The problem with online reviews, and a guide to not being a jerk customer.

"...most people tend to only use review systems to hurt businesses rather than help them. In other words, you might get a few 5-stars, but people are most passionate about what they do with a one-star."   
--  Me, to my sister, in an email.

Humans are vindictive and emotional, caring less about other people in favor of ourselves or circling the wagons around our own; the internet enables this quality, especially in reviews.

On Google, I am a "Local Guide." You get to that illustrious level of meaningless achievement based on how you participate with Google Maps in helping them build their product. I upload a lot of photos of places I visit, and I've left about 100 reviews for businesses all over the country and in other countries. I have a particular approach in how I leave reviews, which is based upon what I've learned about how people use reviews.

Understanding What Reviews Should Be, And End Up Being

Reviews are meant to help other customers make decisions about where they will do business, and what they can expect. They are to inform, in other words. This is rarely what happens.

I try to have a standard method for choosing a rating so that it isn't based on my emotions at the time. Most of the time, I try to provide written details so future visitors have an idea of what to expect; some franchises are the same wherever you go, so in that case I only note something out of the ordinary.

When it comes to the stars, I have a methodology behind my determination, using any combination of the below:

  1. 5 Star: Absolutely amazing experience. Clean facility that shows a manager has pride in it. Staff that is skilled. Service worth the money. Would love to go back again. Want other people to go there.
  2. 4 Star: Literally almost a five star, just not quite, but still loved it and want others to go there.
  3. 3 Star: Average and decent. Doesn't stand out, but nothing wrong. Still would go back as a customer.
  4. 2 Star: Never given after just one visit. Only given after multiple visits to make sure my understanding of the customer experience is accurate. Never given without publicly visible explanation. Not the greatest, but still would go back.
  5. 1 Star: Never given after just one visit. Only given after many visits to make sure my understanding of the customer experience is accurate. Never given without publicly visible explanation. Would not go back.

When I'm traveling and have a bad experience at a place, I don't leave negative ratings of one or two stars. I can't possibly know if that's a normal experience as a first-time tourist. That's why most of my reviews made while traveling are three and up. I've had bad experiences, to be sure, but I don't know enough to make a judgment on them.

That list is based on a few foundational understandings:

1. Remember the Golden Rule when leaving a review.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Yes, the Golden Rule.

I've worked in so many jobs dealing with people (food service has the worst customers, I'll just be honest) that I know what it's like to have worked hard all day or all week, and have one person catch you at the tail end of tired and instead of showing kindness to another human, or even communicating their displeasure in the moment in a kind way, they take to the internet to slam you.

They want to hurt you, because you inconvenienced or "hurt" them.

They want you to lose your job or to make your business fail.

This is why I have the star review policy that I outlined at the start of this post. I can't possibly accurately judge someone so negatively, with such economic and emotional impact, after one single visit. I wouldn't want to do that to someone, hurting and shaming them publicly online to add to what may have been a bad day for them. Who would be so cruel, and so selfish?

For those saying "no, you leave that nasty review because that helps people know not to go there, that's the point of the review", I call bull. Nasty one-off reviews are not a legitimate review because it doesn't have context or repeat experience. It may actually be causing people to avoid a business that they would love just because you had a negative first-time experience, or because you have a personality or nature prone to complaining or never being satisfied.

I would go further and even suggest that there are some people who take pleasure in the idea that they are hurting someone's business.

  1. Activists: They think their ideology is right and that they are justified to damage a business that doesn't align with their ideology; activists see hurting or manipulating businesses as a way to deal out social justice and bypass the polls through economic blackmail and unwritten cultural changes forced on people. The result is warring boycotts.
  2. Emotional Infants: They see the business owner or employee as a faceless nothing, getting some emotional fix by hurting them and causing friends and family to circle the wagons and applaud and justify their negativity.

