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May 28, 2013

Handling Bad Reviews: Lessons from Amy’s Baking Company

Kitchen Nightmares logo with "Kitchen" crossed out and "Author" added in

On Facebook a few weeks ago, my friend Angela Ackerman dared me to order a pizza from Amy’s Baking Company and send it back (and to record the confrontation). Not one to create drama, I declined. *smile*

But then I had to know what prompted her dare. The details were even worse than I imagined. (I’m ashamed to say I live within 50 miles of these people.)

The season finale of chef Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares TV show featured the local restaurant Amy’s Baking Company. Like most reality shows, the participants knew what they were getting into. Chef Ramsay has a well-known reputation for ripping restaurants to shreds for their food, service, and cleanliness.

Why would anyone sign up? In the case of Amy and Samy, the owners of Amy’s Baking Company, they’d expected Ramsay to praise them to the hills. After all, every negative reviewer on Yelp is just a “hater” and a “bully.”

We’ve seen this reaction from authors on Amazon and Goodreads reviews too. Every bad review is seen as a personal attack. Comments about poor editing? “It’s not my fault I can’t afford an editor.” Writing quality? “Stop implying I’m a talent-less hack.”

The number one advice to authors when it comes to reviews is: Don’t reply back. And that’s at the top of the advice list for a reason.

Sure, when we get negative feedback, whether from a beta reader or a reviewer, it can hurt. We can feel defensive.

But if we reply to a negative review with anything other than a “I’m sorry the story didn’t work for you” type of response (and even that is usually uncalled-for), we’re going to make the reviewer feel defensive too. And two defensive people facing off won’t result in a pretty picture.

Any rebuttal we make says that their experience doesn’t matter. Or that they’re too stupid to know good writing. Or worse, that they don’t even know their own thoughts or opinion.

It’s too bad that Amy and Samy didn’t follow the advice about not replying back. Instead, when they received their first bad review on Yelp years ago, Amy responded negatively. Very negatively. That led to a quicksand situation they couldn’t escape.

Human nature often leads us to delay our reaction at first when we’re confronted with a situation, as we check to see what everyone else thinks. A similar reaction kicks in with reviews. Seeing reviews for a product makes us more likely to leave a review as well.

The likelihood of sharing our opinion increases if we strongly agree or strongly disagree with the other reviews. And if we see an author attack a reviewer for saying a book was poorly written, how are we going to react if we had the same opinion? We’re going to feel attacked too. We’re even more likely to add our review to defend the original reviewer—and ourselves.

In other words, an author replying to a negative review encourages others who had negative experiences to speak up as well. This wave of people sharing their negative reviews makes the author suspect they’re being singled out for a bully attack and the situation escalates.

Or in the case of Amy and Samy, the situation explodes.

Kitchen Nightmares – Amy’s Baking Company (Full Version) on YouTube

The first six-and-a-half minutes show a nightmare of delusional owners and horrible customer service. At the 10:30 mark, Amy explains to Gordon Ramsay how their problems started.

One reviewer gave them a bad review. Amy responded by calling him a loser and a moron. Her defense, when Ramsay points out the insanity of that reaction, is “he insulted me first.” (The reviewer had said their pizza tasted like a frozen pizza—not a personal attack.)

As I pointed out above, her reply encouraged others to speak up. There were no “online bullies” targeting their restaurant, only other customers who got defensive when their similar negative experiences were attacked.

Flame-ups like this are all too common among some authors as well. We talk about our books like they’re our babies sometimes. But just as parents can’t let their egos get too wrapped up in their kids’ lives (witness the parents who feel personally insulted if the soccer coach doesn’t play their kid often enough), we can’t let our egos get wrapped up in our books.

Fine, to that one reviewer, the pizza tasted frozen. To that one reviewer, our character wasn’t likable. People are allowed to have differing opinions.

Even if we know their opinion is factually incorrect (the pizza isn’t really frozen, our book really did have an editor), opinions are about feelings. So no matter how inaccurate the details, those people are still entitled to their opinion.

In the case of Amy’s Baking Company, Amy’s response to one negative reviewer led to more negative reviews. Which then led to her feeling singled out by bullies. Which led to her signing up for Kitchen Nightmares. Which led to a huge audience seeing just how delusional she is. Which led to more negative comments on Facebook. Which led to an epic Facebook meltdown.

(Sample Facebook comment: “I AM NOT STUPID ALL OF YOU ARE. YOU JUST DO NOT KNOW GOOD FOOD.” The rest degenerate into f-bombs. Yes, with all caps and horrible grammar. And no, I don’t believe for a second their claim that their Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, and website were all hacked at the same time. If true, the hacker did a spot-on imitation of their earlier, real comments.)

