Researchers estimate that it’s up to 25 times more expensive for a company to acquire a new customer than to keep an existing one, making ongoing investments in consumer satisfaction a priority. There’s nothing more disheartening to a local business owner than receiving a very negative review — and given that as little as 13% of consumers will patronize a business with a 1- or 2-star rating, there may be nothing more important than the owner taking every possible step to resolve negative reviews with speed and skill.
Negative reviews don’t write themselves. While looking at restaurant reviews recently, I came across an owner-consumer interaction that perfectly encapsulates the typical steps that take a transaction from bad to worse. It serves as a diagram of how these costly scenarios begin, proceed, and escalate, ultimately resulting in permanent damage to the company’s reputation.
The blame isn’t one-sided, and my goal here isn’t to make the customer or the owner out to be “the villain.” Rather, I’d like to point out key elements that actually worsen the situation, rather than improving it. Both owners and consumers sincerely want to feel satisfied, and the good news is that, in most cases, the only thing standing in the way of this is responsible communication.
Let’s take a look!
The key to the “Food Truck Fiasco”
This story begins at a family-owned Philly Cheesesteak food truck that signed up to be a concession at a festival in the Southwest. One customer describes what happened on the day of the event this way, with my interpretation to the right:
Key to Review
|Grabbed “The Storm” (cheesesteak with green chiles) for $9 when they were parked outside the bike and brew festival.||Customer sets the scene for his story.|
|The woman told us it would take 20 minutes, but when we arrived back it took at least an additional 15 minutes to get our food. I’m sorry, but 45 minutes wait for a sandwich simply isn’t acceptable. The sandwich was super small for the price, I could’ve eaten 3 of these things easy and I’m not a big person. I expect more for a $9 sandwich||The legitimate complaint in wait time, improper expectations being set, food portions, and pricing.
These are honest grievances.
|from a crappy concession trailer with zero overhead.||The revenge. Customer vents his disappointment with cutting, dismissive language. He insults the business.|
|EDIT: Like several other Yelpers, I had originally rated them higher, but reduced my rating after I received a nasty email from the owner shaming me for my feedback. Seriously, that is how you treat customers after making them wait 45 minutes for a super overpriced sandwich? If you can’t handle honest feedback, then you should probably find another line of work. Keep it classy, [name removed].||The worst possible outcome: owner’s response leads to consumer editing his original review to dock stars and complain of a second bad interaction with the business.
The customer is permanently lost, and the world is informed.
The customer’s complaints are certainly understandable: he was honestly disappointed that it took so long for his food to be ready and then felt the portions were overpriced. It didn’t help matters that the staff over-promised and under-delivered in estimating the wait time. Up until this point, the consumer is blameless. But then he makes two mistakes:
- He makes no mention of voicing his complaints to the owner or staff in-person, at the time of service.
Upon receiving his small sandwich after 45 minutes of waiting, it would have taken him just one minute more to say, “I really want to speak the owner about this. I’m not happy with what just happened.” It’s the customer’s responsibility to speak up on his own behalf — to the let the owner know there is a problem for him to resolve.
- Having failed to take on the responsibility of voicing his complaints directly to the owner at the time of service, the customer then vents his feelings to the world in the form of a negative review.
Not only this, but his remarks about a “crappy concession trailer” are mean-spirited, showing zero respect for the reality that this is, in fact, another human being’s livelihood. Being dismissive of someone’s job is uncivil, snobbish, rude, etc. Using language like this is unlikely to make friends, and is unlikely to bring out the best in the owner whom he is now, in fact, goading and insulting.
Regardless of the customer’s tone, the owner’s job is to be professional at all times. I’ve seen adept business owners handle even the rudest customers with a skill that leaves me in awe, but in this case, the owner of the food truck went down the worst possible road. Far from remedying the initial negative review, the owner’s response brought the customer back with further negativity, including taking off stars. Here’s how the owner responded (Eds. note: original spelling and grammar intact), with my interpretation on the right:
Key to Owner’s Response
|5/23/2016 I’d have to say, I’m shocked and appalled at this “customers” behavior. However, if you look at his profile…it is really not all that shocking. Many businesses have felt the wrath of this poor shmuck. And just so everything is clear and on the table…I’m copying and pasting our so called “nasty” email we sent him. You can be the judge:||Calling your customer names and trying to shame him is the worst possible way to begin an owner response.|
I am one of the owners of [business name removed]…along with my wife and father in-law. I just wanted to take a minute to help you understand the impact of your publicly posted criticisms.
|The owner’s job is to apologize, not to correct or instruct the customer.|
|First, you should understand that we are an 8 by 16 truck that was inundated with 100’s of orders all at once. Simply put, we did the best we could to get your sandwich out as fast as possible. With the space we have, grill size, etc…we can only do so much.||It is not the customer’s job to be understanding about the business’s limitations or problems. He expects to receive service. That is all.|
|We tried to be as honest and as accurate as possible with regards to wait time.