This is why I find review systems that let you vote or rate the review itself helpful; it's about the only control we have against these types of folks, and I encourage you, when shopping or perusing online, to vote up solid reviews with reasonable language and approach, and to vote down reviews that are full of:

  • Emotional or dramatic language
  • Excessive use of "I"
  • The reviewer depicted as a victim
  • "Feelings" rather than discussion on price, specifics of visit, quality of product, etc.
  • Spouting political, societal, or cultural reasons to avoid a company

I hope these types of folks have the chance to run their own business someday, and learn first-hand what it feels like to be done unto like they've done unto others. I hope they get to enjoy economic blackmail where you either go out of business or toe somebody else's line. It's as true as ever: people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones; more than once (and in the example I will tell you below, involving my sister) I've been shocked to see nasty reviews from people who own their own business or are starting one soon.

Heck, even listing where you work on a social profile opens your employer up for retaliation if you're behaving badly online. Remember, your family and friends might be supporting your nasty review, but that business owner has family and friends, too.

2. Understand that this is an all-or-nothing world.

We love or we hate, with nothing in between. We think and feel in extremes, and leave reviews accordingly.

Look at reviews on Amazon and elsewhere; most are five or one star. Few nuanced mid-range reviews exist. The challenge in reviews for today's culture is that we don't see a three or two star as anything but a fail, both as reviewer and business owner.

We as customers are so trained to read anything less than four stars as bad. These review systems average out the reviews for potential customers and are being used everywhere, even price tags in the store (e.g. Best Buy). Anything under four won't get consideration.

We are an all-or-nothing society, and that's reflected in the reviews. Rather than five stars, we ought to just have thumbs up or thumbs down, because that's the thinking we're really using.

I use the word "thinking" loosely, because most people are feeling, not thinking. Read on.

3. Realize that today, everything is about the feels.

Most reviews I see online (as referenced in the opening quote of this post) are more passionate about their bad experience.

In other words, we aren't thinking our reviews through, we're feeling them through, and negative emotions are easiest (and mistaken for justified passion). We review on how we felt, not on the facility, pricing, product, ambiance, etc. I'm going to talk about this a bit later using a personal example, but I will say that this kind of expectation is impossible for a business owner to meet.

How can a business owner possibly know what each person who walks through their door needs from them emotionally today? Unless they're a psychiatrist, they shouldn't be trying.

I've been in the marketing world, and I know all the spiels that are sold to business owners about attempting to make their business some kind of emotionally perfect upbeat haven, and how younger generations want emotion infused into everything from coffee to their shoes, but it's all bullshit.

Even those of us writing that kind of advice know it's crap.

At the time I worked in that industry, we joked about a**hole customers even as we promoted that "meet each customer's emotional needs" nonsense. I have screenshots of the crap customers said to us--amazing nastiness--and the jokes we made about them, even as we wrote about how to meet customer's emotional needs using all kinds of trendy startup buzzwords. How many business owners are beat up trying to meet the emotional needs of a petty society?

Your emotional failures should not be projected onto a business. If you walk into a bakery and didn't feel special, so what? The bakery is to provide you with good food and a clean place to eat, not special feelings. Your special feelings are your own responsibility. And since there is no standard for what different people require to feel special, how can anyone possibly meet the bar?

I try to keep my emotions out of my review, particularly if I've only been to the place only one time. It is not fair to another human being to judge them, or harm them economically, based on my emotional stability that day. While first impressions matter, they ought not matter so much for mature humans who have the ability to think instead of feel, first and foremost.

But look at most one-star reviews. What are they comprised of?

"They didn't make me feel ____" or "I felt __________ was rude/mean to me."

What you consider rude might be another person's efficient directness. Don't even get me started on the frustration I have with younger women who need so much beating around the bush and emotional coddling to even get to the main difficult topic at hand.

You are in charge of your feelings. Stop handing that control over to random business owners who are simply trying to provide a product or service at a reasonable price.

I will be blunt: It is wrong to leave a bad review of a business if you've only been there once and your review is mostly about your emotional feelings and how you felt.

4. Consider reviewing on the high end in this negative society.

Most of my reviews are positive, and rarely do I leave a one-star review.

