Review websites are the customer's "day in court" according to Porteno's Sarah Doyle. Photo: iStock Photos
"Dirty. Ants. Burnt food. Extortionate prices." When an unhappy customer takes revenge on social media, a business owner has a few options: ignore; calmly follow up; delete the offending remark (possibly illegal) or speak to the lawyers.
The owner of a Bondi cafe recently took a different path in response to the above post on his cafe's Facebook page, letting the customer know (in no uncertain terms) about life on the other side of the counter.
Customer Paul Martin's one-star "Ants" post was hardly a ringing endorsement at the top of the cafe's Facebook page; a double-edged advertising tool if ever there was one.
Ouch: Paul's Martin's review.
In response, the aggrieved cafe owner befriended Mr Martin on Facebook and sent him a two-page tirade – now available for all to see at Mr Martin's blog. The owner apportioned some blame for Mr Martin's bad experience to the "Gen-Y part-timers" working in his kitchen but also advised Mr Martin to "man up", asking why he had not complained about his experience in person at the time.
The cafe owner's response, while unlikely to receive plaudits from marketing gurus, indicates what some hospitality insiders say is growing frustration and powerlessness about reviews on social media and crowd-sourced websites.
Last month the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission released social media guidelines for businesses, partly in response to complaints from the Restaurant and Catering Industry Association about lax controls on review websites.
Responding to negative reviews can be a bad move. Photo: Matt Davidson
The guidelines warned against writing or organising fake positive reviews, or omitting or deleting negative ones. "Penalties of up to $1.1million are available to the courts for misleading or deceptive conduct".
But the catering association's chief executive John Hart says he was disappointed by the ACCC release. "We don't think (the guidelines) go far enough," he told goodfood.com.au.
"At the moment the onus, as those ACCC guidelines suggest, is on the business to take that (legal) action if they believe there was a vexatious or defamatory review.
"We were hopeful that we would get a code-of-conduct type document. We had proposed something a little more enforceable than just a set of principles."
Mr Hart said that ideally, such websites such as Urbanspoon should force users to tick a box declaring that their review was based on a real dining experience.
But many restaurant owners contacted by goodfood.com.au said that while fake or vexatious reviews were an issue, the likelihood of reform was unrealistic, and probably unnecessary.
Sarah Doyle from Porteno in Sydney said review sites were akin to the eating public's day in court.
"Everyone gets their chance to have their say," she said. "Unfortunately (for us) the motivation to get angry is far stronger than the motivation to be complimentary [and] when people are pissed off, they want justice."
Doyle said that while she monitored feedback on such sites she placed less emphasis on it because "there's nothing you can do about it . . . unlike feedback the restaurant receives via phone or email or when people are walking out the door".
In the past social media or online potshots have drawn some creative responses from their targets in the hospitality industry. Last year Jess Ho, then marketing manager for the Lucas Group in Melbourne organised an online video showing chefs reading out the most vitriolic customer reviews they had received.
Ms Ho said her intention was to send a message about manners. "We were saying, 'We can see what you're writing'." The video was a plea to people to air their issues with staff directly and to give them a chance to reply.
Ms Ho said that while vitriolic posts were hurtful they were not necessarily a great concern from a business perspective because she believed most social media users could sift through reviews and form a balanced opinion.
But John Hart believes that with more people turning to the internet to research dining options, better regulation is required to make review websites more accountable.
Nathan Toleman from Top Paddock cafe in Melbourne said he once contacted someone who had put a negative post on Instagram because the post had the potential to be very damaging to his business.
"She was then really good about it," Mr Toleman said. "She deleted the (post) – and thanked us for contacting her." While that experience ended well, Mr Toleman said that in general he thought it best not to engage with negative reviewers unless they complained directly.
"I do see business owners now who do respond directly to negative [online] reviews and it just turns into a big slinging match and gets really ugly.
"If you do get too caught up in the negative comments or responses, you lose sight of the majority of customers who are happy with what you're doing. As much as it hurts, you have to take it with a grain of salt."
In the case of potentially defamatory posts, ACCC deputy chairman Michael Schaper advises business owners to tread warily and contact website administrators. "If a business owner feels that they've been at the receiving end of an unfairly negative review, the first thing they need to do is take it up directly with the platform provider," Dr Schaper said.
However, Mr Hart said his members had often found this avenue unsatisfactory because host websites were slow to reply to complaints.
Defamation lawyer Amanda Jolson said social media platforms being sued for defamation was a largely untested area but it was a growing trend.
She said that once a host website was made aware of a potentially defamatory post, the website was potentially liable.
"All content posted by users of these sites is theoretically actionable," said Ms Jolson, an associate at Minter Ellison in Melbourne.
But she was unaware of any legal action taken by a chef or restaurant owner against an review website or social media platform, or against a user of one of these sites in Australia.
"The costs of mounting a legal case are considerable and can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars."
Dr Schaper advised users of social media and review websites to keep an open mind. "Does (the page) seem to have a mix of both positive and negative responses?"
Dr Schaper said the "better sites" had a scoring system "where you can see how many people have reviewed the business; for example, they have received a score of 75 per cent based on 300 responses."
Meanwhile, the Bondi cafe owner, perhaps having learnt something from his stoush with Mr Martin, has since made light of the episode at the cafe's Facebook page.
But he did not respond to requests for an interview.
For his part, Mr Martin told goodfood.com.au he did bring his "Dirty. Ants. Burnt food" experience to the attention of staff at the time, before turning to Facebook when he felt they did not respond appropriately.
"I felt it was my duty to tell people the food was terrible," he said.
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