What to Do If You Receive a Negative Online Review from a Client

What to Do If You Receive a Negative Online Review from a Client

Posted on November 14, 2023 0 Comments

Designers, developers and agencies trying to win more projects over the competition should pay attention to what people are saying about them online. Keep reading to find out what to do if someone leaves a negative review for you on platforms like Google or Facebook.

Your portfolio website is a great place to publish shining testimonials you’ve received from clients. The only problem with testimonials is that they really are the best of the best. Five stars all the way and nothing but glowing reviews.

It would be weird to publish a ton of testimonials on your site about how much you suck and how terrible the digital products are that you build. But that’s what a platform like Google Business is for. Clients can drop in and leave their reviews for your business, both good and bad.

Google is actually a great place to aggregate client reviews. Depending on how many you get, your average rating, as well as how helpful they are to other users, they could be useful in boosting your business profile and the website connected to it.

But the tradeoff is that you don’t get to vet these public-facing reviews. So if someone leaves a negative review, you need to know how to deal with it. That’s what we’ll unpack in the following post.

7 Things to Do If You Get a Negative Online Review

If you’re hoping to win the trust and business of prospects, collecting and sharing client reviews can help with that. While every testimonial and review you receive should be carefully considered, the negative ones deserve extra special care.

So if someone does happen to drop a negative review into your public-facing profile, here’s what you should do:

1. Don’t Delete the Review

Technically, you can’t delete someone else’s review on Google. What you can do, however, is request that Google remove it. There are certain conditions that the review has to meet in order for it to be eligible for removal.

For instance, a review can be removed if it’s:

  • Harassment
  • Impersonation
  • Obscene
  • Illegal content
  • Unrelated

What you can’t get it removed for is it being critical of your business or work. As long as they adhere to Google’s review guidelines, it has to stay put. So don’t waste your time trying to get it removed.

Instead, embrace those negative reviews. In fact, it might work in your favor.

According to BrightLocal’s Local Consumer Review Survey 2023, people aren’t looking at businesses with perfect ratings. It’s just not realistic.

A 2023 BrightLocal survey asked “What is the minimum average star rating a business must have for you to consider using them?” In 2022, the responses were as follows: 1% want 1.0 star. 1% want 1.5 stars. 2% want 2.0 stars. 4% want 2.5 stars. 12% want 3.0 stars. 21% want 3.5 stars. 38% want 4.0 stars. 11% want 4.5 stars. 5% want 5.0 stars.

Data from this survey showed the following minimum rating expectations:

  • 38% want a business to have at least a 4.0-star rating.
  • 21% look for 3.5 stars and up.
  • 12% look for 3.0 stars and up.
  • 11% look for 4.5 stars and up.
  • Only 5% look for 5.0 stars.

So it’s clear that there’s some leeway that people will give you for accumulating negative reviews. What’s more important is what those reviews say and how you address them.

2. Confirm It’s Real

When writing content, I occasionally use Google Maps as a way to find web designer and agency websites for examples of the points I’m making. As I’ve scoured their Google Business pages and reviews, I’ve noticed that there are indeed some fake reviews out there.

According to BrightLocal’s survey, about 32% of people can spot a fake review. They’re usually the ones that are over-the-top negative but overly vague when it comes to any details.

That said, you shouldn’t leave it up to prospective clients to determine that a fake review is fake. Reporting fake reviews to Google is important. But if that option isn’t available to you for some reason, then responding to the fake reviewer is what you need to do.

This is usually how I see it handled:

Hi username,

I appreciate you taking the time to leave a review. However, I don’t have a record of you or a project like this in our system. If you can please provide me with more details about the project, that would allow us to verify the scope of the job. Also, if you can reach out to our customer service team at support@ouragencyname.com, we’ll work quickly to resolve the issue for you.


Basically, you don’t want to make any accusations. Simply let them know that you don’t have any record or recollection of the project they’ve described and that you need their help.

