to see a bad Yelp review – but suing the user won’t help

By October 31, 2019No Comments

(This post originally appeared on The Guardian)

No matter how hard you try or how good your business is, someone is inevitably going to leave you a bad online review. Maybe it’s justified. Maybe you had an off day. Or maybe the customer was just a jerk. There are lots of reasons why this could happen. But the big question is how to best respond. One small business in Michigan came up with a unique strategy. They decided to fight back … and sue the reviewer.

North Wind Heating and Air, an installer of heating and air conditioning systems in suburban Detroit, said it was suing the Yelp reviewer Lisa Agostino because, according to a statement provided to a local TV station, her “false and defamatory statements” not only affected the company’s business but had a “direct negative effect on its ability to offer full-time hours to its employees.”

So what brought this on?

The company – a 28-year-old family-owned firm – says it performed services to repair Agostino’s air conditioning unit as per a work order she approved. But unfortunately, the customer still wasn’t happy. After the work was done, she called the company to complain and said she “no longer agreed with the price of the replaced part”. The company says it ultimately returned the part and did not charge her.

But clearly the experience was not a great one for the customer. So she left a bad Yelp review. Actually it was allegedly worse than bad. According to the company it contained “false statements” where she claimed she paid for the service call, even though the company said she didn’t. After refusing the company’s requests to take down the review, both parties lawyered up. North Wind filed a lawsuit seeking the removal of the review and $25,000 in damages relating to the loss of business that the bad review ostensibly caused.

But Agostino is not backing down. “She believes she has the right to air grievances against companies, and if she takes down her post she’s giving the opportunity for a company to muzzle other customers and their bad reviews,” her attorney told the TV station. “People need to know that there are companies that don’t do good jobs and there are companies that do good jobs.”

I sympathize with both parties in this story, but North Wind is making a mistake.

Of course no business owner wants to see a bad online review, and if North Wind’s claims are true that the information in the review was indeed false that makes the matter even worse. But taking it to the next level by suing the reviewer is only going to benefit the attorneys involved.

Just about every business I know nowadays suffers some kind of indignity – deserved or not – online. People can say what they want and there’s little recourse to stop them. If you don’t believe me just check out the Twitter feeds of a few major airlines, hotels and tech companies. You will see lots of people throwing shade.

But here’s the thing: most consumers are used to seeing this kind of stuff and, although a bad review or two may impact our decisions, they’re certainly not the only factor. On the upside sites like Yelp, assuming there are plenty of great reviews (and positive interactions from the business owners themselves), can generate lots of revenues. A business owner has to take the risks along with the rewards.

So to the owners at North Wind I say: withdraw the case, post a constructive response on Yelp and elsewhere and stop distracting yourself with this nonsense. Move on and get back to doing what you do best: installing and repairing heating and air conditioning systems just like you have been doing for the past 28 years. Clearly you’re doing something right.

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