I got my first-ever negative review this week.
I’m at my Macbook writing a wedding love story, when “bing!” – in comes an email from Wedding Wire saying I’ve received a review from “Spencer.”
Right away, I’m a bit disoriented. Because I’ve never officiated a wedding for someone named Spencer.
I open the email, and I’m met with the subject line: “Look elsewhere if you want someone who respects you as a customer and isn’t only after your money.”
That’s the title of the review. It only goes downhill from there.
Now, it’s news to me that I’m only after people’s money. So I read on, and a few lines in, I remember: ohhhh! This is the fiancee of a wonderful woman who several months ago enquired to me about her wedding. I met with her and Spencer via video chat. We got along great, and they chose me to officiate their wedding. Shortly after, they sent me their 50% deposit and then we worked out a date to meet for their ceremony planning session.
Then they called off their wedding. And that’s where things (apparently) went badly between Spencer and me.
Here’s Spencer’s review as it appeared on my Wedding Wire profile:
(Hey, but 4/5 for “Responsiveness!” It’s not all bad!)
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t totally wrecked by this for about 6 minutes. My pulse started pounding, I broke into a sweat, and I got an immediate headache. I was angry, confused, and then… my logic took over. (Because I’m an ENTP on the Myers-Briggs and an Enneagram 3.)
Over the next half hour, I decided that the best way to respond to this would be to follow a course of 7 measured steps.
Now, if you’re just here for the juicy, tabloidy aspect of this story, my full email/Wedding Wire reply to Spencer can be found at the end of this article. So skip right ahead if that’s what you’re after. But if you’re here for wedding officiating best practices – for the breakdown of how I put that response together – here’s a primer for responding well to a negative review. Whether the review is fair or not.
1. We keep our emotions out of it
When we get attacked and accused, our amygdala gets rung and we react instinctively to self-preserve. It’s not avoidable. What is avoidable is clicking “reply” while we’re in that state and pouring gas on the fire, so to speak.
It’s important to remember that our response under stress will never be our best possible response.
(Unless we’re fighting a bear or something.)
When it comes to the business we pour so much blood, sweat, and tears into, we really want to be our best. So it’s important that we step away from the computer for a bit here. We let the shock and other emotions and cortisol drain out of our bloodstream.
Then we sit down, and start methodically working through the next 6 steps to responding well to a negative review.
2. We provide(d) a clear contract and Terms of Service
Okay, to be fair: this one had to happen well before today.
Without this second step, many of the steps to follow come undone. I wrote a full-length article about how crucial it is that we offer a contract to anyone with whom we do business. And that article includes a template you can use. So get on it!
Little did I know then how much I’d be grateful for heeding my own advice just a few weeks from writing that.
Now, here’s the thing about a contract. You can offer one, but it isn’t worth the paper (or screen) it’s printed on if we don’t have proof that the client read it and agreed to it.
That’s why my client intake webpage makes it mandatory: before the client can submit their deposit, the client has to scroll and check the box affirming that they agree to all the terms. Then when they click the “Submit” button, I get a form itemizing how they checked that box.
Make sure you can prove that the client read, understood, and accepted the agreement.
So if the contract is “old-school” on paper, make sure to get a duplicate copy signed by both of you. If it’s electronic, then some sort of “proof-of-click” is needed.
This was really important when it came to responding well to Spencer.
3. We keep a record of all our correspondence
Your email provider will probably do this for you, but what I’m essentially saying is this:
Don’t ever permanently delete any of your business emails.
We may need to provide a very clear record of every bit of communication and the events in the order they transpired.
Emails contain not only our messages, but also dates and timestamps. If we need to reconstruct a timeline and review expectations as they were understood on all sides, this will come in very handy.
So… archive away. Just make sure those messages are stored somewhere. With Spencer, I could go back, see our entire conversational history, and bring out the evidence.
4. We give a step-by-step recap with evidence
Without an agreed-upon Terms of Service and copies of all email communication, it’s just “he said/she said” and “my word against yours,” and things really deteriorate. But when we have the client contract and emails in black and white, we can reconstruct how the relationship unfolded (and where it went off track).
So, how do we go about composing a reply to a negative review?
I recommend replying to each of the client’s complaints, in order, point by point.
As you’ll see in my response to Spencer below, I copy and paste a sentence or two of his directly, and then make my response to that point. I use evidence to support my response from the contract or from emails. I repeat this again and again until I’ve covered each of his objections.
5. We apologize (for what we did wrong)
Sometimes we may get a negative review that’s totally fair. We screwed up, and we need to take responsibility for where we did. And say sorry.