Perhaps it's after years of traveling and seeing other parts of the world and getting a perspective on how other people live in the world (e.g. some live in houses made of sticks and cardboard, and don't get to eat every day), I don't think a low-energy or grumpy server at a restaurant is enough to warrant a one-star review. I don't think a one-off mistake in my order that first visit is enough to try and take down a business.

Additionally, people are only to happy to think the worst about someone. So, I review on the high end. And then, in the review, I attempt to explain the business and what others could expect or should be aware of, both positive and negative.

Why do I do this? Because the stars and the text description of a review are two different items for two different purposes.

The star reviews are for those future customers who are too lazy to read and think; they just want a general average to tell them what to do. The explanation beneath the star is for those who actually want to get information to help them decide. Whenever possible,  I'm not going to weight my review for the lazy customer, but for the thinking customer.

5. Avoid reviewing for emotional payback or blackmail.

You are to review the product or service. That's it. Yet people wield negative reviews like a blackmail weapon.

I've written about this before, and have seen it after years of working online and in the internet marketing world with clients who don't deserve bad reviews but realize someone wants to punish them.

As I alluded to earlier, reviews are often a weapon used by social justice movements, or the family and friends of a displeased customer. They head over to the business's review section on various websites, and leave one-star reviews whether they've been there or not. They trash the business and know that since business owners can't remove those reviews, they've effectively hurt them for years to come.

That's dishonest and shameful. It's wrong.

You are trying to financially hurt someone based on the testimony of a close friend without knowing the whole story.

Yet if you call people on this, you'll hear what I call the "one-star review justification theology" in which the use of a one-star review is usually in defense of, or justifying, reactive behavior to a singular bad experience. Family and friends will line up to say "you go girl" and justify someone's review of dubious nature by repeating over and over how much they use reviews to make decisions and how important it is for future customers to know.

I don't doubt you use reviews. But again -- after one visit?

I actually think you're cheating future customers. How can you possibly know if a business is that bad based one visit? I'd rather see a one-star review in which the person says "after three visits, I can say this place is consistently bad" instead of "I went one time and she wasn't nice so you should never go there," because the latter is how children think.

I'm guessing the most useful reviews these people rely on, whether they're aware of it or not, are the highly informative ones with less emotion in their explanation, yet that's not the kind they are personally leaving or justifying.

The most crushing review I gave was years ago, of a local coffee shop I regularly went to for two years before I snapped and had had enough and wrote out an extensive review that detailed service problems. Since they have changed, I went and updated the review recently; the fact that I had a one-star review out there, and knowing the kind of power and damage that could have, made me inclined to update the review if the business changed its practices.

A one-star review is only warranted after multiple visits in which you get a clear picture of the business, service/product, and experience. You CANNOT justify a one-star review after only one visit, and any attempt to do so is merely an attempt to justify knee-jerk emotional responses that you aren't ready to acknowledge.

What Customer Responses Look Like In The Real World

My sister grooms dogs.

For more than 20 years, she was a vet tech, and a very good one. She's cared for animals since we were in junior high. She then worked for a vet during high school, taking care of dogs and cleaning kennels. She's taken care of horses, cows, sheep, pigs, dogs, cats, goats, geese -- who knows what else. She's the queen of animal rescue, bringing home cats and dogs others didn't want. She's been slammed around by cows and horses, sewed up dogs and cats, been bitten by a client's dog while pregnant -- she's seen it all, both in illnesses and animal/people temperaments.

Well, she hadn't seen it all as far as people temperaments were concerned, I guess, because she'd never owned her own business until now and hadn't been exposed to how awful people were to businesses in their online activity.

I, however, was fully aware of what people do to business owners and service workers these days.

I've worked in food service, customer service -- the whole lot. In my years working in a bakery, I grew to loathe certain types of customers (especially brides and their mothers who bought into the "I'm a special princess" garbage) who were never happy with what we did, were always trying to use complaints to get something free or cheap, and were struggling with balancing their emotional expectations and food-emotion disorders.

