My building company recently received very negative feedback on a high-profile reviews website. Much of the criticism was subjective, however some of the comments made by the customer about the quality of materials used were downright untrue. However, I feel that by challenging this, I could subject my company to further bad publicity. What is the best way to tackle this?

Dealing with negative online feedback can be one of the most difficult issues for companies in the digital age. The misuse of online forums can be extremely damaging, especially to small businesses that rely heavily on their local reputation.

The first question should be whether it is appropriate to contact the author privately. There is no substitute for genuine customer care. Even after disparaging comments have been posted online it is not too late to repair the customer relationship. Indeed, simply attempting to deal with the online complaint can result in adverse comments being removed.

Responding publicly, in constructive terms, is the second option. Explaining what has been done to investigate and remedy the complaint can actually improve a business’s reputation. While adverse online comments may deter some customers, others can be impressed by the appropriate and professional handling of complaints. The risk, of course, is that any response by the business will anger the original complainant resulting in further adverse comments.

Requesting that the website removes the offending comments can sometimes be an attractive option. It is worth considering the specific website’s user rules and guidelines when making such a request, and setting out why it is believed they have been breached. Where it is alleged comments are untrue the website operator may request evidence of this, although clear breaches, such as threatening or vulgar comments, are more likely to result in the instant removal of the content. Again, the risk or removal is offending the original complainant, resulting in them making similar comments on other online forums.

If none of these options is viable or successful, solicitors can advise on the merits and costs of pursuing court proceedings against the author of the comments. Such claims will typically be based on allegations of defamation. While it is not uncommon for solicitors to resolve this type of dispute at an early stage, and sometimes before court proceedings are issued, businesses should be extremely mindful of the risks of court proceedings.

Not only can such claims be difficult, but they can result in more people becoming aware of the adverse comments complained of, potentially causing greater harm than if nothing had been done. As an initial hurdle, since the implementation of the Defamation Act 2013, a business has to show that it has suffered, or is likely to suffer, serious harm in the form of economic loss before it can bring a claim in defamation. This can be extremely difficult, and may limit such claims to dealing only with the most serious of adverse online publications.

Paul Currie is senior associate, dispute resolution group at SGH Martineau, a law firm

Making the most of a workspace

Office design seems to have become increasingly important for both staff and clients, but how should I change mine and how will it benefit my business?

Effective office design is absolutely crucial to create a stimulating and inspiring environment for both employees and clients. There is now more of an impetus than ever for businesses to create environments that encourage collaboration and creativity among employees, and provide an attractive location from which to do business with clients. In the same way that so much emphasis is put on how interesting the exterior of buildings are from an architectural perspective, so we should focus on creating and designing internal spaces which inspire us.

Despite the rise in flexible and remote working, face-to-face meetings in the office remain invaluable. Modern offices should be, and increasingly are, designed to encourage meetings to happen organically. Rather than rows of desks with computers, desks should be arranged in pods and staff should be able to hotdesk, giving them more flexibility and the opportunity to work with a broader range of colleagues. Cluster areas can work better than separate meeting rooms for inspiring great ideas.

But even when you think you have it set up just right, you still need to plan for change. Working in the same office day after day, even if it is the nicest office going, can still become monotonous — and things can quickly become stale — not a word you ever want associated with your business in any context. In the same way that many companies spend a lot of money on flowers in reception to keep things feeling different and fresh when you walk in the building, so can you change lighting, paint walls, move desks or swap furniture around in rooms just to liven things up and keep the working environment feeling fresh and ever-evolving. And this doesn’t have to be a massive time consumer or expense — there are even apps around now, which can be used to visualise how offices would look in different layouts.

It is key that businesses create the right working environment to bring the best out of their employees, no one wants to work somewhere where they’re not inspired. Indeed numerous studies have found links between working environments and employee productivity. Good design should be at the heart of this and any company that fails to embrace good office design could risk losing the top talent to its competitors.

Pete Baxter is vice-president and head of Autodesk UK

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