The Wrath of the One Star Review


I had just walked in to the office and logged on to Yelp to check for any new reviews. At the top of one of our cafes was a three star review, not the greatest but not the worst. It got worse. The reviewer had some legitimate gripes about service points, decor, and order process…good things to always improve…But she aggressively peppered in all manner of rude personal attacks against our staff, and our customers. It was a very mean review that, because of some lewd language I had removed. Simultaneously, I was reaching out to get clarity from the reviewer and only received another long insulting tirade in reply. I figured it was over and I would move on to a solution for what I saw could be possible areas of improvement. The next day however she had put up another review up that was almost a mirror image of the last one only without the lewd language and this time it was a ONE star review as punishment for her post getting removed!

She eloquently ended it;

“Feel the wrath of my one star review!”

Ok, if ever there was a review that makes you want to laugh and disregard it this was it. Especially since we responded quite graciously with her over email in a sincere attempt to right any wrongs. Yes it made me upset, but in spite of this I still saw this reviewer’s negative feedback as an opportunity that we could use for the good of our cafe and our customers. It was a big topic of conversation in our Monday manager meeting and we have started to make improvements in the areas that were the legitimate sources of irritation.

The “wrath” aimed at us was diffused and we are a better shop because of that review.

In the midst of the unfair, the bombastic, the mean, or the ignorant there are nuggets of truth that one can use to address issues that you just don’t get to hear everyday.

Customers may notice negative things but generally they won’t say anything to you directly or even on a public forum, which is exactly why I pay special attention to critical feedback.

If the customer took the time to communicate in any way, either a good or bad experience, they are probably really feeling it and it’s more than likely that they represent many others who just never said anything.

Using Negative Critique for Positive Change

When it comes to reviews and critique many seem to have defaulted to a mentality of “The customer is always wrong” perhaps to push back against the equally misinformed notion that “The customer is always right”. I was actually told by Yelp to not worry about the 3 star review because we had so many good reviews and that is true. We encourage our staff to read the Yelp reviews to get an idea for what our customers love about the shops. So why worry about a low scoring review? Because they are the customer. They may not be always right or wrong but the customer and their experience should always be valued.

We must start from a place of accepting that we can make mistakes. Any organization of people will fail. The best among us can, and do, fail. When that happens there is a small window of opportunity that the wise take advantage of to take the feedback, embrace it, and use it as momentum instead of taking offense.

Over the 16 years of my coffee career I have given and received a lot of feedback. Through trial and error I have adopted 5 steps that I put into play with both positive and negative feedback.

1. Decide Your Response Ahead of yourself

Noted author and entrepreneur, Seth Godin talks a lot about “Lizard Brain” or the amygdala. It is responsible for our fight or flight response in the face of a perceived threat. This part of our brain he says, fires evaluations of the circumstances to us a whole 2 seconds faster than our more rational and measured Limbic system does. This has huge implications for customer service. Since the Amygdala wins the speed point, what happens when we receive critique and feedback we often operate on a “First thought first react” basis. Our initial response will either be defensive (fight) or dismissive (flight) and we tend to just go along with it rather than waiting and letting our better judgment catch up and balance the more hasty and rash reactions.

The only way to get a jump on our initial response is to decide ahead of time that we will respond only after considering the bigger picture and giving equal weight to the logical and rational parts of our brain. The next steps will give a framework to do that effectively.

2. Receive with humility / Self-awareness

The best way to receive feedback is first to know that you need it. Humility is honest self-assessment, it’s a state of being self aware. Dismissing feedback and negative reviews while only accepting positive ones is a sure sign of self delusion and leads to many more future issues. Feedback received with grace and self-knowledge is often eagerly welcomed as opportunity! If you are practiced in the art of self awareness almost nobody can tell you something about yourself or your business that you have not already thought of yourself. In the absence of self awareness we act shocked, defensive, hurt. “How could they say that?” “I don’t know what they are talking about!”, and my favorite delusion “They don’t get what we’re doing.”

Familiar things we tell ourselves when we are caught by critique unprepared.Practice self-awareness and humility well and you can be totally secure letting the feedback settle into you mind for thoughtful consideration.

Now the next step…

3. Refine and Reflect

People are imperfect. Feedback is communication. People communicate feedback imperfectly. This means is that rather that trying to find fault with critique or complaints, we should just assume that this is raw and in need of refinement. Take “The Wrath of the One Star Review” for example. I assumed from the outset that the reviewer was injecting her own imperfection into it and my job is to take out what is useful and throw away the rest. After refining the feedback to its essence I was able to reflect on the points made and how we can find real solutions for them.

4. Fill in the blanks

It’s never good to act without full knowledge of the situation. If certain people were involved in a complaint I may ask about it directly or ask that persons manager. I will get time of day, names, items ordered etc.I want to get as many facts as I can to make a cohesive whole out of what is effectively only part of the story. It’s only fair to the staff and the customer that all sides are represented well.

5. Respond and Resolve with generosity

You’ve received the feedback humbly, refined it to it’s core message, and got as many facts as were able. Now for grace and generosity.

Danny Myer in his classic book Setting the Table has a list of attributes that he looks for in amanager. Two of the 9 attributes that are key here are, charitable assumption and a sense of abundance. Responding to customers complaints and communicating solutions or affirmations to staff necessarily must be rooted in these two attributes.

Setting the Table Danny Meyer

Assume the best about the customer and your staff. It’s most likely that your customer only wants to enjoy themselves and help with feedback. Your staff want to do well and serve the needs of the customer. Assuming anything less will automatically put you on the path of blame and defensiveness where you are blind to opportunities to improve and only want to prove your rightness and reprove others wrongs. Give your customer and your staff your charitablea ssumption.

Next, Give generously to the staff and the customer. To your staff give your time, your energy, your ear, and tools to fix anything that needs fixing. To the customer give the same and more if needed. Beyond refunds, gift cards, and other gracious forms of reparations you must start with empathy, time, good communication, assurance of solutions and your own sincerity along the process.

In our case, and in all cases of critical feedback, we communicate the 5 steps throughout our response to the customer so they understand our position as a company is one of working in their best interest. If you take these 5 steps and make them a part of your personal practice and company culture you will start to see new opportunities for growth almost immediately. Critique and feedback can be the best things to happen to you and your business if you can harness their power for positive change.

About Chris Deferio

Chris Deferio is shop operations manager at Sunergos Coffee, a coffee roaster with three cafés in Louisville, Kentucky. A 16-year veteran of the specialty coffee industry, Deferio is a former USBC competitor, latte art champion, and the creator of America’s Best Coffeehouse. He writes about coffee and hospitality at Defurious.

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