...by Gwen Millius
This particular Monday morning was already not going well. Dropping my son off at pre-school was a comedy of errors, as Mondays often are. Add to the negative column a phone call wherein I learned that I’d lost a new project to a close competitor.
Then came an email from Mom. The subject line said: “More negative Yelp reviews! Help!”
My mom owns and operates an estate sale business here in Portland. She and her business partner (who is also my step-father) are organized, conscientious, and thorough – just what you want in an estate sale business. Despite these qualities, in recent months, Mom had picked up a single negative Yelp review, which had been reposted by the reviewer on Google Places.
This first review wasn’t really fair; without going into detail, we both felt the reviewer had unrealistic expectations about what sort of behavior was okay at an estate sale. As her very part-time marketing consultant, I worked with her to craft a levelheaded response to the review while also asking her to identify satisfied clients and repeat customers who would be willing to post positive reviews on her behalf.
But we hadn’t gotten far in that process when these new reviews rolled in. For one reason, in addition to being organized, conscientious, and thorough, my mother is also modest and not prone to asking for favors. It is very hard for her to ask others to do something on her behalf, especially involving technology she does not fully understand. So getting her to broach the subject with her fans was already something of an uphill battle when these new reviews rolled in.
When I read the new reviews, I was prepared to put my head on my desk and give up for the day. Why? Because I recognized my mother’s behavior that elicited the negative response. And I realized there was no way to explain away these reviews as someone else’s unreasonableness.
What was it in that review that I recognized? My mom is smart, funny, and vivacious. She can also be a grouch. Catch her in a bad mood, and you can find yourself feeling a little roughed up. Those of us that know and love her can usually see the grumpy bus coming down the road and let it pass us by, knowing Mom is having one of those days.
The problem is that the people who wrote the Yelp reviews didn’t know her at all: they were new, prospective clients seeking help with a loved one’s estate. Apparently, on “one of those days”, Mom answered the phone. The rest you can read about on Yelp.
Of course, any business run by just one or two people may give out uneven customer service. It is hard to be the chief sales person, bookkeeper, human resources director, janitor, etc. and cover it all in a timely, pleasant and effective manner. Those of us who have had our name on the door know this struggle. As customers and clients, many of us have received less than stellar service, even from people who came recommended by friends or family, simply because the referred service provider wasn’t at the top of their game when we got in touch with them.
This has always been true of small businesses, but the advent of Yelp upped the ante for mom-and-pop shopkeepers. Mom didn’t post her business on Yelp; a Yelper came out and named her first. As Mom was learning the hard way, Yelp has forced everyone to rethink the way we handle our public, lest we draw the ire of someone who likes nothing better than to write tart online reviews. There’s an upside: it can make us better servants of our customers. There is, however, the well-documented downside as well: competitors berating one another anonymously, unhinged fire-trollers getting undeserved air time, and the sense of eggshells beneath our feet that comes from the knowledge that anything you say on the phone could be used against you, fairly or unfairly, on Yelp.
This situation is especially tricky for folks of my mother’s generation. They are from an age before the answering machine, never mind call waiting, voicemail, or caller ID. When the phone rang, by gum, you answered it. You answered the phone whether you were happy or sad, asleep or awake because you might otherwise miss out on something important.
Besides, as my mother pointed out, if she didn’t answer the phone when it rang, her prospective customers would likely just keep working their way through a list of other estate sale companies, and she could lose the prospect by ignoring their call.
As I shared with my mother and other small business owners who jump for the phone without doing a head check first, Yelp has changed this equation. With Yelp, when you’re not in top form during a sales call, that lost client is not only likely to tell friends and family about their negative experience, but may also tell hundreds and even thousands of anonymous readers.
At first, my mom and her husband didn’t take the Yelp reviews seriously. “What is this Yelp? And who cares about it?” they asked. I explained to them that many people 40 and younger use Yelp to make any number of judgments about where they might spend money on food drink, plumbing, shoes, you name it. I was tracking her Yelp account, and at least one or two people viewed her profile weekly.
These new reviews broke my heart a little bit. Who likes to tell someone they love, their mother no less, that “yeah, I heard what that so-and-so said about you, and well…there might be some truth in it”? Despite the awkwardness of the situation, an intervention was required. This is what I told Mom:
1. Please don’t answer the phone if you are in a bad mood, prefer not to be uninterrupted, or if you suspect that you will deliver anything less than a pleasant, customer-focused conversation to the person on the other end of the line. The stakes are too high, these days, to risk rubbing someone the wrong way.
2. Voice mail was invented for the days when listening for the phone to ring keeps you on edge. Instead of leaping for the calls, set time aside each day or every few days to respond to messages. Yes, you might lose a job because you weren’t fast enough on the draw. Better that, however, than losing a job because you didn’t bring your sales A-game to the phone call and drew your prospect’s ire on Yelp.
3. If you find yourself answering the phone because you just never know if it’s your kids or a client who knows you and needs you, invest in caller ID. It has saved me countless, precious minutes that would have otherwise been interrupted by calls that didn’t need my immediate attention.
The story ends well. Just a few days after that unhappy Monday, a glowing and unsolicited email came from a shopper who interacted with Mom and truly enjoyed being at one of her sales. Plus, a satisfied client gave her a well-deserved five star review. It’s tough out there for the small business owner in this age of instant grousing, but it can teach important lessons about giving your time only when you can give it gladly. We can also enjoy the humbling and gratifying experience of receiving the positive feedback of people who have had a great experience working with you.