Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Problem With Review Culture (Tradecraft)

It's not an exaggeration to say small business owners devote their lives to their businesses. This is no 9-5 job, it's a dedicated, 24 hours a day endeavor that is all consuming. A small business has been compared to a mistress. You're enticed to sneak off to it because it appreciates you in ways your partner can't. It gobbles up your family's money, constantly placing you in the position of financial infidelity. Nobody has broken down stats for divorce among small business owners, but I'll bet it's much higher.

The small business owner works tirelessly on processes and procedures to grow and improve. We use the same assets day after day, but doing it slightly better, enough to outpace inflation and wage demands and taxes and fees that do nothing but get larger each year.  This is called working on the business. If you can't grow at least 3% a year, you're probably failing. If you can't boost it to 8-10% a year, you're probably better off working for someone else. That means every day this year, come in and do the same thing you did last year, with the same resources, but 10% better. Next year we'll be expecting the same.

So you would think that with so many reviews of businesses, small business would be on a road to perfection. Well no. What review culture has taught consumers is if you have a problem, you write a poor review of that business. You don't attempt to resolve a problem with the manager or owner, you just give them a scathing review because you've been wronged and people need to know. Nobody has contacted me to fix or resolve an in store problem in years.

Before review culture, there was an opportunity to collaborate and right the business, to improve the process, to address the needs of the customer. The business was part of the community and the community works together. Now we get our businesses summed up in stars. One star. Your business, your life work, is a failure. The customer is no longer interested in having a better local business. Instead, they're in a mercenary battle of customer versus faceless business, a dynamic that has likely shifted with the rise of e-commerce. 

When I get a low review, I take it seriously. After all, it's a massive failure on my part, since it's so much a part of my life. I work in a business where I order a product based on the projected needs of as few as 2-3 customers. Half of what I buy for the store is a single copy of a game that never gets re-ordered. HALF. I'm dedicated to the concept of delighting that one person, whoever they may be. One unhappy customer is a complete failure of many systems that have come together, so of course I'll take it seriously.

I'll usually respond to the reviewer, attempt to improve the process, perhaps offer them some incentive to return. This is how it used to work. You had a problem at the market. You talked to the manager. The manager promised to fix the issue and gave you a coupon for a free frozen pizza. Everyone benefited, plus pizza. 

Businesses are far from perfect. There have been periods in the life of my business where there have been problems. We're better than we were a year ago and unrecognizable from five or ten years ago in quality.  I have five employees right now who average around three years on staff.  The newest employee is number 23 in my payroll files. That means 18 people have come and gone for various reasons to get to where we are now, and this isn't even my first payroll company. 

I recently had someone rant on our Facebook page about bad service they received eight years ago and how they would never set foot in my store again. I don't even know how to fix an eight year old problem with employees who probably don't work for me anymore, who may have even been fired for the reasons they described. I'm guessing it was someone in the low teens of my payroll files? Who knows. There is no opportunity to make that situation right, although I can suggest letting it go. Eight years is a long time to still be ranting about a business you won't ever visit again because some young dude, whose now probably married with children and a mortgage, and existential problem of their own, was paying more attention to a different customer. I can't even recognize the store they're describing.

When it comes to customer satisfaction, I would rather give away product, hand deliver it to the door of someone I've wronged, than see them go away upset. However, review culture offers no resolution to customer dissatisfaction. There may be a resolution to our processes and procedures, but here's the thing: that poor star review is never changed by the reviewer. There is no negotiation, no actual upside of addressing a low reviewer, if all you're looking for is better reviews. There is no free frozen pizza coupon to assuage hurt feelings. There is no relationship management going on here.

A bad review is always a "better luck with the next customer" situation. A business owner who doesn't want to lose their mind will instead look at reviews as an aggregate. 4.4 is pretty good out of 5. That's just infuriating though if you're trying to come in and do things better every day. We're not the government. Good enough is not good enough. We work in single digit profit margins. We can't accept good enough as success.  

So bottom line: There's no customer review feedback loop that works to improve small business. It's not a process of remediation, it's an adversarial process of social ranting.  This is assuming there are real problems, as opposed to the many reviews that are either people unhappy because we don't carry what they want (so many of our Yugioh reviews) or in the articulate stylings of Kylie Jose, "Eh."

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