Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Why an "Epic Response" to a Bad Yelp Review is an Epically Bad Idea

I can hold my tongue no longer.

If you hang out in the "foodie" or restaurant industry corners of the interwebs you probably have seen the latest viral story surrounding the "epic takedown" of a yelp reviewer by the restaurant that was the target of that diner's one-star review. The original Yelp review, and consequently the restaurant's now famous response, has been deleted (presumably by the reviewer) but both have been preserved by several media outlets including Eater. I have also provided screenshots below (click to enlarge):

The original one-star review (left) and the response that launched a thousand clicks (at right).

Full disclosure. I live in the Kansas City metro, and have reviewed once and happily dined more than a few times at the restaurant in question, Voltaire. To the best of my knowledge I do not know the Yelp reviewer in question, Sonal B. But Kansas City is small. It's likely there's a 2nd or 3rd degree connection.

Yelp is a force to be reckoned with and has certainly changed the restaurant landscape for both diners and restauranteurs. I know restaurant owners that slavishly (and nervously) check Yelp throughout the day and night, butterflies in their stomach, looking for that damning one or two-star review. I know several that claim not to care about Yelp or other on-line reviews. They are liars. Negative reviews, whether warranted or not, can have a profound effect on any diner thinking about eating at a place for the first time. I like to think that I'm above letting that happen but if I'm honest I'll admit that one-star reviews can linger in my decision making space longer than glowing five-star posts. And of course some bad reviews should not be ignored. A restaurant that consistently receives low marks probably has a problem. Voltaire, the subject of all the media attention, gets consistently high marks (average Yelp rating - Four Stars) so the one-star review is a curious outlier. Or should be. That's where Voltaire's response, despite all the positive social media attention, goes astray.

It's worth noting here that Yelp allows restaurants (and any reviewed business for that matter) to respond publicly and privately to all posted reviews. Private replies are between the restaurant and diner. Public replies are there for the world to see. IMHO any time you find yourself escalating a conflict with your customer you have already lost. This is especially true with petty grievances that turn unnecessarily into public pissing contests to see who is more clever. While a snarky (Eater called it sassy) response to a bad review may gain you accolades during your Wharholian 15 minutes of fame, weeks and months from now readers of that response may wonder what they'd be signing up for by dining at an establishment that isn't above putting their customers down.

The largely positive media attention accompanying this story complicates the issue but doesn't change its fundamentals. In cases like this, especially when the restaurant receives a collective 'Hooray! It's about time!' from across the web, I'm sure a clever (biting?) response can feel somewhat cathartic. But there are better, more productive ways to achieve catharsis when a restaurant feels put upon by its customers. I'm no restauranteur but I've spent a career in enough business leadership positions to offer a healthy alternative to publicly shaming an irate customer.

Make a habit of reading your reviews out loud to your entire team - FOH and BOH. Quick applause and attaboy's for the good ones. Linger on the negative ones, even the absurd and unfounded ones. Maybe have a good group laugh at the outrageous accusations and expectations. But then, and always, ask the question, "What could we have done better?" It's there and you know it. That little kernel of truth buried in the bluster and tirade of an angry customer's review. That's where success lies. Make yourself better every chance you have. Let success be your revenge.

Voltaire is a very good Kansas City restaurant run by honest, talented people. Truth is, they already wrote the perfect response to the bad review in question. It's in there, muddied by the stuff that should have been left out...

IMHO, the perfect response to the review on the left is already in Voltaire's reply.
It just needed a little cleaning up.
Maybe it wouldn't have become a cause célèbre but that's OK, restaurants should be trying to achieve great dining experiences, not page views and 'likes'.


  1. I agree, Kevin. The restaurant should have just left it alone. Everyone gets a bad review once in awhile - even the best restaurants.

  2. I worked for this woman and her lawyer husband. She treated me, and everyone in the service industry, like garbage. She deserves everything she got.

    1. That may indeed be the case. The point of my post though was whether or not it's appropriate (or a good business move) for a restaurant to call out a customer in this fashion. Regardless of her crimes I don't think it's a good idea.

    2. They reaped five-star reviews and impressed customers with their response. You may not think it's a good idea, but the evidence suggests otherwise.