It was difficult enough to arrive at the bakery in the wee hours to get the bagels and scones made before opening at 7 am, and then stand on your feet a full day baking and cooking and serving with a tiny staff of three, without having to deal with customers (usually women) who needed some kind of emotional coddling. You couldn't just sell them a cupcake of good quality for a fair price; you had to speak to some emotional need that this food was supposed to be wrapped in. Our facial expressions and verbal reactions had to provide some emotional massage for them. You cannot imagine the level of weirdness people have when it comes to food, and how they'll turn on you if you don't serve that food to them in the way they expect.

I'd actually say the worst industries to be in regarding customers who are emotional in this way would be anything related to food, pets, children, and weddings. If you're about to open a business in any of those areas, watch out. You'll get this experience of online nastiness sooner or later.

After the bakery, I worked in the internet marketing world. I've written several times about why social media and "customer reviews" suck for business owners because you can't win in this world of complaining people who are governed by feelings and have an easy avenue for revenge (online posts).

So my sister grooms dogs.

She's very good at it. I'm not going to tell you the story behind why she left veterinary medicine to groom dogs, but if you knew it, you'd respect her a great deal. I know do. So when you go get your dog groomed by my sister, you have several decades of serious veterinary knowledge working for you. She's going to notice things about your dog that other groomers might not know to point out to you.

One night she sent me a text message about a negative review a woman had left on a social profile.

"What do I do about that?" she asked.

"Nothing," I said. "Just ignore it. Don't respond."

I explained it was a losing battle, and that as a business owner, there was no point to engage in this situation. I did recommend that she write down in specific detail her remembrance of what happened. "It's important to get the details down now or you'll forget soon. It's not that we'll do anything with them, but you never know."

I had her email me her written report of what happened, and then I went to the review she'd told me about and read the rest of the comments, made a PDF, attached it to the email thread, and archived it. "Now it's dated and saved, in case we ever need it again," I told my sister. "Go to bed. Flush this whole incident down the memory toilet. Social media is a cesspool."

I then went and made screenshots of the reviews these people had left about my sister on other sites and saved them to a file. I would share some of those screenshots here, but frankly, I don't want my parents or my nieces or nephews to read what people said about my sister and her work. It is such an aberration to the real person we know, and some of the language used to describer her and her work was just disgusting. I foolishly read the whole lot and wished my sister hadn't and hoped my mom wouldn't.

I felt badly for her. I didn't want her to feel so discouraged. She works so hard. I get exhausted thinking about all that she does at times.

People say such careless things about other's work, as if it is only and all about them and that the human on the receiving end is without consideration and that the work of their hands has no value.

And I can't say this enough: women do this the most.

That makes me ashamed to be a woman, and doubly aware that I should not be that way. Men tend to be direct and physical if possible, but women bully by targeting people's reputation for take-down, using innuendo and gossip, painting themselves to be the victim because victimhood really sells on social media.

The customer's review was, of course, based on a single one-time visit, and a drop-in visit at that. My sister fit them in to an already busy day of booked appointments.

"I have never been more sad and disappointed with a dog groomer in my life. ____ is one of the kindest and most patient dogs I’ve ever met and usually loves the groomers! today I got to watch the lady during half of him getting groomed and I started crying the moment I got out of there with him. ___ at __________ in ______ had no kind things to say about my dog and was a mean person to speak to. She called us halfway through to complain about _____ not sitting well on the table for her and wasn’t nice during drop off either. I watched her make _____ bleed while clipping his nails and not even try to console him. The only words I heard her say to him the 35 minuets I watched was “stop” and “you’re fine”. I would never leave my dog with her ever again. I just paid $77 to watch my dog shake on a table and be disrespected. I do not have a single kind thing to say about this groomer."

Let me just say that the dog in question was a Cocker Spaniel. Anyone who knows about dogs knows that, though there are exceptions, Cocker Spaniels are often nasty little neurotic dogs. The breed has problems. My mother tells the story of how they had a few Cocker Spaniels growing up, as well as other dogs, but that grandpa ended up having to shoot the Cocker Spaniels because they kept attacking people.

