There’s a difference between reviews and testimonials, and the distinction is important. Find out why and how to respond to, learn from and keep it classy with negative online reviews.

Jay Thompson is a former brokerage owner who spent six years working for Zillow Group. He retired in August 2018 but can’t seem to leave the real estate industry behind. His weekly Inman column publishes every Wednesday.

In last week’s column, we talked about how to get reviews and where to have them published. This week, we’re going to discuss what the difference is between reviews and testimonials and why the distinction is important. 

Agents (well, everyone really) tend to think that reviews and testimonials are the same thing. 

They’re similar, but have some significant differences: Testimonials are gathered, owned and managed by the business that provided the service/product (you). Reviews are collected and managed by a third party, without the business being involved in the process (third-parties like Zillow,, Yelp, Facebook, Google).

A testimonial is also focused on the positive, and it’s virtually always initiated by the business owner. Usually it’s a selective process — as in: “This client loves me! I’m asking them for a review.”

No, what you’re really asking them for is a testimonial. 

A review, on the other hand, can be self-initiated by someone who received a service (a buyer, seller or renter in the case of real estate sales). 

One test to help differentiate reviews and testimonials would be your ability to control what is published. If you can select what client feedback to publish, and what to bury, that’s a testimonial.

If someone can log into a third-party site and write something about you that you cannot delete, that’s most likely a review. 

Reviews are trusted more than testimonials 

Consumers tend to put more trust into reviews published on third-party sites. The simple reason being because the business owner cannot delete or filter a negative or less than ideal review.

Anonymous testimonials are more likely to be questioned by consumers than those that include the writer’s name and/or location. 

That’s not to say that testimonials are “bad.” Testimonials come from happy customers, your brand advocates, and tend to highlight the best of the best of the business. But people who have never dealt with you don’t know those happy clients. 

Reviews, on the other hand, can be scary to implement. You’re opening yourself up to criticism, and basic human nature makes that hard to do. Alas, however, that is the nature of the internet. 

Reviews are very subjective. One person’s three-star service is another’s five-stars. There are people out there that will tell you they never give anyone a five-star review because “no one is perfect and there is always room for improvement.”

Whenever I’m traveling, I use Yelp and TripAdvisor heavily to go over reviews for restaurants, hotels, even things to see and do. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen reviews like this:

“This restaurant has AMAZING food, and the service was perfect, the best I’ve ever had. Gotta knock a couple of stars off though because they only stay open until 10 p.m.”

Really? Yes, really. Welcome to humanity. Frustrating, isn’t it?

You should have some glowing testimonials that you can strategically place on a website or blog that help engage visitors.

At the same time, gathering reviews on third-party sites lends credibility to your business.

These are the things you should be thinking about when defending your reputation online.

How to handle objections to reviews

Hands down, and I mean by miles, the no. 1 complaint consumers will tell you when you ask for a review is: “I don’t want to be forced to create an account.”

This is why some forego reviews and focus on testimonials.

You can respond by saying: “Just write something you liked about our service, and let me know if you’re okay with publishing it on my website.”

Boom, objection to creating an account is solved. 

Following my advice in last week’s column about sending people to sites they already use helps with this objection as well.

If your clients use Zillow, they likely already have an account. Ditto if they use So ask for the review on the site the client uses. Don’t be the one that says, “Look, I know you like, but I could use a review on Zillow.” Take the review on, and wait for the next client that uses Zillow.

Finally, if your client continues to display angst over creating an account, you could tell them that they can delete the account after the review is published, or they can create a “throwaway” email account on Gmail, Yahoo, etc., to use solely for account creation.

The biggest roadblock I’ve seen to reviews doesn’t come from the consumers, it comes from the agents and brokers themselves, and it’s almost universally due to one thing:

Dealing with negative reviews

Here are a few helpful hints for review handling:

  • Respond to the review: Most review sites allow the person being reviewed to respond directly to a review, be it positive or negative. Ignoring negative ones won’t make them go away. Pro tip: Respond to all reviews, not just negative ones.
  • Don’t be defensive: Maybe the reason you didn’t return a call immediately was legitimate. You were busy, you were in the hospital, you were at your kid’s soccer game. Maybe you just screwed up and missed the call. Things happen. Getting defensive though puts the reviewer on the spot and makes them defensive in return. Other people reading the review and your response are far more likely to side in your favor if you don’t try to defend every aspect of the negative review.
  • Don’t attack: The last thing you want to do is launch into a personal attack. Maybe the reviewer was a complete jerk; maybe you did nothing wrong. But attacking will immediately be seen in a negative light by anyone reading your response. Take the high road. Stick to the facts.
  • Say thank you: Regardless of the tone of a review, the reviewer took their personal time and made an effort to give you feedback. Thank them for their time.
  • Say “I’m sorry”: Two of the hardest words for people to say are, “I’m sorry.” A heartfelt apology goes a long way toward repairing a relationship. And when other people see an apology, they empathize with you. Everyone makes mistakes. Admitting you made one (if indeed you did) can speak volumes about your character.
  • Look for the real message: Try to separate your feelings and emotions from the picture. This isn’t easy to do, but if you can, you might just find that the reviewer is actually giving you valuable feedback.

Perhaps making a small adjustment in your approach in certain situations can end up benefiting you and future clients. Let’s say your reviewer is blaming you for what was in fact a low appraisal that caused the deal to fall apart.

A gut reaction reply might be, “I have no control over the appraisal, it’s not my fault.”

But maybe the real message is: “You didn’t explain to me in a way I understood what might happen if the appraisal came in low.”

Consider the positive aspects. There are many out there that have a hard time believing a page full of five-star reviews. After all, no one is perfect. Having a less-than-stellar review mixed in with all the glowing opinions can add credibility to all your reviews.

A well-handled response to a negative review shows others how you deal with adversity and can help demonstrate your professionalism in a way not easily seen online.

Here’s something that comes up frequently — what if you don’t know who left the review, or you had no contact with them?

In that case, I’d apply the rules above and go with something like this:

“Thanks for taking the time to leave a review, we appreciate all of them and the feedback helps us. I’ve dug around and just can’t seem to place this with any particular client. Please email us at [business email here] so we can investigate and get back to you.”

Our journey down the path of agent reviews is now complete, for now.

There is no question that a good review and testimonial strategy can be good for business. Not only will potential customers see them, but you can also learn a great deal about your business by reading what your clients say, and using that feedback to further improve your services.

Jay Thompson is a real estate veteran and retiree in Seattle, as well as the one spinning the wheels at Now Pondering. Follow him on Facebook or Instagram. He holds an active Arizona broker’s license with eXp Realty.

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