Monday, March 28, 2011


As “The End” (of the Café) draws near, I have to admit, it’s getting easier to deal with. The Universe seems to be guiding me, dropping blessings, small and large, when my resolve falters. I don’t think I’m meant to slink away from the place and go hide under a rock, as I first thought. In the past few weeks, the victories and failures of the venture have been highlighted for me in such a way that I’ve been able to digest the information, identify some lessons learned, and begin to plot a path beyond the experience. I’m not feeling nearly as wounded and defeated as I did when I decided to walk away from what I thought was the fulfillment of my fondest dream. And for that, I am grateful.

Oddly enough, the internet—this forum with which I have conducted an intense love/hate relationship since the early days of AOL—had a hand in despoiling the thing for which I had yearned for so many years. The freedom and anonymity of the internet have presented 21st-century business owners with an entirely new challenge. What could, in a society that maintained any understanding or respect for the concepts of courtesy or fairness, be a valuable tool for service businesses, has turned into a vile cesspool of “you don’t want to go there if you value your sanity.”

The presence of an anonymous forum for public criticism has completely poisoned the customer service dynamic. Disgruntled patrons no longer need to express their dissatisfaction in person to a server or to management. They don’t write letters of concern to business owners. They instead have embraced the internet with a vengeance, and use it to trash any business that has not met their every expectation. The goal here is not to resolve a problem…not to give a business an opportunity to make amends to an offended client. It’s all about revenge; all about punishing a business that is perceived to have fallen short. Today’s businesses must learn to Be Very Afraid of the guest who has had a bad day and walks through the front door itching for a fight.

Bad internet reviews are routinely snarky, rude and laden with just plain meanness. And often personal. After stumbling upon a couple of reviews that attacked me personally, I was beyond ready to lock the doors and swallow the key. I was mortified by that level of very public humiliation, against which I had no opportunity to defend myself.

It translated to double failure for me: Apparently, I did not possess the skills (personality?) needed for success in customer service; AND I was not tough enough to deal with negative feedback. This was a major factor in my decision not to sign up for another five years of fun and games.

It bothered me most, I think, that I was not tough enough. I thought that I was probably over-reacting to something that was not as big a deal as my stressed-out, chronically exhausted psyche was making it out to be. I had, after all, not heard other business owners complain about how the Bad Internet Review situation was causing them to lose sleep.

Recently, though, it has come to my attention that it IS a problem, for all businesses, large and small. In fact, I discovered there is a service called “” that (for a fee, of course) assists businesses in removing poisonous reviews from the internet.

I picked up a thread in an “Ask Amy” column in last Friday’s Oregonian that actually made me feel better. Justified. Relieved that the issue is not all in my head. Apparently, an earlier letter to Amy had dealt with an instance where a company had terminated an employee based on a negative “Tweet” posted by a disgruntled customer. The letter I read was written by a customer service manager of another company in response to that situation ; and it expresses all the horror and frustration I have been feeling. (And made me understand that perhaps I don’t have it as bad as I thought….) You can find the entire letter here: Ask Amy March 25, 2011. But here are a few of my favorite highlights:

I am a customer service manager, and I have noticed in recent years that angry customers have become increasingly more confrontational, militant and aggressive…
Bad customer service certainly exists and shouldn't be tolerated, but more and more I am seeing customers who come in looking for a fight, wanting to post that scathing review, wanting retribution for an unknown or yet-to-occur transgression…
My co-workers and I have had angry customers take our pictures with their camera phones, threatening to have us fired, and some people will post those photos with hateful commentary — and even our names — on their Facebook and Twitter pages.

Thank god no one has pulled the picture-posting thing on us. Yet.

But it’s probably just a matter of time.

However, I now understand that this situation, this development, this new obstacle in the service business landscape is not necessarily proof that I suck at what I do. It’s not going to chase me away, convinced I’ve failed at something I believed was my fondest dream. It’s simply a part of doing business that, being the mid-century relic I am, I had not foreseen when I finally got the chance to live my dream.

And, here’s the thing: This is a battleground of 21st century culture upon which I choose not to engage. It is not a positive or life-affirming place for me (or anyone, for that matter), and I need to walk away from it, shaking the dust from my hands and feet as I go.

And I won’t feel the least bit ashamed or defeated in the doing.


  1. It seems to be endemic. I may read the Oregonian on line, but I seldom comment. Just as on AOL, there's a small tribe of trolls that hog the comment sections. Leonard Pitts is a great example. No matter what he writes about, there's a small group that accuses him of being a racist.

    I don't know what the cure is. There's always been an angry subculture in this country. Too bad there isn't an electronic equivalent of a frying pan upside the head. I know violence begets violence, but there are times....;-)

  2. Me again. I think I may have read one of those "negative" reviews. The poster's sense of entitlement was, I think off the scale fits pretty well. Actually my reaction was "what a spoiled brat!"