The Wrong Way to Handle Customers Who Badmouth You

Last Updated Apr 15, 2011 12:12 PM EDT

There's a right way and a wrong way to manage your company's reputation.

The right way? Address customer problems in an open and transparent way, and yes, even embrace negative reviews.

The wrong way: Threatening to sue your customers in an effort to salvage your good name.

I've been reading an advance copy of Daniel Diermeier's soon-to-be-released book Reputation Rules: Strategies for Building Your Company's Most Valuable Asset (McGraw-Hill) and he notes that when businesses try to manage their reputations during a crisis, they often get sidetracked with who's to blame.

"It is very easy to mismanage these situations," he adds.

How true. The latest example comes from the world of medicine. A company called Medical Justice has been trying to address the issue of what it calls "web defamation" by asking patients to sign mutual agreements with doctors that gives physicians who believe they've received an unfairly negative online review the tools to remove it.

How does it work? The agreement exploits a loophole in the Communications Decency Act, which protects free speech online, and which I thank the heavens above for, because I've had to invoke it a time or two. If a review is false or defamatory, the CDA protects both the commenter and the forum where it's posted.

But the Medical Justice agreement claims any review written by a patient is copyrighted material, and the CDA treats intellectual property differently. If a forum gets a takedown notice for copyrighted material, it almost always complies by removing the review immediately.

Clever, huh?

A group of legal scholars this week launched a challenge to Medical Justice. It's called Doctored Reviews and it argues that the system helps neither patients nor doctors.

Medical Justice sells contracts to doctors -- we call them "anti-review contracts" -- that either expressly prohibit patients' online reviews or permit patients to post online reviews so long as doctors can remove them whenever they want.

In exchange for these restrictions, the contracts promise patients purportedly greater privacy. However, this privacy promise is illusory, and the restrictions these contracts impose on online reviews are a bad deal for patients--and everyone else.

Medical Justice denies it is trying to stifle free speech. In a statement issued this morning, it said it encourages "honest online feedback."

The most disturbing thing to me, as a consumer advocate, is what systems like Medical Justice could do to the open Internet that makes business thrive.

Imagine if other companies used similar contracts. Before you get a haircut, before you buy a six-pack of soda at the local grocery store or before you order a meal at a restaurant, imagine you were required to keep quiet and never post your opinion online about the product or service you purchased.

Sound ridiculous? It does to us, and we think it's no less ridiculous when doctors demand this of their patients.

A bad review is what Diermeier might call a "decisive moment" that a lot of companies miss. A lot of managers, he says, use an established approach to dealing a reputation problem, may be "ill suited" and could even backfire. Deleting a negative review instead of dealing with the problem could very well fall under that category.

By the way, for more on this issue, check out the site Paid Content, which has an excellent write-up of this issue. I can't help but read it and wonder what will happen if these "doctored" reviews aren't stopped.

This may be one way to manage a reputation, but I seriously doubt it's the right way.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, or email him directly.

Photo: seanmichaelragan/Flickr
  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the He is at work on a book about customer service issues.