When Kathy Chyzy and her son Ryan opened Blu's BBQ and Burgers in downtown Oklahoma City six months ago, she wasn't prepared for the impact of a nasty customer comment on the restaurant review website Urbanspoon.
“I just didn't really realize that people went online and trashed people like that,” Chyzy said. “I wasn't prepared for that. I just thought if you treat people nice, everything will be OK. But some people are just out to be mean.”
A string of bad reviews left online by a handful of people Chyzy believes had a personal grudge against her and the restaurant were upsetting and didn't help business.
Chyzy admits she is not very Internet savvy. When she emailed the local humor website The Lost Ogle about one of the bad reviews, she inadvertently ended up as fodder for the blog.
These days, business has picked up and Blu's is earning more positive reviews online. The restaurant's business has tripled since the negative online attention died down, Chyzy said.
“They intended to kill our business, but we are putting out good food and good service,” she said.
However, Chyzy said she still is unsure how best to manage the restaurant's reputation on the Internet.
“I just tried to let it fizzle out and serve the best food I could,” Chyzy said.
Response is key
As more people turn to Facebook, Twitter and countless customer review websites to vent about negative experiences, how a company responds to online complaints can help make or break a business, local social media experts said.
A company can even gain new customers by responding with speed and sensitivity to complaints online, said Blake Jackson, vice president of digital for the Oklahoma City-based public relations and marketing firm Saxum.
The first step is to take all complaints seriously, he said.
The upscale Boston restaurant Pigalle learned that lesson the hard way in November when its saucy rebuttal to a customer complaint on Facebook went viral. After a patron complained that the restaurant's Thanksgiving pumpkin pie tasted like vomit, Pigalle's head chef Marc Orfaly responded in several expletive-drenched Facebook posts by suggesting the woman was overweight and shouldn't eat dessert anyway.
After gaining Internet infamy, Pigalle announced in March that it would close its doors and reopen under a new name.
“The key is treating the offended party with respect and care, no matter how big or small the issue. It should be clear to everyone in your online community that you are OK with being held accountable,” Jackson said. “Starting from a position of humility immediately ratchets down the tone of the complaint. It also demonstrates to digital onlookers that if they ever have an issue with your business, they can expect the same type of respect. That is the heart of good customer service.”
Oklahoma City mother Andrea Decker and her family learned about the power of social media in March, when they took to Twitter to complain about Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oklahoma's decision to deny their 18-year-old daughter Lorelei Decker a cancer therapy they believe could save her life.
Using the hashtag #ApproveLorelei, Oklahoma City residents sent hundreds of tweets venting their displeasure with Blue Cross Blue Shield.
The insurance company later reversed its decision and approved a stem cell transplant to treat the teen's Hodgkin lymphoma.
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oklahoma did not respond to a request for comment.
While social media makes it more difficult for a company to control its image online, Facebook and Twitter also give companies the opportunity to showcase positive interactions with customers, said Jay Spear, director of audience engagement for the Oklahoma Publishing Co., the parent company of The Oklahoman.
Whether a company develops a good rapport with customers online or a negative interaction spirals into a public relations nightmare all depends on how the business responds, Spear said.
“Social media doesn't change anything — all it does is to amplify how smart you are or how stupid you are,” he said.
Keep up with tweets
Like many other companies, OPUBCO monitors what customers are saying about it online, and tries to respond to customer complaints quickly — sometimes even before a customer goes directly to the company, Spear said.
“With social media, it's about being more proactive than reactive,” he said.
The worst thing a company can do is ignore online complaints, said Bill Handy, vice president for digital engagement for the Tulsa-based strategy firm Schnake Turnbo Frank | PR.
“I think the first thing businesses need to be doing is listening to those comments,” Handy said. “If someone had emailed or called or stood outside the business with a sign, then we would listen.”
Good with the bad
It also doesn't hurt for a business to encourage its customers to post their positive comments online if they have a good experience, he said.
“A lot of times, all these customers need is a conduit to do that,” Handy said.
If a company spots a trend of negative reviews from customers, it might be time to re-evaluate its business practices, Handy said.
While larger companies can spend lots of money on market research, social media can serve as an informal sounding board for a small-business owner, he said.
“One bad review is not the end of the world. But if you start to see them a lot, maybe there is an opportunity for change,” Handy said.
At a glance
Social media tips for businesses
• Have a crisis management plan for when customers vent online.
• Treat the customer with respect.
• Take all complaints seriously.
• Don't ignore or try to censor customer complaints online.
• Encourage customers who have a positive experience to share it online.