Their new notoriety exposed Amy’s previous prison time and Samy’s possible deportation for immigration fraud. People discovered their website used stolen pictures to misrepresent their food. Katy and Miranda, the now-former employees shown in the episode, have come forward to confirm that nothing in the episode was staged. Just a few days ago, Samy kicked a customer out of the restaurant after she found fruit flies in her drink.

And I could link to a dozen more crazy-filled articles (hover over that link to read the headline), but I think the point is clear. Responding to that first negative review has brought them nothing but trouble.

Reviews start as just one person’s opinion. But if we respond to a bad review, we turn reviewing into a spectator sport, where hundreds or thousands of people are watching to see how we handle the situation. And crowds at spectator sports can be bloodthirsty for entertainment, all at our expense.

Don’t be like Crazy Amy. Don’t engage, and don’t reply. *smile*

What was your impression of this episode of Kitchen Nightmares? Have you ever left a review after feeling strongly about the other reviews? Is there any good way to respond to negative reviews? What problems have you seen result from review situations escalating and/or getting personal? Do you have tips on how to not take negative reviews personally?

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angel
angel

It was entertaining for sure! I own my own business as well as being an author and yes, there have been days I would have loved to have thrown someone out the door obviously you never do. You have a very good point here though comparing their situation to the author one. We do get defensive of our product and so did Amy and Sammy, and we clearly know that they are wrong. I suppose we could be wrong sometimes too. Maybe our edits do need to be better. Or our plots clearer.

Angela Ackerman

Ha, I still say if I come to visit, you, Jay and myself have to stop in to check it out…provided it’s still in business (which I highly doubt!)

Carradee

I had a recent success with a free run on a short story under another penname—a story that, through a series of odd events, kept getting contracts that, for one reason or another, all fell through. So I self-published it. Last I checked, I had two reviews, both negative. (I’m honestly shocked the reviewers gave me as many stars as they did, considering how much they disliked the story.) Honestly? I was expecting that result, because I can’t figure out the best genre to put it in for the life of me, and the cover reflects that. It’s a nice enough cover to attract attention, but the folks whose attention it’s attracting ≠ the same audience that downright loves the story. I suspected that was the case, but now it’s getting confirmed. 🙂 So revisiting the cover design is on my to-do list. I already have a basic idea that might work to add to the existing cover to make clear that there’s a sci-fi aspect. But I can figure all that out because I’m looking at the review and thinking, Okay, what produced this? In this case, it’s obviously reader expectations not matching the content, which suggests I screwed up the branding. (Again. But I did it wittingly, this time. At least my blurb’s the right genre…I think. And the story’s still selling some despite the reviews, so I’m doing something right.) It’s a matter of looking at negative reviews the right way. Was there something I could’ve done…  — Read More »

Kim Barton

I thought that Kitchen Nightmares episode and the subsequent Facebook meltdown were the most entertaining things I saw or read in weeks! I enjoyed it. 🙂

I read about an online fight among a historical fiction writer and an historian. It all started because the historian pointed out in a review that the writer got some of her facts wrong. The writer wrote back (and was not nice) and then other writers and historians got engaged. It became personal, and the posts got nasty! Of course, being writers and historians, no one devolved into the all caps cursing like Amy and Samy. But it was just as crazy.

Good reminders to not take reviews personally. We also need to remember to take reviews into consideration. Take a step back and evaluate what was said.

Taurean Watkins

Jami, I really get what you’re saying, and my personal issues with Ramsey aside (I don’t watch his shows for my sanity as a foodie and maybe someday chef), I just find your rationale too stark and not reflective of the opposite side of this issue. Now I’m so not saying it’s okay to be jerky as you’ve described, whether public or private, that certainly doesn’t help, as you’ve made ever so CLEAR, and I promise, that’s the only time I’ll use all caps in this comment. But there’s still a difference between in my mind to being bluntly honest with someone, and using that honesty (However subjective) as a weapon, and I can’t help seeing it that way. As I’ve said before, I’m not an avid paranormal fan, I just got burnt out of it (Before I even knew Twilight and others like it, or not…), but I don’t shame you or any of my writer friends who love paranormal, read it and write it themselves, certainly not everyone loves animal fantasy as I do, but you don’t have to be a sleazebag to those who do, either. For me, this general point being brought up here just wasn’t about personal preference alone, or I’d say nothing on the subject, it’s just that people really confuse respect with weakness, and I don’t say that lightly or out of spite, I’ve lived that truth, and seen in play out with those I know offline. “Not everyone will like what we…  — Read More »

