Tuesday, March 22, 2016

When Community Strikes Back

The GAMA Trade Show's penultimate installment at Bally's in Las Vegas has come and gone, and I attended along with DSG's entire ownership and one of my staff specialists.  I'll return in 2017 for the Vegas swan song, but I look forward to what promises to be a better venue experience in Reno in 2018.  I will also travel in smaller numbers.  It was cool to have a six-person brigade, but coordination proved challenging.

Last week I wrote about the approach I take to trade shows such as GAMA and how a retailer can get value out of attending beyond merely accruing promotional product.  I expected to write a synopsis of my observations about GAMA 2016 in this week's slot, but my job became a lot easier when the show served up a broad publisher emphasis on community: organized play (OP), Third Place building, and social media.

So pervasive was the community focus that I was frustrated in some moments that the show content seemed to be straying pretty far from retail fundamentals.  Props for focusing on bottom line concerns go to WizKids, Steve Jackson Games, Renegade Game Studios, and Cool Mini or Not (no, really) among others, including our partners in distribution.

The other industry heavyweights were there to talk about community and not a lot else.  Asmodee North America announced major developments for both their Asmoplay and Fantasy Flight OP programs.  Mayfair launched OP kits for the upcoming Agricola reboot.  Brotherwise was there promoting Boss Monster OP.  Even Games freaking Workshop launched a new OP program for the first time this century.  Wizards of the Coast had no floor presence, and opted to spend their publisher pitch spots conducting roundtable discussions about building community.  Retailer seminars followed suit, albeit in a more organic fashion.

We know that organized play and the Third Place is part of the value proposition hobby game stores offer.  Developing community is what good stores and publishers do.  But there's a lot more to developing community than hosting organized play.

Social media has changed the equation and that channel moves in both directions.  The retailer seminars on social media and several others did a great job of emphasizing the power of the outbound channel and the danger of the inbound channel.  Surely every store by now has had that bad Facebook interaction with an upset customer where you wished you could have taken back what you said.

We're now reaching a point in the wider social media world of inversion, however.  Yelp has become something of a punchline for its review base being saturated with quippy little rants about how some poor waiter took three minutes too long to refill a beverage.  Google won't take down a review, however scurrilous, without a court order.  You can imagine the signal-to-noise ratio that results.  Facebook allows businesses to disable reviews, but that's throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  An authentic business will rarely rate 5.0 stars after being around more than a couple of months; consumers are now suspicious of such stark cleanliness and will rightfully suspect shilling or scrubbing.  Yet the freshness of a negative review, especially one written clearly and persuasively, can cost a business customer visits.

The vast majority of social media reviews in the comic and hobby game trade are positive.  I am thankful to the highest degree at how graciously DSG's community has positively reviewed our store and business and offered words of encouragement and praise.

But we do have negative reviews.  Those are there.  They can't usually be removed.  And the business best practice is not to engage them in those venues.  Silence is golden.  Allow the reviewer the last word.  Take the high road.

It therefore falls upon us as retailers to gain what value we can from those negative reviews in planning how we conduct our business.

Here is what I have learned from (effectively) every commented negative review DSG has received to date on Yelp, Google, and Facebook.

This review came in just last week.  Paco Underhill was one thousand percent right when he said the single biggest thing any customer hates is being made to wait.  It is the cardinal sin of retail.  Nobody wants a negative review, but if I earn one, I hope it is like this one.  This reviewer praised what he liked, then pointed out a legitimate problem in a clear and unambiguous manner.  I got the message.  We dropped the ball and there is no excuse for this.  In airline jargon, "Flight deck procedures require added scrutiny."

This was a parting gift from a banned customer.  I won't address his specific claims; you may judge for yourself how plausible they are.  The negative review goes on from there, even name-dropping some of our competitors for good measure.  (Who, incidentally, did not appreciate seeing their businesses named in this manner.)  And yet despite it all, I learned from this negative review.  Part of the calculus that goes into banning a customer is the expectation of potentially significant social backlash, and here we got a look at the shape and form of it.  DSG does not ban on a whim, despite what our haters enjoy believing.  Virtually every scenario that earns a ban from us involves malicious intent on the part of the recipient.  That's the key ingredient.  I can count DSG's bans on my fingers and not run out, and the plurality of those were issued for simple theft.

You won't see it here just in looking at this rather vivid review, but I learned a lot from this experience.  This is the last bit of fallout from possibly one of my worst-handled social media engagements.  A customer had a bad experience, and when I read his review, I did my usual investigation to gather facts.  I discovered that, if memory serves, he was connected to either a person we had banned, or the ownership of a competing store, or something like that.  Whatever.  I called the reviewer out on it.  Tremendous mistake.  It was just a coincidence, and his original review (that he since deleted) was just a simple negative review, nothing more.  I could have offered to make it right and probably won back a customer.  Instead, I upset him and surely lost a customer forever and I looked terrible in the process.  This was a harsh lesson and one I apparently chose to learn the hard way.

