Customer agreements can prevent negative online reviews

Heidenreich - credit

Heidenreich - negative online reviewsAs the retail experience continues to evolve, so do customer expectations. And when those expectations aren’t met with instant satisfaction, more customers now take out their frustrations in negative online reviews.

When a customer makes a purchase in person at The Deck Store or from our website, they have agreed to certain conditions that are presented online or on the back of our store receipt. These conditions are in place to protect my business from partial product returns or late or damaged returns, and so on. Truth be told, I suspect that a lot of customers don’t read that agreement on the website or the receipts, even when we point it out to them.

Case in point: A customer came into my store and purchased railing accessories for a deck he was building. The customer used part of the accessories, which were packaged by the 100 count. They then returned to my store 34 days later to return half the box. When I told the customer that we won’t accept partial returns on a product that isn’t offered for individual sale, he became irate in my store and caused a scene on a busy Saturday morning, potentially influencing others’ buying decisions.

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When I finally calmed the customer down (after threatening to call the police), I told him that we needed to part ways. I would not accept his return for two reasons: 1) it is a partial product return, and 2) it is beyond the 30-day limit to return the product. Would I have bent the rules a bit and stretched my own policy if he had approached the return differently? Probably. But after he acted the way he did, I had decided I had already lost any future business from him, so I was no longer interested in keeping him as a happy customer.

If you’re familiar with online review sites like Yelp, Google reviews, social media reviews, etc., you can imagine what came next—the customer went to the web and filed a number of negative online reviews.

My phone soon buzzed with the first notification that someone had left a review under our business listing on Yelp. I checked it out and sure enough, it was from the customer who raised such a stink I had to threaten to call the police. So, I responded to the review and calmly pointed out that this customer had caused a scene in my store and the only way I could get him to calm down was by threatening that he be charged with trespassing. I replied that if he would like, I could upload footage from our store security cameras to show exactly how disrespectful and rude the customer was acting.

Not long after that, the customer called and threatened to sue me if I uploaded the video because he perceived that as a violation of his constitutional right of free speech. I don’t believe this to be true, but I realized that by saying that, he was actually opening himself up to negotiation. I realized that the value of his product return was no longer the issue. The bigger issue was that he had now left me a scathing online review.

So, I invited the customer in for a talk. When he arrived in the store, I presented him with a contract. The contract stated that I would accept his return of a partial product beyond the return date in exchange for him removing the negative online reviews and agreeing to never leave another review (positive or negative) about my company. It also asked that he not disclose to anyone else our dispute and agreement, in effort to prevent a friend or family member from leaving a similar review.

The customer tossed the idea around for a bit and ultimately decided that he would sign the contract and he removed the reviews as soon as he returned home.

I know that there are other ways this situation could have been handled that didn’t feel as if a customer had blackmailed me with negative online reviews, but I know both the value of the product return and the damage a bad review can cause, and I believe I made the correct choice.

To validate my decision, I ran the situation past my lawyer, who agreed that a signed contract between two parties proved a more affordable means of resolving the dispute than if the situation accelerated and either myself or the customer brought small claims court into the issue.

The customer experience I described is certainly not the norm, and I hope you never have to use such a contract when faced with a negative online review. However, until there is a way for business owners to dispute reviews on the review sites or some measures in place to reduce the anonymity of online reviewers, I can say that this particular situation worked out in my best interest.

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