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How to handle online negative reviews

September 08, 2017

By David Burger

Patients can use websites such as Yelp or Angie’s List to search for dentists with good reviews.

But what happens if a dentist finds that a patient has posted an unfavorable review? Can they do anything about it?

The ADA’s Guidelines for Practice Success module, Managing Marketing, instructs dentists how to respond — if at all — if they encounter an uncomplimentary review about them online. 

This module is one of a series of practice management modules developed through the Council on Dental Practice as a member benefit, and available online through the Center for Professional Success website (success.ada.org/gps).

“Proceed carefully, if you decide to proceed at all,” the module warns. “Commercial speech is protected speech so, in most cases, the best response is to not respond.”

If the practice does respond to protect its online reputation, advice to consider includes:

  • Do not engage or get drawn into an online debate over the incident that prompted the negative review.
  • Consider a statement along the lines of, ‘Our office strives to provide the best service and we do our best to succeed with this goal. I would like to learn more about what happened and hope you will contact us as soon as possible.’
  • Make certain that any response offers no hint as to the identity of the poster. Always protect the patient’s privacy.

Dentists should remember that there are laws — informally called the Right to Yelp — that prohibit contractual prohibitions on posting negative online reviews.

A federal bill called the Consumer Review Freedom Act was passed by Congress in early 2017 that prohibits companies from having nondisparagement clauses in their contracts or terms of services. These clauses are designed to discourage consumers from posting negative reviews that criticize the company­—and some clauses include a fee that punishes the consumers if they do.

Congress gave enforcement authority to the Federal Trade Commission and the state attorneys general. The law specifies that a violation of the act will be treated the same as violating an FTC rule defining an unfair or deceptive act or practice, which could be subject to financial penalties, as well as a federal court order.

To make sure dentists’ practices are complying with the Consumer Review Fairness Act, the FTC advises dentists to:

  • Review their contracts, including online terms and conditions.
  • Remove any provision that restricts people from sharing their honest reviews, penalizes those who do, or claims copyright over peoples’ reviews

States have also passed laws prohibiting businesses from including or enforcing nondisparagement clauses in contracts. For example, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a bill in late August.

“It isn’t clear how many businesses insert such clauses into consumer contracts, which are typically found in the terms and conditions’ language consumers often accept without reading,” wrote the Chicago Tribune in August. “But moving companies, dentists, retailers and hotels are among the businesses that have been reported to have such clauses. Last year, a Dallas-based pet-sitting company sued a couple for $1 million after they posted a one-star review on Yelp; the case was dismissed.”

The wisest policy, the FTC says, is to let people speak honestly about their experiences.

The Center for Professional Success also offers a recorded webinar, Maintaining a Positive Online Reputation, hosted by ADA Business Resources and PBHS. Featuring Jay Levine, president of PBHS, the webinar offers tips and practices to monitor dentists’ public reputation and how to take a proactive approach to addressing online reviews. PBHS is the only marketing company endorsed by ADA Business Resources. Call 1-800-932-4232 to learn more about PBHS.

The webinar is available on ADA.org.