Other times, the review will be totally unfair, and the client’s complaints will be totally unfounded. In this case, it would not be wise to say sorry for something we don’t actually accept responsibility for or something that was beyond our control – whether that “something” is merely an unrealistic expectation or a chandelier falling out of the ceiling.
It’s also never great to have that #sorrynotsorry attitude or the old “I’m sorry you feel that way” – neither of which is a genuine apology for wrongdoing.
While we must be sorry for the things we did wrong, we mustn’t be sorry for the things that were not our responsibility.
For things I did wrong, I say sorry. For everything else that didn’t work out, I prefer to use the word “regret.” I do regret that things did not turn out best. I do regret the client’s expectations went unsatisfied. I wish things had turned out better. Regret is empathetic, but it’s different than “sorry.”
Knowing when to say sorry and when not to – what we are responsible for and what we are not – is all a part of responding well to a negative review. And to be able to pick ourselves up and get on with doing business with the next client.
6. We reply both directly and publicly
By definition, a “review” is public for all to see. A “message” is one-to-one. What that means is: a review is a platform – not only for our negative reviewer but also for us. It’s a stage where everyone on the Internet can watch how we respond to criticism.
An intelligent, thorough, and measured reply to a negative review can showcase the kind of person we are – both professionally and personally.
So when we say we’re sorry for messing up, we show the world we’re the kind of person who can say sorry for messing up. When we have a thorough explanation for how things transpired, we show the world that we are organized and fair. When we reply with a level head, we show the world we aren’t the kind of fly-off-the-handle person who no one would ever want to do business with.
It’s best to reply in two forms. First, we send a direct email to the negative reviewer so we’re not just grandstanding in public. Then, we make a public response to the review online as well, so that potential future clients can witness our grace under fire. It’s okay to use pretty much the same wording for both; we just need to make sure to anonymize any third parties (I was careful to remove the name of Spencer’s fiancee) in the public reply.
7. We request that the review be removed
Every platform has their own criteria for whether or not a review will stand or can be taken down. Can the platform displaying your negative review remove it? We won’t know definitively ’til we ask.
Make sure to use any appeal process available, and just ask the platform (Google, Facebook, Wedding Wire, The Knot, Yelp, etc.) if the negative review can be removed.
There’s nothing to lose. If it can be taken down, bullet dodged. If it can’t, well… that’s where our most excellent and gracious public response can save our bacon.
And who knows? It may even get people to want to work with us when they can see that we have the capacity to be sorry or rational or emotionally intelligent or all of the above when things get tough.
Here’s how I replied to Spencer in a personal email and publicly on Wedding Wire. I think it’s a pretty stellar example of the 7 steps above at work.
I’m writing you in response to your negative ‘review’ of my very brief business with you some months ago before your engagement was called off.
I’d just like to provide some further clarity regarding a few of the claims that you make here.
In the review, you claim: ‘Mark was about double the price of anyone else we looked at, but my fiancee at the time wanted him so I obliged. He seemed to know what he was doing, and claimed that he could make our wedding, but he had 2 other weddings on that same day. He would basically be squeezing us in between weddings and then taking off right afterwards.’
In fact, the reason you are aware that I had two other weddings on that day is because we chatted about it freely. Both my other weddings were downtown, one at 12:30 and the other at 5:30, so there was plenty of time for me to serve you for your 3PM wedding downtown as well. We talked about this candidly and happily on our video chat – that I don’t like to ‘squeeze weddings in,’ so I was initially hesitant. But you were actually thrilled that I was available and at how perfectly it would work out – with well over an hour to spare on either end of your ceremony and the other venues only minutes away.
Also, I’m not sure about your charge about ‘taking off right afterwards’ – that this is a bad thing or even an issue. Did you want me to stay for some reason? In all the 100+ weddings I’ve officiated professionally, I’ve never stayed afterwards. I’m a professional vendor, and when my job is done I leave the couple to their friends and family.
In the review, you claim: ‘In February (4 months before the wedding) my fiancee and myself decided not to get married. We emailed Mark to ask for a refund and he sent us a ‘refund policy’ that there are no refunds. This was never sent to us before we paid the deposit.’
Spencer, not only were you aware of it, but also you agreed to it.
First, I’ve provided you with a screenshot of the email I sent you after you said you’d like me to officiate your wedding. You’ll notice how the email explicitly instructs you to read and agree to the terms of service, and I’ll paste the text of that email here:
‘YASSSS – I’m thrilled to get to work with you, _____ and Spencer!
Okay, first things first: here’s the link to the payment portal. Please read over Our Unboring!Wedding Agreement (nothing sketchy, but important stuff) and then you can pay with credit card online. The balance will be due after our wedding workshop and your script is fleshed out; you’ll get a prompter email from me then.