This type of response should signal to prospects that something hinky is going on here, especially if the fake reviewer doesn’t respond back to you. If they don’t pick up on it, they’ll at least see that you took the time to monitor and respond to your reviews, no matter how unpleasant they were.

3. Confirm It’s Accurate

The accuracy of your reviews matters. While you can’t get a review booted for being incorrect or inaccurate (unless you can prove that it was done in a malicious manner), you can deal with it professionally.

So what you first need to do is confirm that the reviewer was actually a client. Then you need to review the details of your project.

Look into your project management system as well as your email exchanges. Zero in on the specific issue or complaint they’re making and see if you can figure out where the disconnect occurred. It could be a simple misunderstanding.

For instance, let’s say that you built a new website for a client. You had done some basic on-page SEO for it. As you discussed with the client numerous times, the on-page SEO would help the website rank, but it would take some time before they saw any organic traffic driven to the site as a result. You anticipated that it would take about 6 to 12 months.

Despite reminding them of this fact throughout the project and even during the offboarding phase, they went onto your Google Business page and claimed you had scammed them. They said that their website isn’t #1 for any keyword and nowhere near the top of search results pages.

They also happened to leave this review a couple weeks after their site launched.

So when you see a negative review like this come through from a verified client, try not to get upset about it. Go through your communications and documentation to find proof contrary of their claim. Then gather up the “receipts” (like screenshots of emails) that you can use later on when you work to resolve the issue in private.

4. Sit on It for No More Than 48 Hours

A bad review never feels good. So it’s not unrealistic to expect that you’d be upset and take it personally. However, if you respond when you’re in that state, you risk writing something that sounds overly emotional, defensive or accusatory.

To keep things civil, tuck the review notification out of sight somewhere. Then set a reminder for yourself to reevaluate it 24 to 48 hours later. This will give you time to cool off a bit. It will also give you time to confer with others, be they people you worked with on the job, other designers who’ve been through something like this, or just someone close to you that you can confide in.

5. Craft Your Response

When I first started freelancing, I wrote for the restaurant industry. Specifically, I wrote content that helped restaurateurs manage their digital marketing and online reputations. It was around that time in the mid-2010s when many a restaurant owner flew off the handle in response to negative Yelp reviews. Needless to say, I had a lot to write about.

Initially what I advised was that business owners never respond the way that Tyrone of Sunset Terrace Restaurant & Lounge responded. If you’re curious, start the video around the 50-second mark. I’ll warn you though, it’s really vulgar.

Sleeping on it and waiting 48 hours can help simmer tensions and to keep the nastiness out of the response. But so too can taking a measured approach to writing it.

Here are some tips to help you craft the right response when you’re ready to do so:

  • Don’t use a canned response. Always write a custom reply.
  • Put yourself in their shoes and try to understand where they’re coming from.
  • Acknowledge the reviewer by their first name.
  • Thank them for their input.
  • Take responsibility for the issue.
  • Stick to the facts.
  • Keep the language civil. Keep derogatory and accusatory words out of it.
  • Offer a means of resolution and ask if you can take the matter offline.
  • Sign your name.

Here’s what your response might look like in response to the hypothetical client above that was upset about their website not ranking:

Hi Sally,

Thank you for taking the time to bring this concern to our attention. We are sorry to hear that you are not satisfied with the results of your website.

As we had discussed over the course of the project, SEO is a complex matter. While we implemented on-page SEO to the fullest, there are other factors that contribute to how well and quickly webpages rank.

Typically, it can take about 6 to 12 months for a brand-new website to start ranking in a meaningful way. Since your website launched two weeks ago, it is going to take some time before you start receiving significant traffic from Google.

In the meantime, I’d be happy to reconnect you with our SEO specialist. Her name is Jessie and she can review some other things that can be done to speed up these results if it’s a priority for you at the moment.


It might seem like a waste responding to negative reviews. But taking the time to prepare a well-thought-out response can be beneficial in a number of ways.

For starters, 88% of consumers say that they’re likely to use a business if the owner responds to every review they receive. They also have a preference for businesses that respond to negative reviews (60%) versus positive ones (50%).