As for the quality, we certainly want our customers to enjoy our food. This is why we cook to order, and try to maintain a level of freshness that other trucks may not. Given that you didn’t like it, we would have preferred to have a chance to make the situation whole. However, you clearly chose not to afford us that opportunity.
|An explanation of the business’s goal to provide quality product is good, but the real gem here is the owner’s pain that the customer didn’t complain in person.
This is the owner’s honest disappointment.
|In regards to “no overhead.” Well, that’s just so far from accurate it made our heads spin. Perhaps consider: food costs (certified angus beef is not cheap), labor for our employee, propane, the generator rental fee ($200), the city temp license fee, the fire inspection fee, fees to do the event itself, the gas to tow and run the gene, water….I could go on, but hopefully you get the point.||The customer may be ignorant of how the business operates, but this is not the time to explain its costs. You haven’t yet earned the customer’s friendship or empathy.
He’s going to walk for lack of an apology.
|Lastly, on a more personal level, you should understand that we worked two 14 hour days for this event. We have a 10 month old son that was at his grandparents, suffered from great separation anxiety, a cried himself to sleep both nights. We finished cleaning at 1 am this morning only to wake up no your negative review about our “crappy food truck.”||This is completely over the top. Customers do not want to hear about crying babies. They are paying for service, not sob stories.
At the same time, the owner admits he’s stung by rude language. This is real.
|Overall, my ultimate goal with this note, is to help you better understand the impact of your words. And to understand that we are hard working people, who genuinely care about our business. When you are unhappy with a level of service, please, by all means, contact them privately and at least give them the opportunity to make the situation right. Criticizing them publicly gives them absolutely no chance to do that, creates a lasting stain on their hard work, and potentially takes food out of their children mouths. Had you contacted us, we would have offered you a free meal at our regular location or refunded your money.||The closing sums up how wrong and how right this owner’s mindset is.
He is totally wrong to believe the purpose of an owner response is to correct his customers.
But, he’s totally right that the lack of opportunity to respond well to an in-person complaint is a major pain point for his business, and millions of other businesses, too.
Reading between the lines of the owner’s response, a picture emerges of a business that underestimated how busy it would be at an event and did not have adequate cooking facilities or staff to fulfill orders within a normal timeframe. This was the initial mistake that set the stage for all that transpired. Unfortunately, the owner then worsened the scenario by making the following additional mistakes:
- He confused his business with himself.
Learning not to take business criticism personally is Reputation Management 101 for all owners and staff, and it can be the hardest instinctive mindset for anyone to overcome. If you’ve put your heart into your business, it is genuinely challenging not to view criticism as a personal attack … but you mustn’t get stuck there. You’re offering goods and services; paying customers expect to receive them. Business is transactional, not personal, and the customer is not signing up to hear about your fatigue or family problems. All this customer wanted was the sandwich he ordered. This is not personal.
- He refused to accept responsibility for the customer’s bad experience.
The response penned by the owner is not an admission that the customer’s legitimate dissatisfaction stemmed from poor planning or poor execution on the part of the business. The owner refuses to say, “My fault, I’m sorry.”
- He failed to see the owner response function as his last chance to save a bad situation.
He views it as a place to justify himself by correcting the customer’s attitude, expectations, and sentiments. Once the negative review has already been published, the owner response function is likely the only life preserver left.
Given the costliness of replacing a lost customer and the way a negative review can cost a company future business, the owner response field is not a platform for a lecture; it’s a platform for making the greatest possible effort to make amends.
- Finally, the owner devolved into personal insults, betraying a fundamental lack of professionalism.
A business is professional. A customer is just a person. Even if your customer cannot utter a single sentence without using colorful expletives, professionals are meant to be trained to communicate in business-appropriate language at all times. What this owner has done is to reveal to the whole world that he refers to his customers in insulting terms if they have a complaint. Once anyone reads that, they know not to expect empathy if they encounter a problem with the business.