Additionally, this was a same-day non-appointment drop-in, in which my sister had said the dog wouldn't be done until a later time in the day because she had a full slate of regular appointments. Nevertheless, they showed up early and stood there and watched her work for over half an hour. Do you think that doesn't put pressure on someone to finish up faster?

Moving on.

My sister is not a complainer, despite what this reviewer said.

She called to alert them to the dog reacting negatively towards the standard restraints that groomers use, and wanted to know if they wanted her to continue. I have seen my sister be gentle with an animal that was dying, sew up an animal, hold an animal back that was fighting, cry over a goat or kitten or horse that died, quietly talk to an animal that was freaking out--I have so many stories and photos. She's not uncaring towards animals; calling the owners about the dog's behavior and requesting direct permission to continue was very professional and indicative of someone who cares about the owner and the dog. Ultimately, my sister decided to remove a restraint and put herself in bite danger just to accommodate this dog's behavior and her desire to not see the dog worked up.

Does that sound like someone who doesn't care about the animal?

My sister uses her SnapChat to send me photos of her sheep and pigs and cows and horses, and her dogs, especially her dogs.

She constantly sends me snaps of her little dog, running through puddles, sleeping on her bed, all wiggly in the kitchen, updating me on what activity he's doing today, how he's with her at work, wearing a bandanna...and yet in one evening a bunch of random strangers called her a bitch and worse, and suggested she was cruel to animals and no one else ought to take their business to her.

They knew NOTHING about a much beloved sister and daughter and aunt, nor about her life that's been dedicated to animals. Instead, they went ahead and trashed her publicly online, unashamed to have their name attached to such a thing.

Big Sis and me.
One commenter suggested the customer should take legal action and "report" my sister.

One commenter said that because this customer was her friend, she believed her to be telling the complete truth and that no one should take a dog to my sister again.

One commenter said it didn't matter if the appointment was made 10 months in advance or a few minutes; she should have provided the best perfect service no matter the circumstances. (Really? Does that work with your dentist? Hair stylist? Doctor? Accountant? As my college shop teacher used to say, a lack of planning on my part didn't constitute an emergency on his.)

One commenter advocating slapping someone, another went bonkers with exclamation points and variations of f**k, another used the word "shitty" about every third word to describe my sister and her work. These were adult women saying this, mind you. Some of them had their own businesses, or worked in salons.

The gal who wrote the original review was about to open her own daycare in a small town in North Dakota not far from Bismarck. Her fiance, who joined in the negativity, has his own personal business, and his extended family also runs a business. I can't imagine they would like someone to do this to them. (Yes, I did this research about their businesses. After the pipeline protest and what people did online, this is SOP for me now.)

Closing the door to reviews.

One commenter pointed out that my sister's social page doesn't allow starred official reviews, extrapolating that that says a lot about a business when they aren't willing to let people leave reviews.

I had to laugh at that.

A business that doesn't allow reviews mostly tells me that they know the stinky nature of humanity and that people are careless with how they think and approach reviews. It tells me that they know how online reviews are slanted against business owners because they have almost zero chance of responding or controlling a wave of harassment against them (e.g. Memories Pizza).

And if you must dwell on that, you can thank me for not being able to leave reviews on my sister's social page. My sister, not the most technologically adept, had me help her set the page up and I locked it down as much as possible and set it up so people couldn't leave reviews.

Why did I lock things down, and not allow reviews?

Because of this very situation! Because other commenters who had never been to my sister's place of business were apparently willing to go over and leave a bad review in solidarity with their friend. Because they would leave a permanent nasty verbal turd on my sister's page and forget about it after a week and go on with their merry lives, but it would sit there and be a blemish for my sister as long as she had the page.

There Are At Least Two Sides To Each Story

More than anything, I want to pound into your brain, as potential customers, that when you read a particularly emotional and incredibly bad review, remember that you're only hearing one side. In fact, the more overblown and emotional it is, the more likely it is that you're definitely hearing a very limited one side.

