An angry customer, ‘Sonal B.’ leaves a negative comment about a restaurant on Yelp. The offended manager replies publicly, and it all goes heatedly viral online. It’s Sunday and with my Mediator’s hat on and as a student learner of the online course on negotiation skills (Coursera Successful Negotiation Skills by University of Michigan), I thought I could dig the story a bit more.First, looking at the Yelp website, under Voltaire restaurant in KC, I don’t seem to find the review. I searched for ‘Sonal B‘ KC, they are few, all blank profiles with no review!!Intrigued, I see the restaurant is at 1617 Genessee Street in KC, I searched for law firms nearby and they are few at the 1600, from employment law to dispute resolution ! I supposed Voltaire to be a French restaurant, in which case, I could easily imagine how they would be playing arrogance, if you know what I mean. Customer service and French don’t really rhyme. Let’s play Sonal B’s advocate. First cultural clarification needed: Is this usual in the states that a restaurant would refuse to let customers take out their meal? I understand the manager’s argument that the meal would not look nice out of the plate, however, is this not a client’s decision? Nothing really goes against a risotto in box, does it?! Why on earth the waiter would not want to tell them which kind of stock they used for the risotto? Is this not a legitimate request? So, the customer could have few grants of complaint. I can accept that they were a bit lazy not just walking away to find another restaurant. After all, why should the restaurant serve them if they don’t want to. Do they have an obligation to serve every customer? So, anyway, there is always two sides in each conflict. I bet the restaurant people could have been arrogant, they must not have liked the customer’s arrogance, and no, no one likes you telling you have rights because you are a lawyer. However, not many online comments have taken the side of the customer.I wonder why the review is not on Yelp’s website anymore.By the way, I am amazed on the way restaurants in the US can be ‘diverse’, the name is French, but they serve, Italian, Vietnamese, even Persian kebab,…. !Digging up further, this time with my eCommerce and libel law expert hat. I noticed that the comment was made on the 1st of October responded in short time and gone viral since for being picked up by two sites Eater and Uproxx. It seems like the posts have been taken down despite Yelp saying they wouldn’t (‘Your trust is our top concern, so businesses can’t pay to alter or remove their reviews.‘). You can still find reference to it on the Yelp Shout-Outs discussion page. So, from a marketing standpoint, the question is, should or should not a restaurant respond to negative reviews? If it does so, should it be in private or public? Think of the advertisement this case has created for the restaurant.This article mentions another review left by this same Sonal B. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to find it. Might be that….she has left Yelp? From a quick look at the comments on Uproxx Facebook page, it appears that Sonal B has eventually closed her account, hope no one will guess the name of her lawyer husband.Thanks to an online connection in KC, I have been passed additional facts from the local press. I am told that the review was taken down by the writer who had deactivated her accounts. ‘She got slammed by the social media world for being an ass.’ I was told. This case is a great demonstration of why it worth monitoring your brand online. Just what big companies such as Nestle did not and paid the price (I am referring to the Palm oil attack against Nestlé by Greenpeace). I have to say that I often disagree with online marketers for only looking at the number of followers, the many clicks and not enough at the actual interest of readers for the subject. I can only say my message was broadcasted when I publish online. What tells me the actual impact of my message is if I had readers who ‘liked’ or ‘commented’ my piece. This is why I feel frustrated when my stats numbers tells me how many visitors I had on my blog if no one clicked ‘like’ or posted a ‘comment’. By the way, please do comment or disagree with me if it’s the case, I’d love you to share your views. Coming back to this case, a simple response has not only stopped a customer from tarnishing a restaurant’s reputation (because it could happen that more people would have taken the other party’s side as I mentioned initially, there is always to sides on each story) even more, it has made the restaurant famous around the world and all that for the cost of……0 $. So, as a result, many potential clients are now curious to know where this Voltaire is and would want to travel to KC just to try it. Eventually, with a little deeper digging, I was able to find the author of the comment. She wrote in another site : “Hi! My name is Sonal Keenan Bhatia. My husband E.E. and I own a law firm which largely represents labor unions and plaintiffs. We are interested in legal technology solution-building and have some ideas we’d like to create with the right partner...” And this is where I take my Privacy hat to point out how what is supposedly ‘anonymous’ and parse is curated by Google for all the pieces of the puzzle to be assembled to reveal the full picture. Finding the real identity of the author of the comment was a simple matter of a quick Google search. On this aspect, I can only refer you to the expert knowledge of Daniel Solove and invite you to watch his videos on YouTube to see examples of how a reputation and a persona can be destroyed online. See also Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, author of ‘Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age‘ who has also great Youtube videos to watch if you don’t want to read his book. This last point is connected to the current debate on the right to be forgotten, the ECJ decision ordering Google to delete link to website of defamation. One tricky balance to find between privacy, the right to be forgotten and the newsworthy right to be remembered as recently proclaimed by the BBC. A latent tension between privacy and freedom of speech. A very interesting Sunday, with this rapid analysis I wanted to share.I so love what I do.
Update December 2016 : You can no longer be sued for leaving negative reviews online.
Thanks to Mark Lemley fro painting us to this other battle case between a Harvard Business professor and a Chinese restaurant.
This is very interesting. Thanks for Fabrice Epelboin for sharing the link. I recently wrote a piece on LinkedIn Pulse concerning the positive reaction of a manager in Atlanta to turn a customers negative online review to the advantage of his restaurant. Here is what Huawei missed. A French TV reporter tried to interview him about the use of young children in a Chinese factory where they make Huawei’s Smartphone screens. Not only he refused to respond and ignored the notorious journalist, he then went claiming he’ll ask all his business network CEOs to refuse to give her any interview. Oh dear Sir, you had it all wrong and will have to face the anger of social media. His Twitter excuse won’t do much I am afraid.
‘Le Tronc d’Arbre’, Photo by Tara Taubman-Bassirian – Licence CC