Today I want to talk to you about a skill we all need: dealing with negative customer feedback. It’s probably one of the hardest things to deal with in a cake business, especially when that feedback comes long after we can do anything to fix it. We work in a creative industry which has a very high personal and literal “touch” factor. We’ve spoken to our clients from their initial enquiry all the way to the delivery of their cake. We’ve spent hours in the process, from the creative design drawn on paper all the way to the carving and covering of the final product and then delivering it without a heart attack. We get intimately involved in the big moments of our customer’s lives – our work is in their wedding photos, we get to meet their friends, parents, children. That’s a lot of honour and a whole lot of responsibility, and I defy any cake maker to not take the work they create personally. You know, I’d say even those of you reading this who make smaller items of a less custom nature take it personally – it’s just the beauty (and the pain) of being in a small business.
By the way: if something goes wrong and it’s your fault and you can fix it in time for the event, FIX IT. This post is about the times when the problem or feedback occurs after the fact.
Here’s what I want to tell you, but can’t: You need to focus on the many, many positive reviews and client thank you notes rather than the one negative call you got. You need to let it just roll off your back. You need to realize that some people just love to complain. You need to remember that it’s inevitable that within a large number of orders, there is bound to be a complaint or two – cakes are not always rainbows and unicorns. You need to remember that even Ron Ben Israel has had a client complain – probably more than once.
I can’t tell you that stuff because this blog is about honesty, and while all those are true, they teach you nothing about how to deal with negative feedback in any real way. Other blogs will tell you all of that and they are certainly right, but they aren’t REAL.
In the current age of facebook, Twitter, yelp, urbanspoon and so on – feedback is immediate, has a very wide spread, and is almost impossible to delete entirely. The cyber footprint, both good and bad, is very, very big. That’s great if ALL your feedback is awesome, and it sucks when some feedback is less than awesome. Regardless of how the feedback comes – over the phone, via email, in a public forum where others can see it – you MUST deal with it.
Here’s how I do it (and over the phone, you’ve got to be able to think on your feet):
- Thank them for their feedback, and be sincere about it.
- Acknowledge their feelings, and be sincere about it.
- If it’s over the phone, do not interrupt them. Let them get out their entire thought before you reply, and use that time to gather your wits. If it’s online, resist the urge to shoot off a reply immediately. You need to reply in a timely manner, but not in the same minute they’ve sent their missive.
Then BEFORE you get all upset and start freaking out, think hard about their complaint. Does it have ANY basis at all? Could you have done better? Did you really forget to write the message on it? Did you get the flavour or colour wrong? Did you know at the time you weren’t doing the best job you might have? Does this client’s complaint have ANY basis in fact, or are they just blowing off steam and you are their nearest target?
You need to figure that out before you can proceed. Be brutally honest with yourself.
If their complaint has any basis in fact and you are at fault:
- Decide how you’re going to make this situation better for the both of you, and that’s NOT always via a refund. If you are at fault, you still want to make them come back to you AND tell their friends about the amazing service they got but nor do you necessarily need to lose money.
- The resolution needs to be equal or only slightly bigger than the problem. You got the flavour wrong but they still got a great cake? Offer them a discount on their next order. You forgot to write Happy Birthday on it? Apologise politely but don’t offer any recompense. You got the colour wrong and the whole party had a colour theme so it did not match at all? Offer a partial refund. The entire cake collapsed in a heap because you failed to give it internal structure and so they had no cake at their wedding? Refund the entire amount, send some cupcakes AND offer a discount on a future order. You’ve got to make them happy, but not have the ‘reward’ exceed the offence too much because that’s both an admission of guilt and sets up the future interactions. Frankly not writing Happy Birthday on what is clearly a birthday cake had no real impact on their event, but they deserve a sincere apology at the least because you didn’t meet their expectations.
If their complaint has NO basis in fact and there is NO way you are at fault:
- Say as little as possible. The less you apologise, defend yourself, express your embarrassment, tell them you feel awful…the less you are feeding the fuel of their emotions. You want to avoid having this become bigger than it needs to be.
- DO NOT offer recompense of any kind. If you are not at fault, there is no reason for them to get compensated…and you don’t want them as a client if they are the type of person who complains about things you have no control over.
- Tell them what (if anything) you are going to do about this situation should it ever arise again, and tell them you’re grateful that they are helping you improve your business practices (if you’re a business owner worth your salt, that bit is actually true.)
