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Can a Business Ever Get Away with Criticising Its Customers?

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A small storm blew up yesterday that has set off a round of sniping and reflection in my local area. One of the local businesses is undergoing a refurbishment and a small group of customers, who have been loyal patrons for over twenty years, aren’t happy with some of the changes that have been made. They made their dissatisfaction known, both formally and informally, but the changes have gone ahead anyway. So far, so typical.

What was unexpected was what happened next. The proprietor of the business has a personal blog and wrote a post where he described the refurbishment, but also called out the dissenting customers by name, criticising both their response to the changes and their attitude overall. All in all, the feeling an impartial reader would come away with is that the proprietor would be happier if the customers never darkened the door of his establishment again.

Full disclosure: I know everyone involved in this little contretemps and am a regular customer of the business in question. I knew that there was some unhappiness about the changes that were being made, but also recognised that they were necessary if the business was going to continue to be profitable. People take time to get used to change, but the proprietor had done the right thing, consulting with customers beforehand and even calling a meeting to explain what was going to happen. Given that level of openness, it struck me as a little odd that the proprietor would then turn around and do the electronic equivalent of talking behind someone’s back.

The first any of the unhappy customers knew about the blog post was yesterday, hearing about it from other regular customers who had read it. Not knowing what had been said about them, the customers were naturally worried, and curious too. Having checked out the blog post for myself, it’s obviously less than complementary, though perhaps it doesn’t quite warrant the cries of “Slander!” and “Defamation!” that were being thrown around last night. While it might be a storm in a teacup in the greater scheme of things, it could drive away a group of customers who have not only been incredibly loyal to the business, but also some of the biggest spenders there, using it almost daily. And if they leave, what if they take other customers with them?

In any business, especially in the service sector, there will be times when an owner or manager could happily throttle the people who are spending money with them. Customers can be obnoxious, they can have unrealistic demands, they can simply be downright unpleasant. But is it ever alright to publically criticise them? More to the point, is it ever a good idea? While it’s unrealistic to expect people running businesses to be automatons devoid of emotion, seeing them lash out at those they depend on for their income is disconcerting. It seems a little unprofessional, even petty. In some cases it can also lead to an enormous backlash, as a swathe of customers decide that they shall spend their money elsewhere if they are so unappreciated.

As I said, I know everyone involved in this affair, and I reckon that after some huffing and puffing on both sides, things will get back to normal. Or at least a semblance of normality. The changes that have been made may eventually be accepted, but certain customers now know that while they are not necessarily unwelcome in the business, they are not valued. And that is something no amount of refurbishment can ever alter.

[Image by RW PhotoBug]

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