communications, social media, writing sample

How to Respond to Bad Online Reviews

Last weekend, I was visiting Portland, Oregon, home to several indie ice cream shops. As I drove up to one, I saw a line snaking around the corner. I like ice cream as much as the next person (actually, probably a bit more), but at 9 p.m. on a rainy night, I’d found the line I wouldn’t cross–figuratively or literally. I pulled up Google Maps on my phone, dropped a pin, and searched “ice cream.”

My search returned nearly a dozen options, each result showing details like star ratings, reviews, busy times, and links to articles that mentioned the business. I looked up the ratings for one of the shops and noticed a complaint with a one-star review. But beneath that I spotted the owner’s response, followed by an update by the customer, who said the owner made things right–and updated their review to five stars. I drove straight over and grabbed an ice cream with plenty of time before the shop closed.

Bright Local’s 2017 Local Consumer Review Survey found that consumers are increasingly weighting online reviews as roughly on par with personal recommendations. Nearly a third check to see how businesses respond to reviews before deciding where to spend their cash. So while handling online reviews is just one piece of providing good customer service, every small business, startup, and independent consultant needs to get it right. Here are a few tips.

When to Respond and What to Say

Polite responses from business owners go a long way to counteracting negative reviews, but Cara Lageson, Yelp Seattle’s Community Director, cautions, “Don’t go through the review point by point.” All you need to do is “let them know you heard them and offer to make it right. Other people will see you as reasonable and are more inclined to give you a second chance.”

If there’s such a thing as a venerable dive bar, Seattle’s 5 Point Cafe is it. A sign at the door says, “Cheating tourists and drunks since 1929.” Owner David Meinert responds to Yelp reviews with the same tongue-in-cheek approach. “I look for general trends and specific comments,” Meinert said. “If someone says, ‘My steak was burnt and it was awful,’ that’s a legitimate concern and I contact them directly.” If new reviews share the same specific complaint, though, he notes a possible trend. Tempers sometimes run high among reviewers. (“It’s a dive bar,” he reminds me. “People get thrown out all the time.”) So Meinert always gets information from staff first, then addresses complaints with customers.

Chad Draizin, the owner of Fifty Licks, the ice cream shop where I found myself that rainy night in Portland, also makes it a habit to ask for more information. After one recent reviewer said staff weren’t attentive, he said, “I needed to figure out which shop and what time to determine who was working and talk to them.” Draizin responded on the review site and asked the customer to contact him with more detail. “I’m sorry you had that experience. If you’re willing to spend a little more time I’d like to know more,” he wrote. In this case, Draizin said, “I had to let someone go because it wasn’t the first time I had that complaint about them.” He followed up with the customer to say he’d looked into the complaint, addressed it with staff, and thanked her for the opportunity to do better, saying he hoped she’d return another time.

Both Meinert and Draizin make checking reviews a part of their daily schedule, since it gives them a daily pulse on their business and lets them get out ahead of any potential crises.

When to Let Bad Reviews Slide

Sometimes a direct response isn’t needed. “The overwhelming majority of people on the planet aren’t going to come to the 5 Point,” Meinert points out. “I want the people who like it to come.” If a review complains about drink prices, he might respond, “Bummer you thought the prices are too high. Next time, check out our happy hour menu.” The reviewer may not return, but Meinert has effectively advertised another feature of his business.

Draizin said he rarely responds when it’s clear the reviewer expected a different kind of shop. “We’re not a whipped-cream-and-sprinkles place,” he said. “When someone leaves a bad review because we’re not set up for kids, I don’t have anything constructive to say.”

Since 1996, Kate Holly-Clark of Antika Nueva has sold jewelry, soaps, and herbal ointments at local craft fairs and online. She tries to educate her customers before they purchase, especially for herbal products. “I’m upfront that there’s no silver bullet with medicinal herbs,” she says. Holly-Clark’s effort pays off since she rarely receives bad reviews, but when she does, she typically responds “just to see if I can do right by the client.”

