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Last Friday, the New York Times detailed the antics of a gentleman who may be a contender for the web's most unscrupulous merchant. Unlike other unscrupulous merchants, including the lazy, the flaky and the scammy, "Mr. B" has taken great pride in his unsavory -- and potentially criminal -- treatment of customers.
Many of the responses to the New York Times piece have centered on Google's role in Mr. B's online business, which sells eyewear online. That's because Mr. B worked his site up the rankings by taking advantage of the fact that many of the complaints being posted about his business online were generating valuable backlinks despite the fact that these backlinks, of course, were not really positive signals.
But in my opinion, Mr. B's story isn't an indictment of Google. There are a number of lessons and truths for merchants in the story. Here are several.
The customer isn't always right
I hate that phrase — the customer is always right. Why is the merchant always wrong? Can the customer ever be wrong? Is that not possible?
Explaining why he has such a negative opinion of his customers, Mr. B explains that customers "lied and changed their minds in ways that cost him money." So he simply "stopped caring" and started telling them what he really thought.
While Mr. B's opinion of even the most problematic customers appears to be very, very unhealthy, he does raise an important point: the customer isn't always right. While honest customers almost always far outnumber bad apple customers, the latter do exist. In some cases, their behavior is infuriating. Just ask a merchant who has ever had to deal with a fraudulent chargeback on a high-ticket item.
Of course, this doesn't excuse Mr. B's attitude. If you're not willing to take the good with the bad, selling online probably isn't the career for you.
Negative reviews aren't the end of the world
When I fly to Las Vegas I look down and see all these houses...If someone in one of those houses buys from DecorMyEyes and ends up hating the company, it doesn’t matter. All those other houses are filled with people, too, and they will come knocking.
While it may not be advisable to build a business that relies solely on new customer acquisition (because you have no repeat customers), it's not exactly impossible to do so. There are a lot of potential customers out there, and no matter how negative the chatter about your business, chances are that many, if not most, won't be exposed to the negative chatter before making a purchase. Mr. B wants to serve only those individuals because they far outnumber the number of individuals who will look him up.
The practical lesson here for sensible merchants: take pride in the good things people say about you, and aim to satisfy your customers. Where appropriate, respond to negative reviews. But remember that a bad review or two isn't going to kill your company.
Google is gold
I never had the amount of traffic I have now since my 1st complaint. I am in heaven.
After discovering that negative online chatter could boost his site's ranking for commercially important Google search queries far more easily and at much lower cost than 'legitimate' techniques, Mr. B decided to make attracting negative attention the linchpin of his online marketing strategy.
While that may backfire because his audacious behavior made it into the pages of the New York Times, Mr. B's story does serve as a reminder of the fact that Google can make or break an online business. Not surprisingly, some go to great lengths to boost their rankings, and if you're more risk averse than your competitors, they may be winning out, at least temporarily, using questionable tactics.
Bad customer service takes effort
I'm sure this is taking a toll on my health. I probably won’t live as long as you.
Mediocre customer service is everywhere. It always has been, and always will be because the truth of the matter is that not every company has the ability or desire to go the extra mile.
But when it comes to good (or great) and bad (or horrible) customer service, effort is required. Mr. B is the perfect example of that. The New York Times piece makes it clear: he spends a significant amount of time and energy berating and harassing his customers. For better or worse, had he simply been unresponsive or shady, he probably would have found himself lumped in with other merchants who aren't praised, but aren't despised either.
Mr. B's approach to customer service is, for obvious reasons, not likely to serve as the foundation of a sustainable long-term business. If the allegations made against him by some customers are true, his behaviour has been nothing short of appalling, and perhaps even criminal. But that doesn't mean that there is nothing merchants can't learn from his story. For better or worse, there is.