Perhaps the most powerful element of the owner response function is that it is not just for a single customer to read, but for all future customers to read. Respond well, and you may not only win a second chance with the customer, but also prove to all future potential customers that they will be treated with respect, empathy, and fairness by your company.
Crafting a powerful owner response
If the food truck owner were my client, this is a sample of how I would have helped him respond, with my key on the right:
Key to Owner’s Response
I hope you can find it in your heart to accept my apology for the poor experience you had on the day of the event. This was totally my fault.
Greet customer personally, if possible, and begin with a sincere apology. Take responsibility for your business, as its owner.
I underestimated how swamped we would be and would have hired extra staff for the day if I’d realized 10,000 people were attending. This was our first time doing this event, and my failure to correctly predict the number of orders we’d be filling is what led to you waiting 45 minutes for your sandwich.
I feel really bad thinking of you having to stand around waiting for your lunch when there was so much else to do at the festival. We make each sandwich fresh to order and my staff simply got inundated.
Where possible, explain how the mistake happened.
Validate the customer’s experience by expressing empathy for their situation.
Be accountable for any errors.
I wish you’d had the chance to talk to me about this in person at the time, but I realize it may have been too hectic to reach out to me that day. I would gladly have given you a full refund or a free cheesesteak to try to make up for the inconvenience.
Please, accept this as my invitation to stop by our regular location at 123 Main St. for a cheesesteak on me, where I promise you’ll receive within our normal 10-minute timeframe.
If you come, I’d really appreciate you taking a minute to let me know, in person, anything else you feel we can do to improve our food or service. This is our family business and we are so invested in serving our community well.
Encourage all readers to believe that, if a problem occurs, you would love to have them speak directly to you or staff about it right at the time of service.
Since the presence of the negative review means an in-person complaint likely never happened, offer an appropriate means of atonement and a guarantee of a better experience, if the customer will give you a second chance.
Again, please accept my apology, Jim, and please give me a chance to make it right.
Close with a repeated expression of your sincere regret, your offer to make things right, and an identification of yourself as the owner of the business.
Contrast the owner’s real response with this sample suggested response, and you are likely to come away with a completely different, more positive impression of the business. A few quick suggestions for coming across well:
- Keep length reasonable; don’t write a novel
- Beware of sounding like you’re on your high horse; use common, neighborly language
- Make sure you’ve apologized
- Where appropriate, explain what went wrong and describe any steps you’ve taken to correct an issue
- Extend your offer of something nice to try to make it better
- Welcome further feedback; it could lead to the reviewer updating their review with positive sentiment
Those are quick tips that should immediately help you to improve your reputation in the eyes of all who read your owner responses. Ready to dig deeper into developing a powerful, permanent mindset for all future tough transactions? Read on.
3 empowering tactics for better reputation management
Every business encounters criticism. Meet this reality better prepared with these three tips:
1. In business, we wear the mask.
When your spouse tells you’re inattentive, when your friend points out that you chew with your mouth open, when your children berate you for not letting them adopt another dog, it’s personal. It’s your privilege to respond with tears, embarrassment, a lecture, or whatever you feel you need to express at that moment, reacting to personal criticism in your private life.
In business, it’s different. In a civil society, and particularly in a business setting, it’s simple reality that we tend to suppress strong reactions and strong words for the sake of professionalism.
If you feel the color rising to your face when a customer insinuates that you actually founded your whole company for the purpose of ripping him off for $9.99, try picturing in your mind the image of the most serene, inscrutable face of a statue you’ve ever seen. Perhaps it’s the face of the Buddha, or a classical Greek god, or a Tlingit totem being. Imagine donning that mask, like a zone of safety, between the disgruntled customer’s business complaint and your personal life. It’s cooler behind the mask and you can respond to almost any commercial criticism, knowing your personal feelings are completely safe behind the barrier you’ve established.
2. Muster empathy to integrate as much of yourself into the interaction as you feel comfortable with.
Now that you’ve tried on the mask, and you’ve got your worries, your insecurities, loves, family, and everything else personal safely behind its barrier, see how much of yourself you feel safe putting outside the mask for the world to see.
Your life may feel too divided if your business and personal worlds are kept 100% separate, and you may not be able to pour the full passion of your heart and intellect into the business you are building if you have to be a statue at all times. Some customers may be so irrational in their expectations or conduct that the only way to manage them is with a marble coolness or a wooden face, but hopefully that will be the exception. For most customers, this technique will help you integrate your genuine human feelings into a situation in which distress is being expressed.