Some of Holly-Clark’s customers have updated their reviews after she addressed complaints. In one case, however, it became clear that she couldn’t resolve the issue. She ended the dialogue, but the customer persisted. “Their messages started to become harassing,” she said, “I escalated it to the review site and they blocked the customer.” Each platform has its own process, so look at the terms of service.

If you can’t get the site to remove the negative review, encourage new reviewers. Green Pal matches property owners with lawn care professionals. CEO Brian Clayton told me a bad early review jeopardized word-of-mouth when his company launched in Nashville. When he couldn’t get the review updated or removed, Green Pal switched gears and upped its customer engagement game by sending personalized thank-you notes and chew toys for customers’ dogs. “It really wowed our customers,” said Clayton. “We received personal thank-you notes and photos on Yelp and Facebook.” That early review now looks like an anomaly.

You really can’t please everyone all the time, especially not on the internet. Bad reviews are going to happen. Respond strategically and move on.

Originally published on Fast Company

communications, social media, writing sample

How to Use Slow Times to Update Your Digital Presence

I live in the Pacific Northwest, and winter came in a hurry last week: It snowed here the day after Halloween, and I spotted Starbucks holiday cups in every commuter’s hands at the bus stop. Grumble all you want about brands jumping the gun to market the winter holidays, but the truth is that the out-of-office responses are going to start piling up the week before Thanksgiving and won’t abate until after New Year’s.

Unless the year end is your industry’s crunch period, that means the next few weeks are a great time to clear up some back-burner tasks. Whether you’re an employee, a jobseeker, or a solopreneur, here’s how to get a jumpstart on whipping your email inbox and social media accounts into gear for the year ahead.

  1. Conduct a Year-In-Review, Then Tout the Highlights

Don’t wait for Facebook’s automated New Year’s video to reflect on 2017. Look back through old files and emails, and make note of the good work you’ve done. For years, I’ve kept a folder on my desktop and in my emails labeled “smile file.” Testimonials and accolades are filed there, and then forwarded to bosses before review time. If you’re your own boss, these notes remind you of what you’ve accomplished, and they’re a great jumping-off point for making personal-branding updates.

Add a mention of an award you’ve won to your bio on Twitter, or use clients’ remarks (with their permission) as testimonials on your website. On LinkedIn, update your summary, add new portfolio projects and delete outdated ones, and add any pro bono or volunteer projects you did this year.

  1. Check Who Can See You Do What

Since LinkedIn defaults to making your activity public, you might want to disable that feature, otherwise you’ll alert all your connections to every single update you make:

  1. Click on “Me” in the upper right corner.
  2. Select “Privacy and Settings.”
  3. From there, select “Privacy.”
  4. Change “Sharing profile edits” to “No.”

While you’re there, check your other privacy settings to make sure you have an appropriate level of visibility. While the administrators of Company Pages on LinkedIn doesn’t get alerted when you visit them, individuals do receive a notice that you visited their profile; you can prevent that from happening by adjusting your “Profile viewing options” accordingly. So if you’re conducting a stealth job-search, and weren’t last year, now’s the time to make these changes.

  1. Update Your Profile Photos

All the social platforms you use to connect professionally–LinkedIn, Behance, Twitter, Facebook–should bear your current likeness. Even if you don’t think you’ve changed, it’s smart to update your profile photo anyway. It only takes a minute, so just do it.

  1. Write Recommendations

Take the time to write recommendations for colleagues and ask them to reciprocate. You can recommend people on LinkedIn and businesses on Yelp, Google, and Facebook. You don’t have to wait until you’re no longer working together. Writing the recommendation while the project is fresh helps you capture specifics about their work, which in turn makes for a stronger recommendation.

  1. Give Your Website a Spit-Polish

You don’t need to undertake a complete website redesign. But you do need to make sure your links are still good and your images still display. And if you don’t have a website, now’s a good time to create one. Check out About.meWordPress, or Squarespace for options that start at free, require little technical knowledge, and look professional.

  1. Follow Up After Holiday Parties

You’ll be tempted to leave those business cards in a heap on your desk–don’t! Hop onto LinkedIn and connect. Always include a personal note with your LinkedIn connection requests. Remind them where you met and follow up on anything you offered to send them:

Hi Francesca,

So great to meet you at the Freelancers Meetup holiday party last night. I enjoyed chatting with you about your project. Here’s a link to the that thing I mentioned.


