Advice & Best Practice

How should accountancy practices handle unfair online reviews?

Kathryn Clare is an associate in the dispute resolution team at SAS Daniels LLP. Here, she explains the steps accountancy firms can take when faced with unfair online reviews about their services

These days almost all accountancy firms have an online presence and online reviews can play a huge role in the fortunes of a firm. Most people will, at the very least, take a cursory glance at customer reviews before contacting a firm, and many people take reviews at face value, placing full trust in the account left by the reviewer.

Most review sites allow users to say whatever they like about their experience of a particular firm. Positive reviews can help you establish trust and confidence with a potential client before you have even spoken to them. On the other hand, reviews that contain inaccurate and defamatory information can have far-reaching consequences. 

What can firms do about negative reviews?

If you come across a negative review about your business, your first reaction might be to respond immediately to defend your firm and put the person right. Before hitting the keyboard, however, it is important to ascertain what has happened. Is there any truth in the person’s account? Carry out a full internal investigation first so that you’re sure of all the facts in order to give a personalised response.

What is a defamatory comment?

In contrast to negative reviews, a review may be deemed defamatory if the firm can prove that it is false and, as a result, has caused or is likely to cause serious and financial damage to the company; and it has caused the reputation of the firm to have been lowered in the eyes of the public.

Even if a review doesn’t mention your name, if you are identifiable, for example, if the review says, “the accountancy practice at the end of Booth Street” it could still be deemed defamatory.  

What if the review has been posted anonymously? 

Unfortunately, many review sites allow a user to publish reviews anonymously. If you see an unfair negative review by an unnamed person, there is still action that you can take. The Defamation Act 2013 allows a website operator to be liable for defamatory comments made by its users. To prevent being liable, website operators must follow certain procedures set out in the act.

If you see a review on a review site that is clearly defamatory, the first thing you should do is send in a notice of complaint and take down letter. The website then has 48 hours to acknowledge your letter and contact the person who posted the review.

Depending on how the person responds, the website operator is obliged to take certain steps. If the person does not respond within five days, then the operator must remove the defamatory review. If the person does respond and consents to the website operator disclosing their details, then you are free to pursue the reviewer.

If the person responds, but the response does not comply with the regulations, then the website operator is obliged to remove the post.

Action can be taken 

For accountancy practices that have worked hard to build up their reputation and a loyal client base, online reviews – both positive and negative – can have a huge impact. Negative, but accurate, reviews cannot be removed and require a professional public response to show that you take such matters seriously. In contrast, there are steps you can take to have unfair, defamatory reviews taken down, even if the posting has been made anonymously.

By Kathryn Clare, an associate in the dispute resolution team at SAS Daniels LLP.

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