On-line public review sites: To reply or not to reply?

We all know that public review sites like Trip Advisor do nothing to discourage subjective ranting, but given that they are here to stay, what is the best way to respond to a customer who has left disparaging comments?

If potential complaints aren’t noticed by staff at the time and/or if there isn’t an alternative route to feedback, where by the customer can feel vindicated, then the only outlet for them to express their dissatisfaction will be a public open text forum. By the time they get to this stage they are often extremely frustrated and a tiny bit resentful so exaggeration is used to convey their high level of anger and disappointment.

Most hoteliers and restaurateurs still do not respond to customer comments on public review sites but by not doing so risk the perception that they couldn’t care a less one way or the other. However some do and I am often astounded by some of the responses to complaints! Below are some management responses to customer complaints under-which I have added how they can be translated when read by a potential customer;

Manager: “That you say you waited an hour for your food is factually incorrect!”
Potential customer: “You are a liar!”
Manager: “You should have told us at the time!”
Potential customer: “You are a spineless imbecile!”

Manager:   “Sorry you had a disappointing experience but this is extremely unusual as we have many compliments about this dish / room / waiter” 
Potential customer: “I don’t believe you!”

Once a dissatisfied customer gets as far complaining on public forums the only defence for the managers is damage limitation. Getting defensive, making excuses or being disparaging back will only fan the flames and turn-off potential new customers. Managers simply need to thank the customer for the feedback, apologise that they did not pick up the issues before the customer left and pledge their commitment to find a solution to avoid the same complaint in the future.