That’s all it takes! If it’s more your style to connect on Twitter, great. Set up a Twitter list with a snappy name (“Awesome Folks, Winter 2017,” “Rock Stars I’ve Met” …you get the gist). Keep the list public and add them to it. They’ll get a Twitter alert saying they’ve been added to “Really Cool People.” I’ve set up dozens of Twitter lists for clients, and I regularly see the most engagement from people I’ve added to lists named “Cool People” or “Tweets Good Stuff.”

  1. Google Your Name

Recruiters, employers, and prospective clients will all run searches for your name, so you’ll want to find out what the internet says about you. Search yourself on Google and Bing, and also within Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Consider how the publicly available information portrays you, and adjust the privacy settings of your social media accounts if you need to. For example, if you don’t want your Facebook profile discoverable, got to “Settings,” then “Privacy” to change whether your profile shows up in search results, whether people can find you based on your contact info, and so on.

A colleague recently asked me to talk with someone who was struggling with a job search. The candidate has a long history of leadership in her industry, an outstanding portfolio, and solid references. It didn’t make sense why she wasn’t getting any interviews–until I searched her name. Within the top five results was an old news article about a previous employer, suggesting she’d played a role in the failure of a public works project. She can’t get the article removed, but she can address it proactively in her job search now that she knows how prominent it is. If you’re really in a bind, you can look for reputation management firms for help.

If you run a small business, perform these searches on your company name. Respond to negative reviews on the sites where they appear. Remain polite, thank the reviewer for their feedback, and offer to make it right. Your response will help rebuild trust with the customer and others who see the review.

  1. Make a List of Companies to Follow Next Year

If you’re considering a job change next year, use this time of year to follow potential employers on social media, where many post opportunities before announcing them elsewhere. This also helps you see if you have any contacts who can introduce you to the right people at these companies.

If your Twitter profile is public and you don’t want your current employer to see that you’re following a bunch of competitors, for instance, add those companies’ profiles to a private list. You don’t need to actually follow an account to add it to a list. And if your list is marked “private,” the account you’ve added doesn’t get a notice. Your list effectively functions as a mini-feed of just the posts from the list members.

  1. Get Into an Editorial Habit

Nobody cares what you had for lunch, but no matter what industry you’re in, getting some form of content out there into the world is a great way to set yourself apart. You can keep it small and simply plan to schedule regular posts on LinkedIn or Twitter. Or go big and launch a blog. Whichever you choose, the end-of-year slump is a great time to get onto a regular schedule. Start with once a month and work up to weekly or more after you’re comfortable with the pace. If your website doesn’t have a blog function, LinkedIn, Medium, and WordPress are solid, free options you can explore.

Use the time around the holidays to start drafting posts and preparing them to go live. If I don’t have someone available to proofread my drafts, I like to use to and Hemingway to check my grammar and style.

  1. Set Up Social Media Automation

At some point, you’re probably going to be out of the office yourself. Automation helps keep your profiles active while you’re away. You can schedule posts across all your social media platforms with freemium tools like BufferHootsuite, or RecurPost.

  1. Start Scheduling Stuff

Now that you’ve done all (or some of) this, it’s time to start thinking ahead about the period after the holidays. Write down your plans, start making calls, and send a few emails. If you get an out-of-office reply, make a note to follow up after their return. In Outlook, you can schedule your message to send later. In Gmail on the Chrome browser, you can schedule send times with a browser plug-in like Boomerang.

With the coming weeks full of family obligations, school closures, and major religious and national holidays, it’s inevitable some of your key partners will be hard to reach. Be patient, and set some calendar reminders for yourself in January so you’ll remember to get back in touch. In the meantime, spend the weeks ahead getting your online presence ready for a happy, productive new year.