I guess it's a good thing that I learned a lot about the hellhole of social media during the pipeline protest here, as I described in great detail in the book I wrote about it. One key thing was how people used online reviews to blackmail and hurt businesses in North Dakota. I experienced it myself, as protesters targeted my books on Amazon, leaving one-star bad reviews because they were trying to harass me personally.

I know, firsthand, that there are at least two sides to every story.

With that in mind, I was curious to read my sister's side of the story in light of the review and those comments.

It was a classic case of two people, two different perspectives, two different interpretations. No offense to my sister, but she's not a creative writer. She's very Joe Friday, matter-of-fact with her details of how the day unfolded. In her account, she didn't take emotional pot shots at the customer (not her nature), but wrote out the plodding details of the day which immediately clarified what was going on and why this customer's perception is only partial. You can grab an elephant's trunk and describe the elephant as being like a snake and be telling the truth about the trunk, but that's not really what the whole elephant looks like. The customer's experience is not the whole elephant.

Folks, if you could read what my sister wrote, you'd see that review in a new light.

That customer's review is the perspective of emotions, leaving out key details without any understanding (chosen narcissistic oblivion, perhaps) of all of the other customers, dogs, and behavior going on.

But the worst thing?

This woman paid, took her dog to the vehicle where her partner was waiting, and then hopped on the phone to leave a nasty review in several places.

She didn't speak to my sister directly.

She didn't send my sister a private message about her concerns, or in any way seek an explanation or resolution to the issue she thought was at hand.

She went public immediately, assumptions full bore. She saw fit to unleash those people on my sister and her economic livelihood, saying those things publicly where my sister and her family could read it, without having attempted to rectify it privately and give another human being the benefit of the doubt.

How many customers leave reviews about a restaurant and say the staff wasn't friendly and, upon asking the staff about the customer, you find out they were incredibly demanding and rude? (I have just this story below.)

There are always at least two sides. Maybe we should allow businesses to review people's personal profiles and let people know what kind of person they were that one time they came into their business. Let's not judge a person by one interaction, shall we?

There Is A Strange Desire To Destroy Businesses

What is this desire--DESIRE--to seemingly happily punish small business owners who are working their own business and providing a service to the community?

I've written about how strangely gleeful people get when a business closes or has something bad happen. "Oh, they sucked anyway" or such things, happy to retell how they had a bad experience.

I want businesses in my community. I want the services, the jobs, the tax revenue. No business is truly a monster, even if they stumble on an off day.

But that's what this is, and that's what these kinds of reviews are, a desire to hurt.

It's part of a wave of thinking in this country where a business had better jump through every hoop perfectly, treat me like a queen, and have perfect ideology or I'll target it on social media and make it fall on its sword or apologize and give me something free.

People claim they don't want Big Box and want personal and local, but they demand the freebies and perks and threat response you get from a Big Box.

They yell about shopping locally and artisanal boutique locally grown this and that, but they have no qualms about slamming a small business if the person doing all the work isn't "nice" or seems tired because they are the owner working their own business.

And worst of all, people frame it as if they're doing the community a favor by "warning" others to not do business there. Do you have any idea what you do to the people who work there?

My sister isn't mean.

She's direct and no-frills. She's spent a lifetime working in a tough job and being around farmers and ranchers. Maybe she didn't have time to develop all the pink glittery feels and sensitive snowflake responses such young emotional female customers might require when she's in a chute with an angry steer. She might not perfectly humor your "fur baby" whims. She just cares about providing good care for dogs and making sure they are clean and healthy. She'll clip toenails, deal with anal glands, clean pads, wash and dry, clip -- she does all of that, but she's not offering psychiatric treatment as an option.

The "You Weren't Nice" Ideology Is At The Heart Of It

Nice is so subjective. For an introvert like me, nice is leaving me alone. That isn't the definition of nice for other types of people.