Another reason to reply to negative reviews is because it gives you a chance to potentially convince the client to change their rating. It might not happen most of the time, but it definitely won’t happen if you don’t try.

I wouldn’t recommend asking them to reverse their rating. Instead, just handle the follow-up and resolution to the best of your ability and then see how it plays out. You may be surprised with the outcome.

6. Write to the Client Offline

Tyrone of the infamous Facebook response eventually explained that he never meant for his message to be posted publicly. The error, he said, was that he had meant to send it to the customer directly.

That’s a huge problem. The way you handle a negative review in the public eye should not be just for show. It should be a direct reflection of who you are in business and how you conduct yourself in every transaction and interaction.

The same is true of your private interactions with clients. Just because you don’t have the public to hold you accountable for bad behavior doesn’t make a nasty response okay.

So with that out of the way, what exactly should you do offline?

This is your opportunity to resolve the issue. When it comes to something like web design, however, resolution isn’t always straightforward. It’s not like your clients bought some produce at your store and found out it was rotten when they got home.

Issuing a refund or rebate isn’t always possible with a website, especially if you finished the work, they claimed to be happy with it, and they approved and paid for it. There would have to be something seriously wrong in order for you to offer a refund or a free rework as a resolution.

Here’s what I recommend you do offline:

Get ahold of the client’s contact info and send them an email. Reiterate what you said in the public-facing message. Consistency is key.

Then initiate a way to resolve the matter peacefully:

  • If you offered a resolution (like speaking to the SEO specialist in the example), give them concrete details and next steps in this message.
  • If you couldn’t offer a resolution because the review was too vague or confusing, ask for clarification. If need be, schedule a call with them.
  • If you can’t resolve the issue because it conflicts with your agreed-upon terms, provide them with proof—screenshots of your discussions, the scope of work, the Zoom call recording where you discussed the matter, etc.

Oh, and be sure to document this response. Get it in writing or, if you’re calling them, record it via Zoom. The last thing you want is for someone to claim that you made no effort to resolve the issue or to insist you said or did something you didn’t.

7. Reflect on What This Review Means for You

Once the dust has settled on a less-than-stellar review, spend some time reviewing what went down. Let’s use our website SEO client example once more.

As I mentioned in my response to Sally, we had discussed how SEO works numerous times over the course of the project. For some reason, what we told her just didn’t stick.

Was it our fault? Did we do a poor job of explaining SEO? Was it not clearly outlined in the scope of work or contract? Is this something we’ve encountered with other clients where their expectations didn’t align with reality?

If it’s an error on our part, this is the time to come up with our own (re)solution. For instance, rather than have to constantly remind clients that new websites with low authority scores don’t get to the first page of Google in the first year, we might instead put together SEO 101 videos. We can give them these resources as part of their onboarding and, later, offboarding packages.

While it’s easy to blame a client for being unknowledgeable or irrational when they leave a negative review, it’s important to look at it from all angles. Because while their response may be hyper-emotional, there is usually some truth underneath it all. It might mean you need to re-evaluate your content management system. Or your method of communication. Or the contractors you work with.

Be honest with yourself when you get a negative review and consider what can be done to prevent another one like it from popping up down the line.


Bad reviews aren’t always a bad thing. It all depends on how you handle them.

Rather than ignore them or try to make them disappear, face them head on. This can work to your advantage in a number of ways.

For starters, it’ll give you a chance to show off a different side of your business. While prospects typically encounter your polished portfolio website and professional persona when they’re online, this allows them to see how you deal with the unexpected, the unpleasant and the uncomfortable.

Responding to negative reviews also gives you an opportunity to resolve issues or complaints from past clients. You might even be able to win back their business as well as get a better star rating from them.

Last but not least, negative reviews give you the chance to improve your business. No matter how off base the review is, there’s always some lesson to take away from the exchange.

Suzanne Scacca

A former project manager and web design agency manager, Suzanne Scacca now writes about the changing landscape of design, development and software.


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