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Commentary: The dangers of lashing out at harsh online reviews
Published in Alriyadh on 20 - 07 - 2017

Two weeks ago, the owners of a vegan café in the US city of Memphis discovered something unpleasant.
A customer had complained in an online review of their eatery that her meal had been interrupted when the owners' toddler appeared naked and "bent over" to show her its bottom.
She understood it was a family-run business and "kids do weird things", but she felt uncomfortable. This set off a media ruckus - though not for the reasons you might expect for a review mentioning both vegans and behinds.
It was inflamed by an indignant response from the café owners, Kristie and Adam Jeffrey. In a now-deleted Facebook post, they threatened to ban people leaving bad reviews, especially ones about their children, because such "haters" were not wanted.
UNFAIR REVIEW?
Mrs Jeffrey was still defiant when I contacted her. She claimed the review was unfair and while she might have reworded her initial blast, she still reserved the right to reject certain people, because if diners were not okay with children "then they are not welcome to our café".
Her instincts are understandable. I do not have children myself and would be lying if I said my heart lifts when I am seated beside a tired toddler in a restaurant or on a plane.
But I have helped enough friends and relatives struggling to corral an unruly brood to know that parenting is not for sissies - especially if you are trying to combine it with running a business.
Even so, the Jeffreys' reaction was wrong on so many levels, it is hard to know where to begin. What's worse, this is just one latest example of a business lashing out at a harsh online review, common especially in the food or lodging industry.
The first time I remember seeing one unfold was a couple of years ago when a diner posted this description of a café near my old home in Sydney: "Dirty. Ants. Burnt food. Extortionate prices."
He received a tirade from the management, berating him for eating the allegedly burnt food, failing to point out the ants and trying to "kick down our business".
That eatery later closed, as have a number of other businesses whose owners have tried similar tactics. This could have been coincidental but it does point to the first problem with the vegan café owners' approach: That such responses are self-harm.
COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE
The rise of social media obviously amplifies a bad review that in gentler, pre-internet times would barely have been noticed. Some online review sites are also easy to game.
But slagging off a reviewer is both pointless and counter-productive. A temper is rarely a good advertisement to potential customers, and why threaten to ban someone who has no intention of returning anyway?
Best to offer a measured response. In especially trying circumstances, borrow a page from this one Irish hotel manager who received a poor TripAdvisor review claiming his establishment looked like "a building from Chernobyl".
Amid a mostly polite reply, he said: "Unfortunately, when a review starts by comparing the hotel to one of the greatest man-made disasters and loss of innocent lives of the 20th century, I am unsure how my efforts to find a resolution would help." Touché.
IS THE CUSTOMER ALWAYS RIGHT?
It is true that some successful business leaders argue the customer is not always right. Continental Airlines' former chief executive Gordon Bethune used that very phrase in a section of his memoirs, believing it important to side with employees facing passengers who could be "unreasonable, demanding jerks".
This may make sense at an airline, where passengers can be appalling. But the average ground-bound customer is rarely trying to do anything as dire as drunkenly open an exit door at 30,000 feet.
Still, it is not hard to find so-called experts who claim that putting the customer first is an out-dated idea that encourages unhappy staff, fraudsters, and is a general waste of time. For them, I have two words: John Lewis.
The staff-owned British department store has elevated customer service to an art form that is often taken for granted by Brits. Its pledge to be "never knowingly undersold" is widely mocked and may not always work.
But it has earned the loyalty of almost everyone I know who has shopped in it and has become one of the UK's most respected businesses. The idea that it would ever publicly berate a customer, let alone threaten to ban one, is inconceivable.
COMPLAIN IN PERSON, PLEASE
There is one objection from irate businesses that does carry some weight: Customers, especially diners, can easily complain in person instead of writing an unkind online review.
After the Memphis furore, Mr Jeffrey griped that "no one said anything to us" about his naked child, who he said had only made a brief escape after learning how to rip off her diaper.
It might have been better for all concerned if the reviewer had objected in person, and life would be more civilised in general if people complained more offline than on.
But online reviews are helpful and, ultimately, this is no excuse for a bonkers attack on a customer.
In future, the Jeffreys should adopt the approach that has looked obvious since their drama began: Calm down, take a breath and turn the other cheek.
© 2017 The Financial Times Ltd 2017. All rights reserved. Not to be redistributed, copied or modified in any way.


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