It’s like in A Christmas Story when Ralphie has finally had enough and wallops Scott Farkus. Like Ralphie, restaurateurs are having to decide how to react to angry customers who turn social media to vent, whether or not it is based in truth. Understandably, their first emotion when encountering this negativity is to lash out. Sometimes they should, and sometimes they should take a breath and consider their options. Here’s what’s happening and what’s not.
In the past year, we have seen some widely circulated instances of bar and restaurant owners fighting back against social media bullies. Here are my top three favorites.
- The owners of Voltaire in Kansas City, Missouri, fired back a brilliant response to Sonal B on Yelp. She wanted takeout, a service the restaurant does not provide and made good on a threat to post a negative review if they didn’t acquiesce.
- Ran Duan (JWU ’09) of Sichuan Garden in Woburn, Massachusetts, stuck to his guns as Harvard professor Ben Edelmen thoroughly embarrassed himself and that institution with a series of threats and demands stemming from a $4 overcharge on a takeout order.
- Chef Michael Scelfo at Alden & Harlow posted a photo to Instagram of two customers who had seated themselves on a busy night, mistreated staff, and threatened poor reviews on Yelp.
What’s Going On
Social media reviews and the sites that support them are a source of near constant anxiety for many operators in the food and beverage industry. For them, criticisms of their operations can be like hearing from a teacher that your kid is stupid. “Yeah, maybe, but that’s my kid.”
Poor operations are justifiably slammed on the internet.At the same time, good operations that strive to provide consistently excellent goods and services can sometimes receive the same harsh treatment, often from what can be perceived as unfair reviewers. In extreme cases, similar to the ones above, customers threaten to use this power to get what they want when they want it, regardless of the reasonableness of the request.
There is a contract between a service consumer and a service provider within which the provider delivers a package of goods and services in exchange for some compensation from the purchaser. The ability to choose providers makes the customer powerful in this relationship. A second contract exists between the two parties, one most appropriately described as an implied social contract. This contract holds that the parties engaged in the service transaction will deal with each other respectfully and in good faith.This implied contract has always been violated by some customers, many of whom overestimate their transactional power (“I’m a regular,” “I spend a lot of money in here,” “I know the owner”). Today, this overestimation of importance and power is felt by many more customers and much more deeply because of social media.
What’s Not Going On
Everyone seems to think that Yelp is the problem. This seems not to be the case. Anecdotal evidence from all over notwithstanding, every shred of objective evidence, from court cases to independent university research, indicates that Yelp is not deleting positive reviews or writing negative reviews in an effort to get restaurateurs to advertise with them.
Look up some of the best bars and restaurants in your area on Yelp. That’s what I did. I suspect that you will find what I found — that the very best operations in your area have very good Yelp reviews, that your impression of them is matched by their Yelp rating.
The frustration with Yelp stems from the inability for any of us to explain how it works. Yelp itself claims that reviews are filtered through a complex algorithm that accepts some reviews and rejects others. They won’t tell anyone how it works. When looking at reviews, the distinction seems arbitrary and so our mind assigns a simple reason to what we can’t understand — Yelp cheats.
I saw Jon Taffer, host of Spike’s Bar Rescue, give a presentation at last year’s Nightclub & Bar Convention and Trade Show. He encouraged operators to stop blaming the weather, the economy, the government for their problems and instead take action to make things better. In other words, stop blaming Yelp. It is what it is and people like it and use it.
What Can Operators Do?
Evaluate and (possibly) retaliate. In the heat of the moment, you may jump directly to firing back, but don’t. Taking stock of the situation is critical, and, more than likely, you will not need to take further action.
- Check your reviews: Your Yelp reviews are important and you worry about them. Review them on a regular basis to determine which ones require action and which ones don’t. Some reviews may be retaliatory and, in some cases, you can let Yelp know. Common themes can also be a clue that you may have a real problem.
- Check yourself: For some, it can be difficult not to be defensive when someone criticizes something that you take so personally. For others it can be difficult to not be reactionary and change everything when someone is critical. It is crucial to be as objective as possible when looking over criticisms of an operation. You should feed them through your own filter and determine if they are valid and require action. If commenting on a review, don’t be retaliatory or defensive but don’t apologize if one is not warranted.
- Say thank you: Acknowledge that you appreciate positive feedback by saying thank you … just like you would in person. You may choose to do so privately so that it doesn’t look to users like you solicited the positive feedback.
- Recover bad experiences: Statistics indicate that, in general, only 4 percent of customers complain after a bad experience; however, this number more than triples on social media. While it is best to fix problems immediately, social media gives you an opportunity to fix many more that you didn’t know about in the present. Take social media complaints as an opportunity to fix what may have been less than successful encounters. Let your dissatisfied customers know that their satisfaction is important to you.Invite them back with an incentive to return. Do this publicly to let all users know that you care about your guests. Statistics show that dissatisfied customers who are recovered became enthusiastic fans. Many will change their negative review to a positive one as the result of your efforts.
- Encourage your customers to review: This is a little controversial. Yelp discourages businesses from “buying” good reviews. I say that it’s your business, and its success is critical. In general three times more people share a bad experience than share a good one. You should do what you can to encourage your customers to share their experiences. You know more of them have good ones, so the more they share the better you look.
In some cases you should stand up for yourself or even retaliate. That’s what the operators did in the three instances at the beginning of this article and they came out better for it. This can be a very dangerous proposition for your business if the circumstances are not exactly right. The operators above were dealing with customers making outrageous demands including providing a service they didn’t provide and refunding “treble damages” as punishment for a transgression. Two of the three complainants were lawyers — enough said. The operators handled the complaints delicately and simply let their customers dig themselves deep holes. None of the complaints were about unsatisfactory service, food or drink. Before you decide to go nuclear on a customer, be sure the situation is similarly extreme and your reaction is similarly warranted. Or, at least make sure you are going off on a lawyer!