Speaking of which: after I receive your deposit, I will follow up this week and we can get a tentative date in the calendar for our wedding workshop via video as we discussed, ideally 4-6 weeks before your big day.
It’s a pleasure to get to know you better than a “hello” on Sunday morning, and I’m looking forward to our journey to your wedding together!
You can also find in a screenshot I’ve just sent you: your intake form, where you will see an itemized line near the bottom that says, ‘I agree to Our Unboring!Wedding Agreement.’ That indicates that you agree to the clear wording that the deposit is not refundable. It holds your date and allows me to move forward with all the preparations I need to make for your ceremony. In fact, you cannot actually send me any payment without scrolling and agreeing. The webpage will not allow you to. It’s impossible to send me money without accepting this.
I’ve also sent you a screenshot of the relevant part of the contract you agreed to; note the very clear wording that the deposit is non-refundable. This is very standard in wedding vendor contracts.
Here is the exact wording of that section of the agreement:
‘FEES AND DEPOSIT:
The total cost of the Event Services is $797 + Ontario HST tax (13%); this includes all officiating Services and travel up to 200km from Yonge/Sheppard Toronto. A non-refundable 50% deposit equal to $450.30 ($398.50 + $51.80HST) is to be paid to activate this Agreement, at which point the Officiant will start providing Services. The full balance of the remaining $450.30 ($398.50 + $51.80HST) and/or travel fees ($0.53/km if travel exceeds a total of 200km from Yonge/Sheppard Toronto) shall be received by Officiant with the deposit. If travel fees are required, they will be stipulated beforehand in an email by the Officiant at the time of deposit. If Client does not remit payment as specified, Officiant has the right to end this Agreement without further obligation to refund money, including the Deposit, or to perform Services at the Event. The Deposit can be applied to another date and time as long as Client requests change in writing at least seven (7) days prior to the Event date and Officiant is available. If Officiant is not available at the new date and/or time, all fees paid in excess of the Deposit will be refunded upon request from Client.
tl;dr: My services cost $797 + HST, and there are no other fees besides travel over 200km unless I ask before your deposit payment. I ask for a non-refundable deposit of 50% up front, and then you pay the balance 4 weeks before your wedding. If you need to cancel on me, you can do that up to 7 days before the wedding and get back anything you paid over and above the deposit. If you cancel less than 7 days before your wedding, I keep the fee.’
Finally, in the review, you claim, ‘Considering he already had 2 weddings booked that same day, it seems like a reasonable professional thing to work with the customer, not blow them off.’
When your fiancee emailed me and informed me of your cancelled engagement, she simply asked what the policy was. A screenshot of that email will show that she wrote this:
Unfortunately, we will no longer be holding a wedding. We are unsure of your refund policies – please advise.
Far from blowing you off, I replied that you had agreed to the non-refundable deposit, but that if you wanted to reschedule at any point in 2018 (and that limit was only because I’m moving out of province and would not be legally able to marry you in Ontario in 2019), I would be happy to apply your deposit to any new date. A screenshot I sent will show you that I wrote in that email:
‘Hey ______ and Spencer,
Aw, I’m so sorry to hear that. I hope it’s for the best.
Our agreement was for a nonrefundable deposit. I’ve attached the PDF for your reference. That said, I consider this agreement to mean that I’m retained for the rest of the year; if you need my services anytime later in 2018, please just let me know and we can pick up right where we left off.
After that, I did not hear from either you nor your fiancee again. I did not get a response from you either in assent or opposition to my message. So I am very surprised today to see a public review, not just because I didn’t actually officiate your wedding, but also because you seem to be so dissatisfied after a) agreeing to everything that occurred, and b) never following up with me to air a single grievance about the process.
Of course, I’ve provided Wedding Wire with all the above information as well, to dispute your version of the events. However, I’d love for you to consider voluntarily removing your review. I understand you seem very emotional and I regret that this is an apparently difficult time for you. There is a better version of you behind this anger, I’m 100% certain of it.
From my vantage point, and given the step-by-step account above with evidence of all our correspondence, I feel that I dealt with you fairly, professionally, and I never had a hint that anything was amiss… until today.
In fact, the first and only time I’ve ever heard from you personally came in an email a few hours ago that said, “I will happily take down the review when you return my money.” So it would seem that this review is your hostage.
Why did you not reach out to me personally and much sooner?
A negative public review should not be the first time a vendor hears from you. The next time you wish to receive a deposit back in any of your business dealings moving forward, I recommend that you simply ask the vendor in a polite, personal email. And then… who knows? You might even get it.
Best to you,
UPDATE: His credit card company ruled in my favour because I have such a solid contract, and they deemed it rightful that I keep the deposit.