How to deal with false or libellous online business reviews
For years, large corporates treated their customers like playthings. Consumers have suffered exorbitant bank charges, uncompetitive cell phone rates, and exploitation in all manner of goods and services because, unless they banded together and became a collective voice, they were powerless against the might of the corporate world. Then along came the internet and, later, social media. Suddenly the balance of power shifted. Companies stopped talking about “markets” and started focusing on “customers”. They finally understood what marketing lecturers have been telling their students for decades: a market never bought a thing; only a customer can buy something. With the advent of, first, email and latterly Hello Peter, Twitter, Facebook, etc., customers now have a very loud voice. They can not only complain directly to a manufacturer or supplier of a product, they can broadcast their pleasure or disgruntlement to an enthusiastic audience. The enthusiasm resembles that of the crowd at a Roman gladiatorial event, baying for blood. We seem to love nothing more than bringing an arrogant, overblown corporation to its knees. Online business reviews have become a dangerous weapon when used wrongly.
What if you are a small business, working your socks off and trying your hardest to please your customers, ensure equitable practices, advance transformation, and generally wear a white hat…but one rogue customer sets out to destroy your hard-earned reputation? This is the dark side of consumer empowerment. Customers are not always right and they are not always the good guys. Sometimes they can be petty-minded, malicious, jaded, or just downright wrong. But they have besmirched the good name of your organisation for all the world to see. The fact that they have made erroneous claims and unfairly cast you as the villain will be lost on most (if not all) of the social media fish tank.
What would you do if a disgruntled customer threatened you and attempted to destroy your business? Someone we know had the misfortune of just such an experience.
A matter of colour
The whole sorry mess started when a customer came across a laboratory equipment business online and placed an order. Payment was made and the customer made arrangements to collect his items from the supplier’s premises.
Upon arrival at the depot, the customer objected to the colour of some of the products; it was not exactly as ordered. The young lab technician on duty pointed out that, although the colour was different, the product was still fit for purpose. The exchanges between the lab technician and the customer, from different racial groups, were perceived not only by the staff member involved but by other people present to be racist and insulting. An argument ensued, and the business owner offered the customer a refund, more to maintain goodwill than on the merit of the case.
Unfortunately, the customer did not accept the gesture and instead threatened to destroy the business personally and on social media. From there the situation escalated, and the customer falsely accused the business owner of assault and laid a criminal charge against him. False and damaging reviews followed on Hello Peter and on Facebook and other social media websites.
Defending against libel – strategic steps taken
The business owner wisely engaged the services of an attorney. As he was facing a criminal charge, this was essential, but the lawyer also dealt with the matter of the online defamation. The charge of assault led to a criminal trial, despite the lack of substantiation. The customer refused to withdraw the charge, but the business owner was acquitted at trial.
The attorney then turned to the disparaging remarks the customer had published in online business reviews and elsewhere. The customer himself refused to remove the posts and so the attorney made an urgent application to the High Court for an interdict to compel him to remove the offending content, in an attempt to mitigate the reputational damage to the business. Internet service providers and the administrators of the Hello Peter website were also contacted about the matter.
Furthermore, a summons was issued for the damages and loss of income the business had incurred as a result of the defamatory remarks online and for the unlawful and malicious criminal prosecution proceedings the customer had initiated. Additionally, the member of staff who had been racially abused filed a complaint against the customer for unlawful discrimination at the Equality Court.
This strategy succeeded in preventing further sabotage to the good standing and reputation of the business owner. Venomous, spiteful customers can be mollified. You are not at the mercy of social media. But it takes persistence and a determination to stand up for yourself. It’s no bad thing that customers can hold businesses to account, but they shouldn’t be allowed to hold them to ransom.
If you are a business owner and you are being harangued online…or in any other way…in a manner you feel is unfair or inappropriate, we can help. You are not helpless against the might of the internet.
For further information
Simon Dippenaar & Associates is a Cape Town law firm offering highly personalised legal attention with commitment and discretion. Call attorney Simon Dippenaar on 086 099 5146 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about how we can help you with your legal matter.
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