Picture a person you not only really love, but also of whom you feel protective. For just a moment, substitute that special person for the complaining customer. Imagine that it is your grandmother who had to wait in line for 45 minutes (she might have gotten heat stroke), or your nephew who was still hungry after being overcharged for lunch (he’s had trouble getting up to a healthy weight), or your spouse who was treated rudely (how dare someone disrespect him/her), or your friend whose product broke after a week of use (she can’t afford to replace it). Suddenly, that customer is transformed from an unknown complainer into an important person who deserves fair, empathetic treatment.
Integrate as much of the empathy you’d feel for a friend or relative as you can for the customer. The health of your local business, and your good feelings about the way you conduct it, depend upon turning as many unknown neighbors as you can into loyal customers and, hopefully, friends.
3. Master catching complaints before they become negative reviews.
It may seem counterintuitive to want to receive as many complaints as possible, but when you consider that they are your best safeguard against the publication of negative reviews, making your business complaint-friendly is incredibly smart! Implement these tips:
- Install visible in-store signage detailing options for requesting help with a complaint. Wall signs, window signs, signs on counters, tables, menus, aisles, print materials, and company vehicles can all alert customers to complaint-receptivity.
- Signage can include a complaint hotline text message number and phone number, both of which should be regularly monitored for activity.
- One recent survey found that 57% of consumer complaints revolve around poor customer service/employee behavior. This means that the quality of your hiring and training practices are the key to ensuring satisfaction. Go one further. Be sure all staff are trained to resolve complaints or escalate them through a defined hierarchy (manager, owner, etc.).
- Instruct all staff who deal with the public to invite complaints with clear language, like “Was there anything you couldn’t find, anything we can do better, etc.?”
- Be sure your website is mobile-friendly and includes a visible complaint form.
- Gather emails at the time of service and email customers shortly thereafter to request feedback, both positive and negative. Follow up quickly on any negative experiences and make every effort to remedy them.
- Assign a staff member for each store who regularly checks popular social media sites for mentions of your business and who is empowered to reach out any time negative sentiment appears.
- Document all complaints, identify patterns, and implement solutions. Your complaint document will be an absolute goldmine for resolving common problems before future customers experience them.
- Consider purchasing paid products that help you analyze your social media opportunities and manage your reputation. Followerwonk and GetFiveStars are good places to start. Don’t leave things up to chance — know your stats and actively control the conversation that’s happening about your business! Be as connected and engaged with your consumers as you possibly can.
Speaking of GetFiveStars, I highly recommend taking the time to read the series of articles they’ve been publishing regarding the subject of consumer complaints, including some really insightful surveys. My favorite tip from co-founder Mike Blumenthal is this one:
“Make a complainer feel like your most valued customer because, in some ways, they are.”
Happier endings for everybody
The art of customer service is one you’ll be training yourself and your staff in for as long as you serve the public. Even if you’ve made every effort to catch complaints on the spot, no method is foolproof and every business is almost guaranteed to have to deal with a negative review here and there.
Some customers will not speak up for themselves, even when expressly invited to do so, because they are shy, dread confrontation, or are so accustomed to being treated poorly that they don’t believe their voice will be genuinely heard. They may utilize online reviews as substitute for having to “make a fuss” in person about their dissatisfaction.
Then there are those truly awful customers no business can avoid. They may have entitlement issues, unrealistic expectations, unpleasant personalities, or even have made it a life practice to throw tantrums in hopes of receiving free stuff. They may utilize online reviews as a place to spew rude language and invent false accusations because they have personal problems.
No business is immune to either type of customer, but if you plot out your company’s reputation management course, you can weather most storms and end up looking like one smooth sailor! Your plan might look something like this timeline:
I continue to be amazed at how many negative reviews slip through and sit unanswered on major review platforms, raising doubts in potential customers’ minds and giving a neglectful impression of the business.
With the right mindset that delineates comfortable boundaries between your personal and business worlds, cultivation of empathy, a clear plan, and concentrated devotion to staff training, no business need suffer dread of negative feedback, and can, in fact, view it as a powerful resource for making meaningful improvements pre-guaranteed to resolve existing issues. And when those negative reviews do squeak through your process, a beautiful, professional response can write a happy ending, just like this one:
*Review star screenshots used in this post from Yelp.