People used to leave nasty reviews at the bakery I worked at about our level of "niceness" when they made the most ridiculous requests--"can you cut that cookie into six parts, and then individually wrap each slice during your busy lunch hour?" or "I know those palmiers are for an order, but why can't I buy one fresh out of the oven?" or "your cookies are too small".

I think the cookies at the bakery were of a decent size.

This is a place where we arrived at around 5 am and closed at 4:30 pm and people would sit there until 5 pm with friends, annoyed that we didn't have fresh coffee made at closing time, their kids throwing food on the floor.

We'd be dead tired after standing on our feet the whole day in the heat of the kitchen and over the bleach-water sink, still needing to mop the floor and count the till, and they'd say we weren't "friendly" or "pleasant" because we asked them to leave or started shutting off the lights at 5 pm, a full half-hour after closing, and after sometimes 12 hours of work.

Or, maybe they claimed we didn't seem super excited to sell them a brownie.

Don't believe me about the brownies?

Let me share an email with you that I received during a hot summer week when there were only two of us working and we were pulling 10+ hour days full-on in the kitchen, no stop, no sitting, all week:

-----Original Message-----
From: Dave H
Date: Thu, 29 Jul 2010 03:06:20 
Subject: Love your brownies!

Just had to drop a line. 
I've stopped by ? a dozen times and loved the treats. but I must admit every time I've stopped the staff are less than welcoming.  I get the feeling I'm intruding.  I've always been there when it's not busy so I would think you would welcome the business.  I can tell you each time I leave, I think "never again"!  Just an FYI, because I would like to see your business succeed.  

I found out a lot about Dave H (easy to do online). I'll never forget this email, or the kind of man who wrote it. He came in later, and I recognized his name on his credit card. I emailed a friend about it.

I had the delightful experience of serving Dave "I love your brownies but not you" H. today. 

All day we were busy and I rarely left the counter. I was chipper and friendly and commented on the weather and described the same foods over and over for each customer. When applicable, I used the actual names of the regular customers. From 7:00 until 3, I performed flawlessly, pretending to care about each person's needs. Frankly, I was awesome. I'll just be blunt.

At 3, I finally sat down for lunch.

In walks Dave H., though I didn't realize it at first. I did not immediately leap to my feet, but A. was there and I thought that this one time I would lag a bit, having just completed the customer relations marathon of the year. It was taking her a while to box his treats, so I finally stood up and went to the till to ring him up.

Mr. H was brusque. He did not "make me feel welcome." He probably thought I was lazy and spent my time sitting and reading stuff on my phone.

Dave H. wasn't, as it turns out, a very friendly person.

Maybe employees aren't nice to customers who aren't nice people. Maybe what you put out there is what you get back, and what you're most upset about, no matter what your review says, is an unconscious understanding of serious personal problems that you don't deal with.

Your existential existence shouldn't hinge on a brownie.

Typical food service worker tally.

Don't Be A Jerk Customer

You want to know a secret?

I could tell you about the hidden sketchbook back in the kitchen. There were lots of cartoons and comments about customer situations in it. I kept a copy for old times sake. I'd also write letters to these horrible customers. I didn't send those letters, mind you, but I wrote out what I wanted to say. The letter from Dave H. would melt your eyes, if you read it. In every job I've ever had, employees are fully aware of customers who are jerks and complainers, and they are at the very least talking about them. They know when they walk in. They point it out to each other. Sometimes, they do worse things. Jerk customers are noted and remembered. You aren't under the radar.

Are you a jerk customer? Employees know who you are...

Let's all try not to be that jerk customer.

A good way not to be a jerk customer is to look at people as real people with family and friends and struggles and lives that matter who deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt.

A good way not to be a jerk customer is to have an attitude of being a "day-maker" in which you treat an exhausted employee with such genuine friendliness and kindness that you lift their spirits or at least remind them of their humanity and that they have value beyond what they're ringing up at the till.

A good way not to be a jerk customer is to stop thinking it's about you, and instead look outward at how you can be kind to people behind the counter, wearing the apron, or serving you.

