Running a small business requires determination, vision, a never-ending commitment, and—in the social-media era—a thick skin. Where once customer complaints were made in person and hopefully in a civil way, now sites such as Yelp, Facebook, and Google allow consumers to treat every day like Festivus, airing their grievances, often anonymously.
Brewers are already well-versed in the frustrations that come with the reviews of their beers. Sites such as Untappd, Rate Beer, and Beer Advocate have long given a voice to drinkers who can heap on praise or dole out insults, seemingly at random. Recipes that brewers have put their best effort into are given meager scores or bottle-cap slivers, thanks to consumer preferences, lack of education, or simple spite. Some brewers have chosen to wade into those waters, responding to each commenter. Sometimes these are positive discussions; other times they dissolve into name calling and public-relations nightmares. Middle ground is hard to come by.
When it comes to review sites such as Yelp, the feedback is usually more varied. It’s not just the beer that people comment on, but also the service, the decor, the food (if applicable), and more. These can often be much more of a mirror for brewery owners and managers, offering a look into the everyday items that can be easy to overlook.
“Our customers define our success. We could be making the best beer in the world, but without top-notch customer service that matches the quality of the product, it would mean very little. We take every interaction with our customers as an opportunity to grow and learn more about who we are and to educate ourselves on what we’re doing right or wrong,” says Laura Sasaninejad, the marketing manager at Playalinda Brewing Company in Titusville, Florida. “It is my responsibility to monitor the review websites (TripAdvisor, Yelp, Facebook, etc.), and it is our policy at Playalinda Brewing Company to respond to each and every review. Whether that’s taking ownership for our mistakes (which do happen) or letting a guest know how much it means to us that they chose to have a beer with us—having that interaction is extremely important to us and how we handle customer service.”
“For us, social-media sites are all positive, and we strive to react accordingly,” says Jess McMullen, the cofounder and chief of operation at Flyway Brewing Company in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Not everyone, however, agrees in such broad terms.
“They’re just an annoyance,” says Kurt Borchardt, the owner and brewer at Artisanal Brew Works in Saratoga Springs, New York. He goes by the nickname “Salty” and gave an example of a recent day at his brewery. A party came in, and the parents weren’t watching their kids. Some baby carrots got stuffed into a toilet, causing a backup and a huge mess.
One bartender was dispatched to clean, leaving only one to sling beers. “I got dinged by someone complaining they had to wait 10 minutes for a beer when we were slammed,” he says, noting it’s unfair to criticize service when staff members were actually doing their job, just in a different way and with the customer experience (clean restroom) in mind.
“I had two bartenders, but one was mopping up toilet water. That just fried my ass,” he says.
The popularity of breweries these days constantly brings new people into taprooms across the country. Some folks, used to a different level of service, or ones who are simply impatient when it comes to being served at a busy place, offer a different level of frustration.
Borchardt recalls one night when he was behind the stick, working with a bartender during a tasting event. “We were very busy. We were busting our asses,” he says. Later that night, a customer posted a one-star review on Facebook complaining that they waited 15 minutes for a beer. “The bar was mobbed. We were shucking beers and cleaning glassware like nobody’s business,” Borchardt says.
“I constantly scanned the crowd for patrons waiting to be served, and never ever did someone wait nearly that long.”
His frustrations ultimately led him to shut off Facebook comments. “I lose plenty of sleep over way more important brewery business. I’m not going to lose sleep over some BS.”
Other brewers haven’t taken quite the same extreme measures, and most said that even the harshest reviews—based in reality or not—deserve a response. “I think you have to be incredibly careful in any responses to negative reviews,” says a brewery owner in Tennessee who asked not to be named, citing some concerns he has with Yelp and what he sees as troubling business tactics. “This is a person who had a bad experience at your place. If your response to him/her in anyway can come off as anything but sincere and apologetic, it can be copied and reposted, sometimes out of context. I’m sure you’ve seen some idiotic responses by businesses that have gone viral.”
The brewer says he responds to every negative comment with either a private email or message, never a public response. He never criticizes for a lack of understanding of his business. “If they had a bad time at my place regardless of their expectations, it’s on me,” he says. “I very rarely receive any response back.”
What’s key, say brewery employees, is to take every comment and give it more than just a quick glance. Look for patterns and see if you can actually identify whether there is a real issue or just someone blowing off electronic steam.
“Most of the time, the reviews get past just a response typed online. We take them to meetings, discuss them internally, and evaluate how to adapt and identify areas where we can continually improve,” says Sasaninejad. Ultimately, the Internet and these sites can be an incredibly effective tool to grow business, attract new customers, and engage with existing fans on a never-ending basis. The benefits of engagement cannot be understated.
“I think I can speak for most of us at Playalinda Brewing Company when I say that it’s hard to top the excitement we get when we have a customer compliment our beer, our staff, or just our business model,” says Sasaninejad. “You have to take the good with the bad and be aware of your customers’ feedback—all of it, everywhere you can get it.”