Originally published at Fast Company

a portrait of the likeness of Saint Maria Goretti
I got something to say about that!, society, writing sample

My Cousin the Saint

a portrait of the likened of Saint Maria Goretti
Saint Maria Goretti

I grew up hearing the hagiography of St. Maria Goretti. My paternal grandmother referred to the saint as “my aunt.” I have yet to verify this. I do know that Maria Goretti’s brother Angelo served as best man to my great-grandparents’ wedding, and as godfather when my grandmother was baptised. In any case, the story of this virgin martyr is one I’ve heard, and contemplated, my whole life. This is the scholarly paper I wrote, and I continue my research now in both quasi-theology and ancestry.

Maria Goretti Paper

non-profit, poetry slam, portfolio, writing sample

Lessons in Building Community by a Working Board

The Seattle Poetry Slam LIVE! CD was one of my favorite projects ever. Even though the technology to create, sell, and distribute audio has evolved exponentially, the project provided timeless lessons for building support, showcasing a creative community, and board leadership.

The Seattle Poetry Slam LIVE! CD, 2000. Cover by Susan Anderson
The Seattle Poetry Slam LIVE! CD, 2000. Cover by Susan Anderson

Word of Mouth

I don’t remember who initially had the idea for the CD, but it people started talking about it. At the time, The Seattle Poetry Slam was organized with a cooperative board operating on consensus. We were all volunteers, aka “a working board.” We all agreed to move the idea forward, and starting working on the next steps.

Project Scope and Pricing

To get an idea of what support and resources we’d need, we needed to plan the project and get cost estimates. One of our board members had a background in music, so he was a natural to help us network for recording, printing, and CD design.

Formalizing Support

With our project plan and budget in place, we applied for a small project grant from the county arts commission. Again, one of our board members had experience in grantwriting, and she took the lead on our proposal.

The arts commission awarded us support. That commitment provided us the credibility needed to secure contracts with vendors, and solicit additional funding.

Contracting with Vendors

In this step, we relied on the references our board members received from their personal networks. A board member contacted vendors, and brought back price quotes. We carefully compared services offered, cost, timing, and references. We made sure all agreements were in writing – it’s a common sense business practice, but one that can be easily overlooked when working on a small-scale project.


At the time of this project, the local poetry slam was already in its ninth or tenth year of weekly open mikes and poetry slams. We opened a call for submissions


We prepared releases for licensing the performances. One of our board members had a friend who was an attorney. If you’re not connected to someone, the New York lawyers for the arts program keeps a comprehensive list of volunteer lawyer programs and other resources across the country.


Several board members took responsibility for bringing copies to local retailers, which included tracking sales and inventory.

Now v. Then

It’s funny now to think of how much of this project would be done differently today. Some aspects that might be different now:

  • Format – we could eliminate the expense of CD pressing by delivering digital downloads
  • Curation – without the limitation of 70 minutes (the maximum time for an audio CD), we might be able to include more writers
  • Fundraising – crowdfunding would likely be a large part of our strategy
  • Recording – today, everything about the recording could probably be done and mastered an someone’s smartphone
  • Distribution – selling digital directly to the consumer would let us build on the relationship, as opposed to never knowing who purchased from a record store

However, despite the changes in technology, many of the underlying principles will always apply to successful projects:

  • Creating a project plan and budget
  • Determining interest and feasibility
  • Due diligence on vendors
  • Written contracts, releases, and licensing agreements

Final Thoughts: Mentorship and Board Leadership

Reflecting on this project now, I know a big part of our success was owing to the leadership of our more experienced board members. They acted as mentors, they reached out to their networks for recommendations and for fundraising, and they led us through the decision-making with the principle of community-building always in mind.

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activism, portfolio, society, writing sample

Skirting the Issue: Gender as a Social Construct

In the last week, I’ve seen some variation of the story and commentary on the story about the German father who wears a skirt to support his young son, who prefers to wear skirts and dresses. Nils Pickert’s essay first appeared in the German outlet Emma; a translation was offered on a blog. It is an endearing story, but I wish it wasn’t noteworthy.

Social paradigms condition us to think of certain behaviors and outward appearances as belonging exclusively to one of two sexes. But gender is not the same as sex, Continue reading “Skirting the Issue: Gender as a Social Construct”