I do hate mylar balloons.  Not in general, just at our winery.  We go to ridiculous lengths to make our Enoteca and the Courtyard look beautiful and elegant and stylish. Then someone busts in with massive, garish, shiny numbers (indicating years old or years married or whatever) or big balls with silly messages on them.  Ambiance instantly gone…

But that is not what this story is about.  It is about on-line reviews.  More specifically about my responses to them. And since the COVID 19 lockdown, I have responded to every one of them that I have seen.  Every single one.  It is my superpower.  After a bachelor’s degree in literature, three years of law school, 15 years of practicing law, and 15 years in the world’s most complicated (and creative) small business, responding to online reviews is probably the only thing I can honestly say that I am actually really good at.  Generally, the reviews we get are great – for which we are most grateful.  Some others contain fair and constructive criticism – and when they do, I am happy to acknowledge it and we really do use those as training tools to learn from and improve what we do.  And then some are just obnoxious, cruel, and self-important.  Those are my favorite to respond to – always writing to the next reader, not the actual writer of the review, because, well, f**k them.  Feel free to look for them and enjoy them at your leisure (on Google, Yelp, Trip Advisor, Facebook, Open Table – I discover new review platforms that I have to then follow and respond to all the time…it’s maddening).  But sometimes, reviews and my responses cross the line into actual dialogue.  I wanted to share one such series of exchanges with you.  I will admit that my response to the original review lacked the usual controlled, tempered, masterful, subtle manipulation that characterizes my best work.  In this one, I did kinda lose my cool a little bit.  I think this COVID re-opening stuff is starting to get to me….

By the way, a few things to note before you read:  First, this review came via Facebook and I am republishing it here in its entirety without edit.  I figured it is already published to the entire world so the reviewer wouldn’t mind.  Second, I am keenly aware that I am publishing this bad review to a much broader audience than it would otherwise get.  But I guess I never let a wise business decision get in the way of a good story…  Finally, the date that this guest visited was Saturday, September 26, 2020.  We know the exact time they were here and where they were sitting thanks to Open Table.  I really did pass their table at least 50 times that day (I was bussing tables and helping the host manage the large number of guests -some with reservations, most not – that had come early in the day).   That day was also my 53rd birthday.

 

Original Guest Review:

What a huge disappointment! I’ve been to Auburn so many times for as long they’ve been open, and what used to be a really classy place has turned into a party zone. The beautiful outdoor patio only seats a few, so they’ve added tons of tables on the grass, amidst the bugs. I had to ask for an umbrella, which was quickly provided, but there was nothing to do about the table that played their own music from their phone. (I’ve experienced this in the past too…staff do not ask patrons to turn down their music). There were so many loud bachelorette and birthday parties that my husband and I could barely hear each other. They were also out of about 5 wines, and their cheese and cracker basket was essentially a DIY project with a flimsy knife and cheap plastic-wrapped crackers. This was my absolute favorite winery in the area, but it’s definitely focused on packing as many people as possible on their lawn without having enough wait staff to accommodate the capacity. I also didn’t appreciate the snide comment from our host that it was a busy day—did that mean we were supposed to accept how horrible the experience was? I won’t be going back, sadly, and I can no longer recommend it.

 

My Initial Response:

Thanks so much for taking the time to write. We really appreciate the feedback. Since we have been allowed to reopen outdoors, everything has been a balance. We restrict the number of people who can make reservations and try to keep the parties small and we do not book private events at all. But in the post COVID world, people are learning to game the system – making multiple reservations under different names and then insisting on sitting near one another – which then potentially becomes a party complete with mylar balloons (which I hate with a passion). And then also walk ins arrive and get belligerently angry if they can’t be accommodated. We are sensitive to the fact that these days there are not many places people can go to gather so we try to be reasonable with as many people as we safely can. That said, we are also conscious of wanting to make sure other guests are not disturbed. I was there on Saturday afternoon myself constantly checking on tables and watching to make sure that everything was calm, everyone was seated or wearing masks and that no tables were being disturbed by any other. I spoke to almost everyone that came that day and certainly was looking for indications that a guest felt uncomfortable. Everyone was relaxed and enjoying the sunshine. We are working on ways of further policing reservations so we can even better control access to our beautiful space. But we do not charge for reservations and the few tables that were there celebrating birthdays and so forth did not pay any extra for the privilege. They were just guests. I do feel a responsibility to the public to give folks a safe place to gather – often to our detriment. Which is why to have you accuse me of profiteering when we work ourselves to the bone to just help people be happy is beyond hurtful. Anyone who knows us as well as you say you do knows that making a quick buck has never, ever been what we are about. If anything, we are guilty of being exceedingly kind and, on some occasions, taken advantage of. If you were our friend and cared about us, you could have waved me over any one of the 50 times I passed your table while I was helping seat people and bus tables (if I had not visited you already – which I bet I did) and I could have helped make you more comfortable. Instead you chose to publicly criticize us and accuse us of being greedy and cheap (by the way the Buddha Basket includes all environmentally friendly compostable items and artisan cheeses that due to COVID safety concerns we allow the guest to handle themselves). Clearly you do not understand what we are trying to do here and whatever feeling of community and compassion that you might have had during the lock down period has now worn off. (Don’t worry, sadly you are not alone in this…). You are always welcome back, as is everyone. And if you do come back and you need anything or have any concerns – please ask for me or ask one of our excellent servers to help you. Thanks again for writing.

