Then came the Yelp review.
The client's obscenity-laced comments on on this online review platform, which covers everything from dry cleaners to cardiologists, not only painted a very different picture of the exam room experience but mentioned Werber's associate by name.
Werber was furious—not least because of the utter absence of truth in many of the comments. "They can say anything they want and you can't stop them," Werber says. After that review and countless others, Werber realized one essential thing when it comes to online reviews: perception is reality.
However, he has chosen to fight. Werber believes veterinarians can and should address negative reviews online. Even if you can't change your critic's perception, you might change the perceptions of other readers.
Rules of engagement
Here are the strategies Werber employs and recommends for other veterinarians who get nasty reviews.
1. Respond publicly. If the negative review was posted online, post your response online as well. "If someone's mad at you, you can call and apologize, but what does that do for the thousands who already read the smear campaign?" Werber says. "If I'm going to be a nice guy, I want everyone to know I'm a nice guy."
As in marketing or political campaigning, it's all about controlling the message. "It's the art of knowing how to get readers to be on your side," Werber says. "If there are two sides to every story, let them know yours."
Sincerity goes a long way in this effort, Werber says. "If you're hurt, write back," he says. "Say, 'I do what I do for the health of animals. I was truly hurt and offended by what you said.' The other people reading that are going to love it. You'll get clients just from that response."
2. Share reviews with the team. Werber suggests going through reviews in a staff meeting. Even if a client's post is ludicrous, the team will benefit from knowing the perception is out there. And if there's even a bit of truth to the criticism, learning from it may improve client service.
"People don't write these things for no reason," Werber says. "Obviously something went astray. There was a certain expectation that wasn't met. Might they have a little point there? I think so."
3. Craft effective responses. Werber advises being both specific and apologetic in your online responses. "It lets the readers know that you've done everything in your power as a gentleman, or a lady, to remedy the situation and that you feel terrible it happened," he says.
Include details such as follow-up calls you made to the client: "As I explained in a message on your phone ... " These details can often deflate the critic's argument by showing other readers that you're thorough and dedicated to strict protocol.
4. Learn how to resolve conflict. "Use the same technique you would with a client in the exam room," Werber says. "You're just resolving it in front of all the readers." Your response can be an opportunity to explain something you didn't get across during the office visit.
5. Don't let your ego win out. "It's business," Werber says. "The customer is always right—even if they're wrong. You have to say you're sorry this happened."
You don't, however, have to take abuse. "If they say something really bad that's not true and you have proof, you can contact the website and have it pulled," he says. "You can threaten legal action."
Still, he says, you can never be too proud to apologize. "No matter how good you are, not everybody is going to love you. It's tough, but get used to it," he says.
Donato says he too has been the target of a cat advocate group. He was inundated with what he says were falsified reviews he traced back to a group unhappy with the Radnor Township Board of Health, on which Donato serves.
Donato says he's currently weighing whether he wants to take legal action against Yelp. He recognizes the unsuccessful suits previously undertaken against the website and he's not sure if he wants to invest tens of thousands of dollars fighting what could be a losing battle.
Right now, he says, all he wants is for Yelp to better police fictitous reviews and allow his real clients to comment. "They're not allowing the good reviews to show up," Donato says.
Yelp uses a proprietary algorithm to organize its contributor content. As the site puts it, the goal of this algorithm is to "recommend the most helpful and reliable reviews."
What this means for Werber is that a good review can be up for less than 24 hours while a bad one can be up for years. He says he's asked for details about the algorithm to no avail. His conclusion: "They like dirt. They don't want to print the good stuff."
Also, there's a perception among business owners that if a business advertises with Yelp, the site will promote more favorable reviews. Werber says says don't fall for it—advertising won't help you get rid of reviews. In fact, Yelp states on its website, "Paying advertisers can never change or reorder their reviews."
Werber says Yelp employs a double standard that favors the reviewer over the responder. He says he's been notified by Yelp that he cannot use proper names in his responses to clients despite the fact that reviewers can use his name and clinic. And while Yelp points its reviewers to content guidelines, many believe that Yelp shirks responsibility for abusive or even false content by saying reviews are simply the opinion of their contributors. "It pretty much gives them carte blanche," Werber says.
Both Werber and Donato have had some luck getting Yelp to take down reviews where they can prove false information, but Donato says it's hard to keep up with it. He's tried to create a positive campaign to balance the negative reviews on Yelp, but he says the good reviews rarely stay up. In fact, his clients complain about it.
On its FAQs page Yelp explains that it's "looking for people who are intrinsically motivated to share the wide range of rich and detailed experiences they have every day with local businesses." Translated, this means that people who contribute often to the site have a better chance of seeing their review featured. If a client who has never used Yelp before posts one positive review with few specifics, it's likely to be overlooked by the Yelp software.
Werber takes a "two can play at this game" approach always encouraging clients to write reviews. Clients who have an enjoyable experience are invited to share their review on their favorite review site—including Yelp—from links provided on the Century Veterinary Group page. Dissatisfied clients are told to contact the clinic directly by e-mail or phone.
Werber's favorite trick is to send the reviews received through his website to a reputation management company. "We send them to Review Boost and it feeds them to all these websites," he says. "The fact that we read them and choose the ones we want—it's a luxury we have."
However, Donato has looked at his numbers and he thinks Yelp reviews have affected his business. "Granted we're doing OK—we grow every year," he says. But after three years of battling negative online reviews, his client pull from the Internet pales compared with word of mouth. "We're down about 15 percent and I think that's totally because of Yelp," he says.
You can't make everyone happy
Werber says when he was young and scared, he learned a valuable lesson: "No matter how good you are, how nice, how caring you are, people are not going to like it," Werber says. "You can't please everybody."
Donato gets that. "I can't make everyone happy," he says. "I understand we're going to have negative reviews—that's OK—we'll handle those appropriately." It's the reviews he knows to be false that bother him.
Plus, Finch says, not everyone can let negative online attacks roll off their backs emotionally. "I can see how it would hurt someone even if it didn't hurt their business," she says.
Finch says many negative reviews essentially amount to cyberbullying—a word that's been used frequently in association with Koshi's suicide in New York. "Emotionally it's such a hard thing," she says. "Not every veterinarian is like this, but we do tend to be tenderhearted and easy to wound."
Finch recalls a bad review from a client who—luckily—didn't bother to remember her name. "It made me sad that they didn't think I had their best interest at heart. I won't go back and read that one," Finch says. "It upsets me."
In fact, veterinarians who worry too much about negative reviews can go down a bad spiral, she says. For that reason she quit reading them. "I do insulate myself," Finch says. "If I started it would totally depress me so I just don't."
Werber says he's built up a thick skin in his nearly 30-year career. "It doesn't bother me anymore—it used to," he says. "My clients will come in and laugh at those reviews. I have clients who will respond for me."
He hopes others will focus on the positive and learn to let it go as well. "Don't let it bug you—you can't," Werber says. "At least have the majority love you and leave it at that."