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Here’s A Really Bad Idea: Sue Customers Who Write Negative Reviews About Your Company

Whether you’re an executive at a large real estate investment trust (REIT), a local community manager or a single owner of a multifamily apartment community, it hurts when a resident goes on a tirade about your community.

It hurts so bad that you often want to ask the review site to remove the review immediately even though it doesn’t violate the site's terms of service. And for some companies, it hurts so bad that they file libel lawsuits against reviewers, according to a recent article in USA Today.

But is it a good idea to file a lawsuit against your own residents? More than half of states say, “no” and have enacted laws against these types of lawsuits. Yet, some still allow the practice, and some companies are actually filing suits against their customers.

Regardless of whether state laws allow you to file suit against a resident for a negative review, there are three big public relations reasons why this is a bad idea:

Lost Trust
Once prospective and existing residents get wind of the practice, you’ll lose their trust. It’s difficult enough to maintain trust even when you provide excellent customer service, have the newest amenities and reside in the best neighborhood in town.

The moment you try to shut down the free speech of your residents or prospects is the moment the tide turns and the people who pay rent and never complain stop trusting you. Lost trust at an apartment community means angry residents, broken leases and lost revenue. Prospects won’t trust those positive reviews any longer either.

Trust is the cornerstone of any relationship and maintaining it with your residents should be a primary objective.  

Contentious Culture Between Associates and Residents
It’s one thing to have a competitive culture among your associates who are trying to advance their careers. It’s an entirely different thing to create a culture in which your associates are fighting with your residents. While I have my reservations and concerns about a culture of associates competing against each other, I absolutely, unequivocally don’t think a culture of associates fighting with residents works.

As an industry, we already have a pretty tenuous relationship with residents because they sign complicated, year-long commitments, which are hard to follow and keep in our fast-paced society. Consider how you feel about your cable company and the contract that keeps you tied to them even though they raise your monthly bill every year. Adding another front to that already fraught environment unnecessarily increases the risk of more conflict, leading to a contentious culture between associates and residents.

Most apartment companies want their associates to provide excellent customer service that differentiates their communities from the competition. Increasing conflict by suing residents who post negative reviews fuels the testy environment and forces you to hire and equip associates who are more apt and able to fight with residents.

Brand Damage Outweighs Recovery of Lost Revenue
Yes, a negative review causes some brand damage. But we often fail to give our customers the benefit of the doubt. They’re always smarter than we think they are when we emotionally react to a scathingly negative review. With a well-written, cordial response, you can often show the difference in how you’re reacting from how the really upset resident is reacting.

Often, it’s clear that the really upset resident is being unreasonable and even way too angry. Bad form is easy to spot and the customers you really want can see it in the first sentence. In fact, many residents are skeptical of communities with five-star reviews across the board. They expect a certain number of unhappy residents and want to see how a community responds.

Suing residents for negative reviews can lead to more negative posts about your censorship of residents, and articles in popular publications like USA Today. Being called a censor in the media and online is most certainly brand damage.

While I generally don’t recommend suing your residents who post negative reviews for these reasons, there is one major exception that is more serious in nature. Posts that meet the definition of libel against a public figure and target individual associates, especially those onsite, might be the only instance in which I agree with filing suit.

I’ve read reviews that have called really caring and good onsite team members racists, thieves, violent criminals and more – all because the resident did not get what they wanted. The associates were personally identifiable (even their full names included), lied about (the incident never happened) and accused of a terrible crime or act that damaged their personal reputations. This kind of behavior on the Internet isn’t just bad form. It should be despised and those who partake should suffer consequences.

But if the review is about your community, poor service or something that didn’t go as well as it should have, suing a resident who posted a negative review probably won’t play in your favor.

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The vast majority of owners don't sue residents when something didn't go as planned and it is the staff or the ownerships fault. They sue when we are being trolled by people who don't even live at the property posting negative reviews because their buddy didn't want to pay his or her rent. They sue when a former resident has left the property (owing it money) and continues to post false statements about mold, or lead, or roof leaks that don't exist. If owners don't start exacting a price to those who unjustly accuse the property to better their negotiating position or to avoid charges for damaging the property or as you point out in your article name calling then the monkeys will start running the zoo.

Google reviews has literally required us to hire one person to monitor and respond to negative reviews and other social media almost all of which are unwarranted. They are unwarranted because if someone has a problem that is our making we fix it. Reasonable people don't post negative reviews when their problem is resolved.

The current general public position of I can say anything no matter how wrong, libelous, or unjust behind the veil of "free speech" is a bastardization of the concept. As owners we have to defend ourselves and our staff.

  Jeff Tabor

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