A good way not to be a jerk customer is to think of your own job history and then look at people who are working to serve you and remember and consider physical and emotional exhaustion that might be going on.

A good way not to be a jerk customer is to get perspective on how things are in the world and whether or not your unbelievable tragedy of service actually matters in the grand scheme of things.

A good way not to be a jerk customer is to think more and feel less, and whether or not getting a brownie with a smile really affects the taste of the brownie or whether or not you can enjoy your day knowing some employee didn't seem happy to see you.

A good way not to be a jerk customer is to not be such a damn narcissist that if you aren't treated like a queen, you go leave a nasty review or email them and tell them you weren't serviced to your liking.

Be a better human.

Stop being part of the problem that makes this world uglier each day.

Help make the internet a better place.

The next time you have an experience in a business that you didn't like, put your stupid phone down and skip the review. Wait a few days, if you must leave a review, to cool off. Make it a rule that you don't review a place until at least two visits, with three being better. You are hurting people--employees and owners--for selfish reasons. And when you do review, put it into context and perspective so others can use your review in a useful way instead of seeing you as a customer-victim who was wronged and are the hero who emerged to save others from your horrible fate.

This nasty review nonsense after one visit is getting out of hand, but it does give me a lot of material to write and cartoon about, I'll admit that. If I ever write a book about my job experiences and the customers I dealt with, it'll be some flaming reading, I'll tell you that.

What Should A Business Do?

If a client emails you or talks to you about an issue they had, take a deep breath and push down any combative response you might feel, and let them tell you. Listen to them. Listen for action points that you can concretely resolve, such as a customer who:

  • Is saying they were overcharged for what they received.
  • Did not get what they paid for.
  • Was truly insulted by an employee.
  • Experienced poor service (delay, incomplete, etc.).
  • Did not get what was explicitly promised or promoted.
  • Had a product break or fail to do what it was supposed to.
  • Wasn't told what the cost would be upfront, before work began.

These are actual business failures, and you can rectify them, if the customer is amenable, with coupons, money back, free future items of equal value, and the like.

For customers with non-concrete complaints, listening is still your one opportunity to diffuse the situation. Try to see what their real frustration is (was it service, like they claim, or that they had a bad day?), and see how you can change the situation. If you did something wrong, make it right. If you didn't do something wrong but you can see how the person feels as if you did, offer something conciliatory even if it wouldn't be required. Sometimes a customer literally just wants you to hear their complaint and that's it.

However, some customers are unreasonable.

They want to get something for nothing, and it's clear they make a habit of going around and complaining with the hopes of getting money back, a reduced price, or freebies. You cannot work with these people.

I'd suggest either recording the exchange, or immediately writing down what happened (like I had my sister do) and getting the statements from others who witnessed it. I've seen some business owners who immediately took to their social accounts to talk about the incident, framing it in a way that indicated they wanted to be sure this wasn't an issue for anyone else so that regular customers know what happened before any public lies went online. That's a preemptive approach that can be risky if you're not a good wordsmith; you can't attack a specific person, but have to clarify a situation in a way that appears to be of general concern and interest.

I would also suggest that you refrain from doing business with specific troublesome customers in the future.

Granted, as seen in this post, too many customers don't come to you (or the employee in question) first, but take a cowardly approach and go public or try to get an employee in trouble without ever indicating they had a problem. They get friends to give you bad ratings.

In this case, you will have to decide whether to acknowledge those reviews or not (I told my sister to ignore her customer, because she was emotional and there was no reasoning with her). Even better, encourage your enthusiastic regular customers to leave reviews, and have them vote up (where possible) the other positive reviews. Four and five star reviews can cancel out one lone bad one. Voting up good reviews pushes a bad one to the bottom.

In the end, after a week or so, I think my sister felt better. She got a wave of good reviews from customers and had an opportunity to hear kind things said about her and her work from people who actually took their animals to her regularly. That kind of input has far more value than a one-off emotional review from a hit-and-run customer.