Overcoming Negative Reviews

One of my ex-clients had an experience that was so bad, they wanted to tell everyone about it!  I foolishly thought I could continue indefinitely without any negative reviews.  I had a 100% positive feedback rating and never had a single unhappy client from 2012 up until late 2015.  I had taken a small front-end development job with a new client and she liked my work, so she informed me there was another project that she was working on that required some assistance.

There was another developer who was already working on it but he wasn’t doing a good job and couldn’t complete it.  The project was handed over to me in a pretty rough state, but the requirements seemed straight-forward.  Eventually the project morphed into a monstrosity as we neared the end and the client kept requesting more and more changes, some of which directly contradicted things that were discussed when the project was started.

This nightmare climaxed after a dispute about how the database was set up and one day I couldn’t make commits to the repository or upload any code to the FTP server and the project found its way into dispute with elance.  She was trying to get all of the money she had paid throughout the entirety of the project back (about $3,000).  I am not opposed to giving refunds to customers when/if I make a mistake, but this was a clear-cut case of scope creep and poorly defined requirements.

Elance agreed and resolved the dispute in my favor.  I didn’t have to give any money back but she did leave a pretty scathing review claiming I “took the money and ran” (oddly enough, she still left me a 3/5 rating).  With the nature of how elance’s algorithms work, this dropped my job success rate to an 79%, I lost my ‘top rated’ status, and now the first thing people saw when they visited my profile was a bad review.

This revelation made me sick to my stomach and I lost some sleep over it since a decent chunk of my monthly income came from this site.  I realized much later that this wasn’t the end of the world and since the overwhelming majority of my clients are pleased with my work, I was able to quickly recover.

Avoid Unhappy Clients

The best way to avoid negative reviews is to avoid unhappy clients. Before the accepting the job, be on the lookout for any hints of unreasonableness.  If they are difficult in the beginning, they will likely be difficult to work with during the project and will be more likely to leave negative reviews.  Don’t work with someone that gives you a bad feeling.  No matter the price, bad reviews are harmful to your reputation and stress from working with bad clients is harmful to your health so it’s rarely worth the money.

Even reasonable people can be made unhappy with crappy service.  Don’t give your clients crappy service.  Always strive to communicate clearly and effectively and make sure that you understand their requirements.  It’s important to put in the extra effort upfront to make sure that you completely understand the requirements and what needs to be done for the client to give you a positive review.

If you sense that the project may be going sour, be extremely professional and do everything in your power to turn things around and leave the client pleased.  Mistakes happen, miscommunications happen, that’s part of being human.  Being a professional means taking responsibility for the success of the project and doing everything you can to correct any of those mistakes.

Respond Publicly to the Negative Reviews

There are two types of negative reviews: factually inaccurate and factually accurate.  Factually inaccurate reviews are ones where the person is making claims that are untrue to make you look bad.  Factually accurate reviews are true but portray you in a negative light.

Most platforms allow you to respond to negative reviews.  While responding, keep in mind that new clients will be seeing your response so keep your words professional.  Avoid personal attacks or combative language of any type.

For both types, always apologize for the client having a less than awesome experience.  Apologize even if they’re flat-out lying.  This may seem counter-intuitive, but the fact is that something inspired them to leave a negative review in the first place.  It doesn’t help your reputation to shrug off all of the blame and apologizing isn’t the same as admitting fault.

In the case of a factually inaccurate review be sure to point out any inaccuracies and provide proof if it’s available, but do so without being nasty towards the client.  For factually accurate reviews, be sure to acknowledge where you made mistakes or how you may have contributed to the problem but follow up with what you did to try to remedy the situation.  This will communicate to anyone seeing your response that you’re humble enough to admit mistakes but professional enough to take responsibility and correct those mistakes.


Be More Aggressive About Positive Feedback

The only thing that can offset negative reviews are positive reviews.  On certain platforms it’s very easy for clients to forget to leave a review.  As soon as a project is complete to ask for the client to leave 5/5 feedback.  If they’re not 100% satisfied with your work offer to make any adjustments they may require.  It’s important to be direct but not demanding.  I make it a point to be mindful that my clients are busy people who may simply forget to leave feedback.  An example request for feedback I’ve used in the past that worked:


I just wanted to reach out and see if you had had an opportunity to review things and if all was in order. If not, I’d be happy to address any issues. If everything is looking good, I would be greatly appreciated if you could leave 5-star positive feedback.

It’s been great working with you! I hope to have the opportunity to assist you in the future with your development needs.


And another example:



I hope you’ve enjoyed the holidays and that you have an excellent New Years Eve.

I hate to be a burden, but I noticed that the last couple of jobs we worked together went without feedback.

Upwork has modified their algorithms such that jobs without feedback can have an adverse affect on my score, so if you were pleased with my work I’d greatly appreciate 5-star feedback.

I look forward to continuing to do business with you and I hope you’re enjoying some well deserved time with friends/family as the year draws to an end.

Thanks for the opportunity to work with you!

– Jon


I always make sure to thank them for their business and reiterate what a pleasure it’s been to work with them.  In the second example, I had completed several jobs with the client that had gone without feedback.  He kept rehiring me for other tasks, so he was definitely pleased with my work but hadn’t taken the time to give me a review.  After I brought it to his attention he went back and gave me 5/5 stars on all of the past projects.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up

On a long enough time line we all encounter people that we can’t please.  We all make mistakes.  It’s important to not let a few bad experience define you.  So long as you handle the situation with grace and strive to continually improve, it’s very easy to bounce back from a situation like this.  Because of this experience, I’m more cautious when taking on new jobs and I’m more rigorous with requirements gathering.  In just a couple months I was able to go from a 79 to a 91% success rating and the single negative review I’ve received is buried under several pages of positive reviews.


Jonathon Klem

I'm an entrepreneur and tech-enthusiast. I have provided front-end development for numerous award winning websites and an advocate of AGILE development practices. I've also given talks at conferences such as Ohio Linux Fest. In my spare time I am a licensed Ham Radio operator and enjoy disc golfing.


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