Are You Paying Attention to Online Reviews?

Why you should.

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I used to have this incorrigible habit of completely ignoring my bank account’s precarious balance. The more I spent, the less I checked in on it. 

Though I’ve put those irresponsible days behind me (mostly, anyhow), I have a way of indulging the same impulse when it comes to online reviews. I prefer not to look.

If you’re like me, your skin is not so thin. Even after a decade of blogging, I’ve been unable to add layers of insulation from the insults, incivility, inaccuracies and general negativity that infect social media. Sure, there’s always some truth in there, but does it have to sting so much?

Simply put, it hurts to be told that all your feelings of inadequacy are well-founded. Even when you know for certain that your critics are factually incorrect, they have a way of feeling pretty spot-on when their message rhymes with your fears.

All of which makes you never want to look at your Facebook page ever again, never mind your Yelp reviews.

Nevertheless, we must. Whether we are practice managers, owners or associates, none of us are immune to the torment of negative feedback. No matter how dense your pelt, we’re all subject to its disagreeable terms.

The trouble is, as with that razor-thin line between a positive and a negative checking account balance, not looking has a way of cutting deep should we mentally miscalculate, which is easy to do when wishful, blinkered thinking prevails.

Indeed, in the case of online reviews, the financial blowback often is worse than getting slapped with monster overdraft fees. Forget about your income; your very practice or position may be at stake. Here’s why.

A Primer 

Generally speaking, there are three ways to get new clients: foot traffic, advertising/PR and word of mouth. The first trades on location and visibility. The second requires your active efforts to put yourself out there. And the third is all about the gospel of your amazing service, told from your clients’ point of view.

Unfortunately, word of mouth is no longer as simple as it once was. It’s a new world out there. Neighbors don’t interact as much. Friends and families are more geographically dispersed. And social media has largely replaced the front porch, church picnic and water cooler. Hence the rise of the online review, which can be good and bad.

On the one hand, isn’t it a boon that word of mouth can travel far and wide to those looking for a service just like yours? Even if you live in a less technologically progressive area (as in my conservative Hispanic suburb), you’ve received positive online reviews, many of which have begotten new clients. You know because they told you so on their intake forms. This is wonderful!

On the other hand, it’s clear that the anonymity of social media offers a safe haven to those who would tear down you or your practice for even the slightest infraction. And, unfortunately, the effect of even one negative review is less obvious (and way less wonderful) than the glowing reviews that led to shiny new clients.

Depending on the number of negative reviews, the practice’s overall ranking and the tone or content of these reviews, you’ll likely notice the following consequences (listed in order of impending doom):

No. 1: A drop-off in new client acquisition. 

No. 2: A rise in the number of lapsed clients. 

No. 3: Clientele asking uncomfortable questions. 

No. 4: Eventually, a staff whose morale has taken a hit. 

Unfortunately, most practices don’t notice the first two until Nos. 3 and 4 happen.

Case in Point 

Our hospital has received negative comments for:

  • “Cruelly” refusing to put a stray cat up for adoption.
  • "Heartlessly” charging much more than the shelter does for a large dog spay.
  • “Unfairly” electing to participate in one local trap-neuter-return program over another.
  • Looking “too old school.” (It’s true; it looks like the ’70s vomited in here.)

Though one got personal and extreme by calling us animal haters and money grubbers—why does it always seem to go there?— for the most part, we’ve been lucky. In fact, most practice owners I’ve talked to say they haven’t experienced much beyond a possible drop-off in growth after getting a stray one-star review.

But this is bad enough, isn’t it? After all, in years past, the only thing that really could hurt a practice was a bevy of news trucks displaying their torches, pitchforks and cameras. Nowadays, an unhappy client can film some staged filth in your exam room and attach it to their online review. (True story involving the strategic placement of a dog turd for maximum gross-out effect. Try living that one down.)

Beyond Cyberbullying 

I’ve seen hospital reviews that would curl your toes. What’s more, their effects go well beyond traditional cyberbullying by affecting our psyches and incomes in ways we tend not to quantify. Thankfully, though, there is life beyond negative online reviews (for your finances, anyhow). It’s called “a dispassionate evaluation of your marketing plan.”

In other words, you can and should do more than just check in on your online reviews every once in a while. Here’s what I suggest:

  • Take a social media course at the next conference. Just one hour will help tremendously.
  • Use alerts to keep track of your online reviews. Yelp, for example, has a Yelp for Business app that tells me when I’ve received a new review.
  • See what review sites are popular in your area and consider advertising with one. It won’t change your rankings, but it can make a difference with client acquisition if your reviews tend toward the positive.
  • Acknowledge positive reviewers. Sending them a private thank you is always a good thing. Positive online engagement leads to more of the same offline.
  • Deal with negative reviews quickly and decisively by acknowledging the reviewer and trying to work it out privately. If you can’t come to terms offline, follow your review site’s recommendations for addressing negative reviewers publicly.
  • Have a lot of negatives? Hire a reputation defense firm to help out. These aren’t prohibitively expensive, and some even have booths at our conferences. Check them out.
  • Keep track of your new-client and lapsing-client stats. These are the most important marketing statistics that every practice should stay on top of. If your practice management software doesn’t do it, find a service that will. I use VetSuccess Inc.
  • Honestly consider your reviewers’ feedback and fix what you can.
  • Keep things in perspective. After all, it’s just work.

Final note: Lest you believe this particular column is just for practice owners or managers, it’s not. As both Dr. Cat Killer and Dr. Hot Vet can attest, associates are business entities, too. Indeed, associates are worth way more when they can show their employers that they know how to rack up the positives. Hear that, Dr. Hot Vet? Strike while the iron is, well, you know, young and muscular and—OK, now I’m just rambling.


Originally published in the May 2016 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today! 

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