 

The Guest’s Response to My Response:

I’m sorry, but I never once accused you of profiteering, though you have every right to disagree. I also said Auburn was one of my favorite wineries for many years, and I had been a customer many times, not that I knew you well or personally. I left an honest review based on my experience. If this feels like a public attack, that’s not what it’s meant to be. Facebook and other sites allow sharing reviews or recommendations as a way of helping a business with constructive feedback in order to improve. I don’t expect you to make sweeping changes based on one opinion (especially considering your many positive reviews), but to consider if there are ways to get better, or conversely, to say “no, I really believe we’re doing a great job. That person doesn’t reflect the typical experience.” If that’s the case, that’s completely understandable. It’s your business, you always get the final say, and you definitely know best what to do. Your response reflects anger and I even understand that. No hard feelings. At the end of the day, you don’t know me to say I don’t have compassion or feelings of community, and I don’t know you either, so I can’t say anything personal in response, nor would I, because that isn’t what my review was about. I left a review about my experience in comparison to all the great times in years past. Your high review rate shows that SO many others love the winery, which is awesome considering other businesses are struggling right now. I wish you well and continued success.

 

My Response to the Guest’s Response to My Response:

Good Morning! I really appreciate you responding to my response (which I guess makes this now a dialogue which is kinda nice…). Your response was perceptive, understanding. cogent and fair. And you are right, I do not know you so to say you lack compassion was unfair and I apologize. As you may have noticed if you have read our other reviews on this and other platforms, since the COVID lock down particularly, I have responded personally to every review that I have seen. Most have been extraordinarily good (which is great) but I honestly appreciate more and learn more from the constructive criticism we get from our guests. And if that criticism is fair and something we can learn from, I say so in my responses. And we then do our best to learn from it. Since we were locked down in March and then re-opened in June, we have done our best to try to negotiate an almost insane series of constantly changing business circumstances all the while trying to keep our staff employed, our guests safe and happy, and ourselves from going bankrupt. So, yes, I was angry when I wrote that response to your review (my wife Jules – our winemaker – even commented on it when she read it…). And, yes, I read your comment that I was just trying to pack in as many people as possible in without caring about being able to take care of them as profiteering – not exactly sure how to read that otherwise. That said, your comment about people commandeering our space to create what becomes their own private event was fair and I said so – we along with all the other wineries in the region are struggling to control that. Most service businesses are well meaning, hard working and, especially given what we have all gone through this year, concerned to help lighten the burden of our guests, not add to it. And I guess part of my anger was at myself for, at least in your case, failing in that mission. That should not have been directed at you so for that I also apologize. If you do decide to visit us again (and if you choose not to I totally understand…) please email me at scott@auburnroadvineyards.com and let me know you are coming. I would very much like to say “hello” in person and maybe we can have a glass of wine together. Until then, please be safe and well.

 

The Guest’s Response to my Response to the Guest’s Response to My Response:

I agree, the dialogue is very much appreciated. I honestly didn’t mean to indicate I thought you were profiteering, but when I gave it more thought, I considered that with zero capacity inside and having to space tables at least 6 feet apart, it will take up your whole outdoor area. To continue to serve your customers and stay open, this would be necessary. I can also agree that this is a hard working business (as much as my opinion matters). At this point, my experience was heard, and I’ve read and respected your points in response. Again, I appreciate that you’re sharing your perspective in how you’re coping with COVID and a changing world. I know it can’t be easy. I will delete my review out of goodwill…I would’ve done so already but I didn’t see a way to DM your FB page to send this message. I don’t consider myself or my review important enough to impact your business, but I also understand that it doesn’t help. Stay safe and good luck with everything as we get through these crazy times.

 

My Response to the Guest’s Response to my Response to the Guest’s Response to My Response

Thank you for that. I really appreciate the offer but that won’t be necessary – even if I did have the first clue how to delete these things which I don’t. But trust me when I tell you that reviews are very impactful, especially to a small business. Social media is a double edged sword for small businesses like us – it allows us to easily get our message out to the outside world but it also lets the outside world manipulate and often damage our message in ways we can’t control or even protect ourselves from. I guess that is one of the reasons why I respond to all our reviews – to pretend that I have some control over the way the world sees us (though whether I do or not is another story…). But I think the other reason is to engage with people who have taken the time to reach out and make a connection with them regardless of whether the review was good or bad – I mean, this is “social” media right? Maybe it helps build lasting relationships with guests who might then become regular guests and maybe even…friends? Anyhow, my offer still stands. Or maybe next time you are here, just tap me on the shoulder as I am running by. I’ll probably be your bus boy…

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