The First Bad Review Cuts Deepest

the axe cuts deep

My first negative review came on a Tuesday.

The order request had been an unusual one. In my correspondence with the customer, I attempted to point out, as diplomatically as possible, the various ways in which her request was unusual, and some available alternatives which she might find... more helpful. I suggested an alternative supplier, I offered to refund her purchase. Basically, I tried to talk her out of it. She opted to proceed.

In the review, she said she was mostly happy, but the color of her item didn't quite match her expectation.

She gave me 4 stars. I didn't take it well.

Okay, so maybe at this point you're thinking, "4 stars? You didn't take 4 stars well? On Yelp, 4 stars is gold. What is wrong with you?" And you're right. And that's fair. But I'd been in business for a year and a half at the time and never received anything less than a 5 star review. In fact, it's now hundreds of reviews later and I've still never had anything less than a handful of 4 star reviews, each of which I could recite to you verbatim because I've reread them dozens of times, agonizing over what might have gone wrong.

I point this out only to show that I take my customer service very seriously. It's a point of pride for me. I really want each and every customer to come away feeling like I'm totally on their team, completely invested in their personalized artwork. Their hard earned money is spent on something that I care about as much as they do. On the flip side, my customers have utterly spoiled me by being gracious, communicative, and incredibly appreciative.

So, 4 stars hurt. Especially from an order that felt so far off from the norm, an order which, I felt, was really not representative of what I typically do. Especially when I tried to do everything I could to preemptively make it right. It was totally unfair.

I started to get angry at the customer. "Doesn't she know how hard I had tried to do the right thing for her at my own expense? Doesn't she know she's blaming me for something that isn't even my fault? Doesn't she realize that I am just one person?" I ranted to my husband without taking a breath.

"I'm not Amazon, with endless warehouses and resources and robots. I'm not some nameless, faceless entity reselling commodity goods made in China. Microbusinesses like mine rely on these online reviews as our lifeblood. That may have been one meaningless little star to her, but it could affect my whole business!" my rage monster screamed.

"If people were to see that 4 star review and decide to shop elsewhere, with someone who has only gotten 5 star reviews, that takes money out of my pocket, makes it harder for me to pay my bills, and my rent, and put food on my table! This isn't just about 'stars,' this is about SURVIVAL! How dare she!"

As I said. I didn't take it well.

This wouldn't stand. I had to take action. I started searching for the right response. The right combination of words that I could string together which might result in convincing future customers that I had done everything I could to prevent this.

Ultimately, after a vigorous workout followed by at least o̶n̶e̶ three glasses of wine, I emerged mostly unscathed from The Great Anxiety Torpedo of 2016.

In the time since, I've gradually learned that my customer service is only as good as my unhappiest customer. If I claim to take pride in serving my customers, that includes all of them, especially the unhappy ones, because they're the ones from whom I stand to learn to most.

Nowadays when order issues arise, I try to put myself in the customer's shoes. I run through my range of options, starting with the question, 'What does a perfect, 5 star solution to this problem look like from the customer's point of view?' That generally involves things like re-creating and re-shipping an item for free. Or perhaps a full refund. Then I start going down the list, asking myself, 'What's the 4 star solution?' 'The 3 star?' And so on.

This approach helps me come up with some compromises that solve my customer's problem, while hopefully not turning the project into a complete loss. It helps remind me that the customer and I are on the same team. We both want this project to be a success. This allows me to establish some control over the situation, which helps me to avoid the anxiety torpedo. If I establish clearer expectations, both with myself and my customer, we have a pretty good idea of what we can expect the result to be from each one.

Those of us in review-based microbusinesses often forget (or fail to realize in the first place) what these reviews really mean. Why we take them so personally. Yes, they affect our businesses, but there's plenty of feedback I receive on a daily basis that affects my business but I don't take personally. Negotiating with my paper supplier. Receiving passive aggressive emails from my accountant about not setting aside enough sales or income tax (aka, sucking at math). Dealing with printers... (okay, some printers are legit out to get me, but that's fodder for another post).

Customer reviews quantify something I encounter in the real world every day. Judgment. I take reviews personally because they ARE judgment. And judgment lies heavy on the ego. On some level, I want good reviews because I want people to like me. And if people like me then they'll like my business and buy my products and my store will get crazy successful and people will start buying my stuff all over the world and I'll become a millionaire and get to spend my time just making beautiful artwork that changes lives in a studio on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific with an adoring dog in my lap and... Wait.

Where was I?

Oh yeah. Point is, it is totally normal to care about these reviews. But at a certain point, we have to move past how it makes us feel, and even move past the specific situation surrounding the bad review. Because the truth is, a bad review might be exposing a deeper problem in your business. And in my case, it absolutely was.

I realized that even though I hadn't made any mistakes with the product my customer received, I was still responsible for the disconnect she felt between what she saw on my site and what she held in her hand. I was the one who had to set those expectations properly. This single review didn't result in a massive overhaul of my store or business model. But it did lead me to restructure several of my listings to more accurately reflect my process, and to better set customer expectations. I basically made it impossible for this particular problem to ever repeat.

Ultimately, I didn't send any response to the customer who left me my first 4 star review. Lessons were learned, adjustments were made, and I'm comfortable knowing my store is better for it. And that an anxiety torpedo can be headed off by a long hike with a thermos of wine in hand. (Mom, I promise the wine doesn't affect my ability to be aware of my surroundings at all times.)

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