By Charlie Hopper, guest blogger

One of the highlights of the days I spent roaming (prowling?) NRA Show last May in Chicago was the “He Said/She Said” town-hall-style education session in which Nancy Kruse, trend expert and president of The Kruse Company, sat on a mostly bare stage in a chair tilted about 45° to a chair in which there sat Bret Thorn, Senior Food Editor at Nation’s Restaurant News.
They introduced themselves and mentioned this was a sort of the live version of a column they write with the same contentious-sounding title for Nation’s Restaurant News. Then Nancy threw out a topic and invited the restaurateurs in the room to join in discussion by talking into the mics scattered around.
“Social reviews. How many unfair social reviews do you feel you’re getting, and what do you do about them?”
In this situation, of course, there’s always a couple of awkward moments before someone decides to step up and be first. But this was a topic they all had thoughts on and experiences with, so it didn’t take very long before a woman got up and spoke. “I’m an independent operator, and get lots of Open Table and Yelp reviews. We hold a weekly ‘Hits and Misses’ meeting and share what we’re seeing on several social media sites, and discuss what we should do, whether to react. It takes… ‘armor’… to read these things objectively…”
There were knowing chuckles from every corner of the room. I was sitting in the center of a giant knowing chuckle.
Nancy asked the woman, “Do you find that the anonymity of these reviews allows people to be uncivil? Does it go beyond free expression?”
The room was murmuring a yes before she was done asking the question.
Bret spoke up. “It’s the fact of the matter but it’s not okay. We have free speech, but—” He made a frustrated shrugging motion. “If you have a loyal customer base, though, they will step up and defend you.”
There was quiet agreement from people sitting a couple rows up and to my right.
“It’s an open question how restaurateurs should respond,” Bret said, in a tone that admitted that there probably was no definitive answer to Nancy’s question.
The independent operator said, “I reach out to those who leave contact information. I’ve invited them in to try our hospitality again. So now, y’know, it’s another layer of administration but… it’s worthwhile.”
Everyone thought that sounded like a good idea.
Bret agreed, too, then came up with another positive aspect. “It [bad social reviews] can help identify issues—if everyone says the scallops are overcooked, maybe the scallops are overcooked…” He shrugged again, but this time in a ‘what can we tell you, they’re overcooked’ sort of helpless-but-funny way.
Everyone laughed a slightly knowing and self-conscious laugh.
Nancy summed it up. “Look, if you’re not taking advantage of Yelp you’re missing the biggest chance to talk about your restaurant. Now, how about operators who digitally shame patrons. For example, is it okay to respond digitally to people who are late for reservations, or no-shows?”
The crowd pretty uniformly made a “no” sound. A woman sitting near me called out, “You’re in the wrong business [if you shame them publicly]. You’re in hospitality…”
Another lady had the microphone by then. “We blacklist them, but not publicly. We just call and let them know. Although on the first No-Show, we cut them slack.”
Nancy said, encouragingly, “Their baby sitter bailed, they had car trouble…”
“Yeah. Unless they’re arrogant,” the microphone-holder said, and drew another knowing chuckle.
The situation of negative reviews on social media has stung so many restaurateurs that it’s like being in a big group of survivors, people who have seen the worst of humans and lived, and are a little cynical, and a little bitter. It doesn’t take much to make these veterans chuckle darkly about their shared misery, as if you’ve gathered a bunch of schoolteachers and said, “How about those kindergarteners when they eat too much sugar on the day before Christmas break?”
Not much more needs to be said to induce a half-grin and empathetic sense of shared suffering. These restaurant people are all on the front lines, contending with a misbehaving public who have discovered that Yelp and other media are simply a new way to demoralize the staff, create stress and mess with future customers’ intentions to come spend money.
And yet, restraint is a probably the best first impulse.
“Calling someone out in public is counter-productive,” said Bret. “Even calling out a member of your staff. This is a hospitality business, and again, on social media—if you have a loyal customer base, they will defend you.”
Rely on the loyal customer base to do the dirty work. Reach out behind the scenes to those who leave contact information. Chuckle darkly but privately when you blacklist an arrogant no-show.
And this was only Nancy and Bret’s first discussion topic.
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With so much riding on your online reputation, it’s important to understand the ins-and-outs of online reviews—the new word of mouth. Our online review user guide is designed to help you optimize your presence on review sites. We provide tips on everything from how to harness the marketing power of review sites to how to deal with dreaded negative reviews. We’ve gone to the review sites themselves, as well as to restaurants leveraging this new medium, for answers to some of your most pressing questions. Download it here.