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Sorry shouldn’t be the hardest word

Written by Nicola Barron on Tuesday, 09 October 2012. Posted in Start-up Diaries

Customers don’t expect businesses to be infallible. But when mistakes are made, an apology may be all that’s needed to avert disaster

Sorry shouldn’t be the hardest word

A few weeks ago I was sitting in a restaurant with my three sisters – we can be loud and intimidating and we’d not been together in over a year so we were more raucous than usual. Our waitress seemed incredibly nervous, wobbling her way over to us with a tray of drinks, only to spill the entire contents across our table, showering us in a cocktail of Latte and Pinot Grigio. She looked mortified and swiftly disappeared as her colleagues rushed to clear up the mess. We assumed that she’d run off to the loos for a good cry, but a few minutes later she returned with a new tray of drinks and apologised, adding that it was her first day in the job and it couldn’t have gone worse. Spontaneously, we let out a collective “ahh”, immediately empathising and although we hadn’t had impeccable service we left her a confidence-boosting tip at the end of the meal.

At the risk of sounding like Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City, it got me thinking how customers don’t necessarily expect you to be perfect, it’s how you respond to your fallibility that’s important.

Whenever I get together with fellow business owners, it’s the stories of disgruntled customers we swap. It’s often these people who keep us awake at night, wondering whether we’ve got it wrong, whether it’s the start of a backlash against our livelihoods. The rational part of our brain can understand that we’re unlikely to please all the people all the time, but with a new business, it’s hard not to take it personally when people offer up criticism. When I first started Homemade London,

I received an email from someone who complained that she ate too much cheese at one of our workshops, which was particularly annoying because it was complimentary wine and cheese we were offering. However ridiculous it sounds, this dominated my thoughts for weeks and got in the way of making productive business decisions, particularly because my team had to listen to me rant about it for at least 15 minutes a day .

Despite resenting this email at the time, it is always interesting to get people’s takes on your business and their experience. Two years on, I realise that if a customer sends me a plaintive email (luckily a rare occurrence), part of me feels I should thank them. Not only is it a perfect opportunity to address any issues you may not have previously been aware of, hopefully it means that they’ve not taken their criticism online.

In my last column, I wrote about how brilliant social media is for growing your business and interacting with existing and potential customers. The flipside is that it’s also very easy for people to criticise you, whether justified or not.

It’s something we’re all too aware of at Homemade London where, on Trip Advisor, we’re currently ranked 35 out of 423 Shopping Experiences in London, sandwiched between Oxford Street and the Whitechapel Gallery. And while I should be ecstatic, I frankly have trouble visiting the site to check out a hotel at the moment because I know that nestled among the 5-star reviews lies a toxic ‘single star’ comment on my business.

When I came across our first negative online review, irrationally, it felt as though we were the subject of a tabloid hatchet job rather than having a bad review on a travel website. It consumed my thoughts for weeks and any niggling worries I previously had about the business and our service were suddenly magnified. It also made me feel angry and incredibly protective towards my staff disparaged by those harsh words. My inner- self wanted to react with a cattiness equivalent to this vitriolic review, but thankfully the more rational side of my brain reasoned that it’s never wise to lock horns publicly. I responded swiftly and succinctly, answering key points (which I later learnt is TripAdvisor’s recommended course of action – keep it friendly and don’t have a go or sound too defensive. Most importantly, don’t say anything that will encourage them to retaliate.)

Part of building your business’s profile is learning to cope with feeling personally exposed: public criticism of your business does feel personal. In his ‘Song for Phil Daoust’, Tim Minchin channels this rage towards a Guardian journalist who’d given him a negative review, urging him to “eat his own face meat”. And while I don’t feel quite that strongly, I know where he’s coming from.

A couple of weeks ago, a prospective customer came to check us out. She happened to mention that she’d seen our reviews on TripAdvisor. My heart and my face immediately sank. “Oh, so you’ve seen the negative review then?” I ventured. “Yes, but there was only one of them and I thought the way you responded was really good”.

Which brings me back to my original point: customers don’t expect you to be perfect; it’s how you handle your fallibility that’s the important thing.

About the Author

Nicola Barron

Nicola Barron

Barron wears many different hats: she runs her craft workshop business Homemade London, is mother to two small children and step-mum to another, and still finds time to write Elite a column each month. The start-up diaries detail the various ups and downs of starting a business. They are plentiful.

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