In either case, don’t let the conversation drag on. Come to a resolution as quickly as possible and then act on it if you said you would. Keep it short and keep it about business – no matter how many tears you might have shed over it (and if you’re like me, you have definitely shed some.) Be sincere, be authentic…but above all be professional about it. This is true in EVERY forum you get feedback in. Negative feedback online is horrible because so many people can see it – but it says a lot about you and your business if people reading that feedback can also read your reply to it, and if that reply is done in a polite, respectful, businesslike manner.
Above all – you MUST:
- Thank them for their feedback, and be sincere about it. ALL feedback is useful feedback.
- Acknowledge their feelings, and be sincere about it. They want to feel loved. Even when they are pissed off.
I’m repeating those two because they are vitally important. They are complaining because -above all else- they want to be heard, and FEEL like they got heard.
That being said – no customer has the right to abuse you, which is why I say keep it short, keep it straight forward, and keep emotion (yours!) out of it as much as possible. There are some people who seem to revel in beating a dead horse. If you notice that happening, make the choice to exit the converation. If you have already resolved it – there is no need to keep on talking about it.
Here’s how I deal with it emotionally:
- I get upset. I let myself feel annoyed, angry, hurt, or (insert emotion here) about it for a little while. I take it personally even though I know I shouldn’t – because I’m human, and I work in a high touch industry. I actually do try to remember all the great feedback I get, but sometimes it’s just easier to wallow for a bit. It’s totally okay to feel like crap for a little while. Remember, being in business is not always fun.
- I call someone I love and trust who is NOT involved in my business and I vent about it. Letting it out feels really, really good. I probably then emotionally eat (remember I said this blog is honest? I’m an emotional eater. So a complaint from a customer, justified or not = too many Oreos.)
- I deal with the problem in a timely fashion by replying to the client (as above) or just taking care of it (actioning the refund). The faster I end the conversation and action the resolution, the quicker it’s over and I can get back to clients I love and cakes that need me.
- I set a timeline for how long I will allow myself to be emotional about it – and you’d be amazed how well this one works. “I’ll be grumpy today, but by tomorrow I’ll need to be done with it.” Giving yourself a timeline for irritation is a pretty neat trick AND it totally works because by the next day, I’ve got other things to worry about and I’ve given myself persmission to be irritated in the first place. I find trying to convince myself to “get over it” does not work as well as just being grumpy for a defined period of time,
Most of all:
- I wait a little while (long enough for the initial emotion to pass) and I think about what I’ve truly learned from this, and then I take action so that it doesn’t happen again. All feedback teaches me something, even if the lesson is about getting practice in dealing with unreasonable people, or improving my contract or disclaimers. It may not feel like it, but every bit of feedback is doing you a favour.
Let’s face it, negative feedback is no fun at all, but it’s inevitable. Knowing how to deal with it makes it a lot less painful and makes you a much more effective business owner.
Since I never let you all leave here without at least one real life example – about two years ago, I made a stunning wedding cake for a demanding client. THREE MONTHS LATER I got an email from her about the cake. This email went on for pages and pages about how it was a total showpiece, how her guests went back for fourth and fifth serves, about how she got compliments on it all night. This email was really pages and pages of good feedback. The final page, however, was a complaint that the ribbon used on the cake was “too peachy, not pinky enough,” and therefore it did not match the rest of the decor of the event. The shade of ribbon was not pink enough…and apparently I RUINED HER ENTIRE WEDDING as a result. She will never be able to look at those pictures again, I should have called her about this “major design change,” and apparently her disappointment is not going to go away. All because the shade of light pink ribbon we used was “not pinky enough.”
I wish I was making this up. I’m not.
She got a polite, short businesslike email back which thanked her for taking the time to send me the feedback, expressed pleasure that her guests enjoyed the cake so much, and acknowledged her disappointment about the ribbon. I then told her that it’s taught me to always ask for a colour reference for ribbons in all future cakes, and thanked her (again) for helping me to improve my business. I then wished her and her new husband all the happiness in the world.
I then went and called my husband, had a good whine to him about it, and then ate a few Oreos (but not too many. Anyone who thinks the colour of board ribbon on their cake ruins their entire wedding day is not worth the calories.) That story has now become one of my favourite to tell – because it makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time.
Haters are gonna hate. Let them. Just learn how to deal with them and it won’t bother you quite as much, I promise – either that or stock up on Oreos.