Training Takeaways from a Negative Online Review

Learning about negative customer experiences can be hard to hear and accept—but the lessons learned from those reviews can be an invaluable training tool.

Companies today have more to worry about than angry customers in stores demanding their money back, and phone banks flooded with outraged messages. Now, thanks to the power of online reviews, one negative experience can blow up and be sent to thousands, or even millions, of current and potential customers as quickly as it takes to click “post.”

But the good news is there are rich training opportunities in these negative reviews.

I found myself in the position of negative online reviewer a few weeks ago. I visited my favorite jeans store in New York City, and was disappointed. The store was empty except for two retail associates, and no one said, “Hello,” or came to greet me. So I wandered in on my own and found one of the retail associates with clipboard in hand doing what looked like an assessment of inventory on the shelves. She did not look up as I stood before her. “Excuse me,” I said.

“Yes?” she said, as though I was bothering her.

Since she was doing inventory, I thought it likely she was a manager, so this was an especially surprising unfriendly reception. She brusquely answered my question, handing me off to the other sales associate, who was much friendlier, though not a good communicator.

I noticed that the jeans she pulled from the shelf looked much different from the jeans I had worn out and wanted to replace. Though the same size, the jeans she showed me looked smaller and stiffer. The sales associate began explaining the relationship between the way a pair of jeans fit and the jean’s wash. I could have sworn she said the wash and the color of a pair of jeans were not the same thing, and that the wash of the jeans also could affect how the jeans fit. I came away confused. I took the jeans home, didn’t like the way they fit, so I returned to the store, getting who I think was the same sales associate explaining to me yet again the relationship between wash and fit—this time contradicting what she told me earlier. So the wash of the jeans does or does not affect fit? I finally settled on a pair that looked as similar as possible to the jeans I had worn out (which I brought with me to the store). Fortunately, this second attempt at a jeans purchase was successful. The unfriendly reception and poor communication skills were eye opening.

The first item on the training to-do list for this store is simple: “Mastering the Art of the Warm Welcome.” I put that in initial caps because I feel like it could be a training module or a session at a conference for retail associates. Does your company have a module like that for front-line employees? It seems like common sense if you’re working in a customer-facing job, but maybe it isn’t. Customer-facing employees apparently need to be trained to greet with a smile and friendly tone every customer who walks through the door. If there are so many customers that each cannot be greeted individually, then employees should be trained to circulate, asking if anyone needs help. The worst thing to do—the one takeaway if nothing else is learned—is to never make the customer who approaches you for help, because you didn’t approach them, feel like they’re bothering you. It’s hard to gauge your tone sometimes, so use role-play exercises that are recorded as videos, which learners can review to see how they come across (rather than how they think they come across).

Now, what to do about the sales associate who may understand the fit and sizing of the product, but is unable to effectively communicate that knowledge? Testing employees’ product knowledge is a good start. You want to make sure they first thoroughly understand your products. Then comes the trickier training step: learning how to communicate and use that knowledge to provide superior service. Role-play exercises work in this case, too. The exercises, though, should be done using people from your company, or outside volunteers, who know little to nothing about the products the employee is practicing explaining and selling. Only when employees have to explain and sell the product do you see how effective the training really was. Can they apply the knowledge they mastered to do what you ultimately most need them to do—sell your product while creating a positive experience for the customer?

I found many resources online providing guidance in responding to online reviews, but I didn’t find any resources to guide trainers in using negative reviews as fodder for training. The negative experiences of your customers can be hard to hear and accept—but the power of the lessons those experiences create is an invaluable training tool.

Do your trainers use negative online reviews about your company to address employee weaknesses and to set goals for providing customers with an experience that will exceed their expectations?