This review has been around since the store was brand new, so I've had the privilege to see it over and over again.  This customer has been back and (as far as I can tell) had positive experiences.  He might not even remember the review.  What I learned from this was something very simple but very powerful: A store's reputation in the early going is fragile as thin ice.  That store won't get the benefit of the doubt.  Nobody would ever suggest that the DSG of today would "skim on the prize pool/keep the prizes to sell later."  (I am guessing he means keeping and reselling promo cards such as Friday Night Magic foils.)  No store doing our volume of sales is going to violate its publisher and distributor agreements to earn such a pittance. But when a store first opens its doors, it has to earn that respect.  When we move or open another location in the year ahead, we will need to recognize this.

I learned in time to appreciate this pair of reviews because they bluntly told me true things about my business.  In the early going, I did have a poor selection.  Our board game selection was pitiful in July 2013.  Indeed, my store was okay for Magic / Pokemon players, but that was about it.  And when he came back?  He was right again.  My board games were terribly merchandised.  Eventually I got them out onto the floor where they could be examined and shopped properly.  So thank you, reviewer, for your honest and helpful criticism.  You motivated me to improve.  If you ever happen to drop by again, I hope you like what you see.  And if you don't?  I want to hear that too.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.  This customer was visiting from out of state.  He will never be back.  We had our chance and we blew it.

Another recent review.  This was after the ultra-limited Mythical Pokemon boxes came out and sold through in a heartbeat, leaving us with very little stock and market pricing from there on out.  Because of how mass-market distribution works, a trickle of product continued to reach the big boxes for weeks after, maintaining the customer impression that these were still readily obtainable at MSRP.  Out of sight, out of mind: the customer doesn't remember all the Targets that were out of stock, only the one where they finally struck paydirt, and if they lucked out on their first try, so much the worse impression of our side of the equation.  What I learned from this negative review is that customers may not necessarily understand the collectibles market, and things that are routine to us may seem shocking and upsetting to them.  Resale of Pokemon singles isn't nearly the strong market that Magic: the Gathering singles are, so we buy at ratios designed to ensure profitability and minimize risk.  It's a shame that we have to disappoint someone by not offering Big Buck$ for their used merchandise, but the reality is, if we buy imprudently, we go bankrupt and are out of business.  If avoiding failure means accepting that these types of complaints will happen, so be it.

So.  It was difficult then and is difficult now to assess this review.  I have been told that this is a bogus review and that the reviewer was an employee of a competing store.  The DSG of that time period was far from ideal, but some of the complaints listed were typical of hobby game stores in general but were not issues observed with any regularity on our premises.  In the absence of proof that this review isn't on the up-and-up, however, I have to assume it is authentic and that we really did do that poorly at providing the fun and inclusive experience we promise to all arrivals.  Every aspect of this review now figures into our staff training, store policies, and Code of Conduct (linked from the menu in the side frame of this blog).  I don't know if the nightmare experience this review describes ever really happened, but if it did, it must never be allowed to happen again. 

This is a recent review and served as an important messaging lesson for me.  When those limited Pokemon boxes came out, we had a lot of requests for the Generations booster packs, but they weren't released a la carte, only as pack-ins for the limited box sets.  After an entire week of requests, including from this reviewer, we finally gave in and just opened a bunch of the limited boxes so we could offer the packs loose.  My messaging backfired on us; I had gone to such lengths to teach the customers that there was only one way to get the packs, that when I gave them the opposite news a short time later, they felt tricked or deceived.  Now I know.  Even in this modern age of social media and democratized access to information, there is still a perception of the game store staff as "purveyors of information" on product.  Expertise is trusted.  I can't say things as a business owner that will make the public think I am using my expertise unfairly.

There they are, my negative reviews and the lessons I took away from each.  I am aware that writing this article and repeating those reviews here actually serves to give them additional airtime.  To me, that is even further motivation to up my game and make my business better.  An honest, clear, and authentic negative review should not be something for a business owner to fear.  I would rather know what we did wrong so it can be made right.  To everyone who ever left me a review, regardless of how you rated my business, thank you for caring enough to take the time to do it.


  1. Very informative and level headed Michael. I could to respect you as a consumate business man, which is why we continue to choose to do business with you year after year. Keep up the good work.

  2. It is always a tricky thing. I also work with the social media team at work and I see what some say about the service they received. The difference is that it is specific to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or our internal social media network.

    I have the opportunity to ask for them to reach out to me, it if they wish to, so I can learn more about their experience to help get more out of it. Maybe it is coaching an employee that needs to be addressed, maybe there was just a misunderstanding, whatever the case, it was something enough to cause them to wanna say something.

    As long as you acknowledge and learn from each customer experience, you are going to know what demand is out there, you will understand your customer, and you will help better create the hype for the store you worked so hard to be successful.