Carradee

Not Jami, but another commenter chiming in… Ramsay’s harsh on purpose, because if those folks can’t handle his being harsh in those shows you mentioned, they won’t be able to handle harsh customers. Is the harshness being used as a weapon? Yes. But it’s a weapon with a broader purpose than a desire to tear others down for self-aggrandizement. Are you free to avoid exposing yourself to it? Certainly. Are others free to subject themselves to it? Yes, particularly when they know what they’re getting into. And that’s the crux of it: While you shouldn’t use critique as a weapon, some people do. So if you put yourself in a position to be critiqued, you need to be prepared for the folks who use it as a weapon. Otherwise, they can destroy you. I don’t know if you read my above comment about the reviews on my short story, but it’s worth mentioning that I’ve only read one of the two, so far. I’ve noticed the second one, but I’m too busy at the moment to address any issues the reviews bring to my attention. So I’m not reading it, because it will hurt, emotionally. Upon reading it, I will likely cringe, call my cat to come cuddle with me, and force myself to jump into fixing what’s in my control rather than discussing it with one of my friends, because— Let’s just say I’ve learned the hard way that my friends take things a bit more personally than I…  — Read More »

Renee Schuls-Jacobson

I have a feeling I’d be one of those authors who, upon receiving a bad review, would hide under my fleece blanket and cry.

I’m not big on confrontations, but words do affect me.

It’s unlikely that I would ever engage in any kind of back and forth. And if I ever finish my WIP and manage to get it to the publication stage? Well, I’ll be proud to say that at least I finished it. I’ll be a published author. Not all of those negative Nellies can say that.

Joanna Aislinn

Oh my, I caught an article or two on those folks.

Wow.

Some folks just can’t or won’t get it.

Sierra Godfrey

I too was shocked and amazed by Amy and Samy on this episode of Kitchen Nightmares. That anyone could be so arrogant in their denial was fascinating. Such a good reminder that you must not, must NOT, ever engage inappropriately with people who have a differing point of view. The poor attitude of these owners is sinking them– and as you pointed out, they can make all the excuses they want but the facts are they brought it all on themselves with their bad behavior.

Great post.

ChemistKen

Definitely the wrong way to respond, but you just know the reason the TV show picked them in the first place was because of their tendency to over react. That’s what the producers want.

Teresa Robeson

Wow…just…wow! My sister had told me about this episode but I’d not seen it and since I get easily stressed with confrontations, even if they’re not my own, I wasn’t going to watch it. But, you gave a great summary of the issue, so now I really don’t have to watch it. LOL!

Great advice about not feeling and acting defensive, Jami! I know it is much easier to say than do, but do we must. As you said, it does the critiquer and critiquee no good to engage in that kind of antagonistic behavior.

I’ve missed you and your blog, BTW! I’ve been so busy that I’ve let blog reading slide. I was thrilled to see the subscribe button so now I hope to never miss another post of yours. 🙂

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Cindy Dwyer
Cindy Dwyer

This was hysterical thank you for sharing it, Jami. When I finally publish and get my first bad review I will remember this!

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Wow…their restaurant sounds very shocking… Oh, haha, I guess I didn’t do the “don’t reply to negative reviews” part very well! But at least it was a good friend. I was not at all offended by her negative comment though, because I thought it was her own opinion. Yet I did reply saying “Oh, actually I think this.” One example was where she thought my protagonist was really vain. I said, oh actually, he wasn’t vain, he was actually simply being a coward and running away from his problems. So, my reply was more like a: Actually, his motivations/ thoughts/ attitudes was like this, not like that. (Maybe it helped that my “correction” was STILL negative, lol. She said he was vain. I said, not really, he’s actually being cowardly and unproductively evasive 😉 So perhaps my “still negative” opinion makes her opinion sound less devalued? Lol, I dunno.) Yet, I really wasn’t offended because I can’t expect everyone to love my characters as much as I do, lol. It’s actually quite good to have different feelings from different people about the same character. Often, they like or are more interested in, a character of mine that I dislike or am not interested in, lol. Another example was one I already told you about. She saw my love story as something like Twilight, about a girl totally relying on a boy for her self esteem. But I told her (but good-humoredly, because I was too happy that she took the…  — Read More »

Larissa
Larissa

I’m a book blogger, and occasionally I’ll read a book for that I don’t like. It is always awkward for me since I started reviewing to help promote authors, and I don’t like hurting people’s feelings however unintentionally. My two cents though, is if an author replies with a “sorry you didn’t like my book” attitude, it just makes things more awkward for both of us. If everyone liked the exact same things the world would be an unbearably dull place, and maybe I disliked your book, but that doesn’t mean my opinion is the majority or that it won’t be some else’s very favorite book that they lend out to all their friends. Own what you write. I know that no one would publish something they didn’t think the world was ready to see!

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