Shot of a cheerful young female bartender busy texting on her cellphone while standing next to the bar counter

The phenomenon of business owners in hospitality receiving threats of blackmail via negative reviews is an issue that we are only now starting to talk about in Belgium (see De Standaard’s article today, 29 November 2018). However, this concept of “review blackmail” is an old issue that was already flagged and dealt with in the US and the UK 4 to 5 years ago.

As with all new technologies, they bring great opportunities and advantages for the majority of businesses, their teams and customers. However, there will always be a small minority of people with less than honest intentions, who attempt to take advantage for their personal gain.

Our message is this: Business owners on this side of the world need not panic. What we must do instead, is become more knowledgeable and tech-savvy with respect to managing our online reputation.

The fact is that today, the problem of  blackmail reviews is already well-mitigated. Review sites have matured and have responsive processes in place to protect against such threats. Platforms such as TripAdvisor, Zomato, Google, Yelp and Facebook do, in fact, take it seriously that hotel and restaurant owners consider them as important channels in their entrepreneurial journey. They also know that we, as visitors, rely on them to be neutral platforms.

What is important for me to know?

You should know that review sites are actually on your side. Blackmail or threatening behavior by customers against business owners is strictly AGAINST their guidelines and may also be illegal in many countries.

A spokesperson for TripAdvisor said: “It is absolutely against the terms and spirit to use TripAdvisor’s name to try and claim discounts, compensation or freebies that would not be available to other guests.” 

Immediately reporting blackmail and threats can help the review sites investigate quickly and help keep blackmail reviews from ever reaching the public area of the sites.

So, what can I do when I am threatened with blackmail?

Know the procedures for reporting blackmail on your most used review sites. Follow the steps, and report any threats immediately – preferably, BEFORE the blackmail review is posted.

Physical threats, such as the incident reported by Sepideh Sedaghatnia in the Standaard article above, are a different matter. Intimidating and intentional behavior that “would cause a person of ordinary sensibilities” to fear injury or harm are reportable to the police. It is not necessary to prove that the customer’s behavior was violent, it is enough that the victim was genuinely frightened.

Here are important links to help you report review blackmail or other threats asap:

  1. For TripAdvisor, these are their procedures:
    https://www.tripadvisor.com/TripAdvisorInsights/w592
  2. For Google:
    https://support.google.com/business/contactflow?hl=en
  3. For Yelp:
    https://www.yelp-support.com/article/How-do-I-report-a-review?l=en_US
  4. For Facebook, this is the report center:
    https://www.facebook.com/help/contact/567360146613371
  5. For Zomato
    https://www.zomato.com/blog/project-fairplay
  6. For Open Tableuse this email address: [email protected].
    https://help.opentable.com/s/article/Ratings-and-Reviews-1505261056054?language=en_US

What do I do next?

At the point of submitting an incident report, you will need to provide some extra information, including the month and year of the meal or stay (whichever applies), as well as the name of the reviewer (if you have it). For accommodation owners, it’s a bit easier as they often have the person’s email address, too.

Try to provide as many details as possible — this information will help fraud investigators identify a blackmail review if it’s submitted at a later date. You also make a stronger case for yourself if the circumstances described in the review  matches what you’ve previously included in a blackmail incident report. Finally, if you have emails or any other documents that prove the threat, make sure to upload these, too.

When should I report a threat or blackmail?

Immediately — it’s important to report the threat or incident as soon as possible after it occurs, in fact, ideally, you would do it on the same day, and preferably before the blackmail review has been posted.

TripAdvisor says that while most guests do not actually follow through with their threats, it’s much more persuasive for your case if you submit your incident report as soon as possible to ensure that there is a record in the system, BEFORE the blackmail review is posted by the blackmailer.

What happens after I submit my blackmail review report?

You may be contacted by the review site for additional information to understand the situation.

Best Practice at point of a verbal (in-person) threat?

It can be really confronting when a threat is delivered in-person as opposed to over the phone or email. Verbal threats are so difficult to manage precisely because the (perceived) attack is in real-time, leaving you with little opportunity to make a carefully considered response. An ultimatum for a free meal, a refund or an upgrade to avoid a negative review can come as a real shock, especially when the person uses intimidation tactics.

Whether a customer’s complaint is justified or not, no one likes to be yelled at or aggressively accused. But, it is precisely when situations escalate, that it becomes crucial that you set aside your instinctive feelings of anger or defensiveness. As the public face of the business, it is vital that you keep a cool head.

Here is a step by step guide to dealing with verbal threats:

  1. Do your best to diffuse the situation. Take the irate customer to the side or the back office if you have one.
  2. Show that you are listening. This serves two purposes: it may calm the complainant because you appear empathetic. But secondly, your recollection of the event may become critical if the situation cannot be resolved. If possible, take notes during the discussion, and if this is not possible, be sure to write down your recollection immediately afterward.
  3. Be sure you understand the complaint. Without a clear understanding of their complaint, you will never be able to find a solution. Don’t be afraid to ask for more details from the customer, if you need it. 
  4. Focus your response on solving the specific complaint as much as possible.  For example: if the complainant’s demand is objectively not appropriate to the complaint that they raised, respond with more appropriate alternatives for compensation / reparation.
  5. If you have been fair and your proposed solutions are still rejected, don’t be afraid to politely express your regret that an agreement cannot be found and leave it at that.
  6. Pro Tip: Obviously, the best case scenario is for you and your team to create company guidelines for dealing with threats and blackmail BEFORE you experience it. Make sure to include options for acceptable reparations for when mistakes truly happen. [Stay posted. A checklist on how to make a crisis document will be posted next month.]

What should I do while the review is being investigated?

In circumstances where a review has been posted already, and your complaint to take it down is still being investigated, we suggest that you respond to the review on the public-facing part of the platform anyway, so that potential visitors hear your side of the story, too.

Pro Tip: Some review sites do not allow you to edit your response. The only thing you can do when you want to change something, is delete your original response and repost the edited version. Thus, it might be best if you type your draft in Word, so that you can spell check and edit it. Then, when you’re happy, cut and paste your response. 

Check out our blog on how to respond to negative reviews. Click here for the English version and here for the Dutch version of the article.

Other things I should know?

It goes both ways. Business owners who abuse the reporting tools may be penalized.

Summary of Best practices to handle Review Blackmail

 Prepare a crisis management document for your business and share it with the team ASAP.

  Instruct employees to inform you of any guest blackmail threats they receive immediately.

  Report it as soon as possible.

  Include as many details as you can about the incident.

  Use an All-in-One inbox that also notifies you of  all negative reviews as soon as one is posted.

  If you report review blackmail after it has been posted, still write a response on the public area.

 

Finally, have courage! And, don’t get mad, get smarter. Online ratings and reviews are not going away any time soon. They have become an integral part of the modern consumer’s  decision-making process. You know yourself that when you’ve never been to a particular hotel or restaurant, reading a few reviews can often help you choose. To survive in the era of digital word of mouth, your business has no choice but to own your communication! But what’s great is that you don’t have to do it alone. We’re definitely here to help. 🙌

Learn more

Need help managing your online reviews and social media?