To Shame or Not to Shame?

By: Patrick Maguire

Book Chapter: Customer Hall of Shame

Posted: 03/8/2015

On the heels of one of the biggest stories in the news last week, publicly shaming abusive guests and fellow humans, I made 2 lists for current and future consulting clients to consider before pulling the trigger. Now that we’ve all had time to reflect on the incidents and the aftermath, I decided to make my lists public here for discussion.

Reasons why initiating public shaming of customers by a business on social media is a bad idea:

  1. Defending the decision or apologizing for it can be a huge time drain.
  2. The distraction from running your business.
  3. It could backfire badly.
  4. The other side of the story.
  5. The truth.
  6. If you or your staff are culpable, you’ve created an (unnecessary) opportunity for the spotlight to shine brightly on your mishandling of the situation, lack of training, professionalism and experience.
  7. The potential perception that your shaming of guests may be perceived as passive aggressive and cowardly, the same thing many of us accuse amateur ‘reviewers’ of.
  8. Screenshots and residual articles and comments are forever, along with the negative connotations.
  9. The satisfaction is usually temporary, and often not worth it.
  10. The questions about your true motives. (Is it to compensate for something you’re not doing or to create a distraction?)
  11. The risk. It’s rarely 100% beneficial.
  12. The sycophantic, ‘hero’ worshiping, cheerleaders who may enjoy the entertainment aren’t your true friends.
  13. The high road.
  14. Revenge/retaliation.
  15. Inciting ex-employees with a legitimate ax to grind to unearth ugly truths. (Wrongful termination, etc.)
  16. Inciting ex-‘everythings’  to expose your skeletons. (Stiffed/jaded vendors, consultants, etc.)
  17. The longer-term implications for the shamed could ultimately be more severe than their improprieties warrant.
  18. Potentially being accused of staging the incident for PR purposes.
  19. The questions raised about your professionalism and hospitality philosophy.
  20. Huge distraction for FOH staff when future customers repeatedly ask about the incident.
  21. The story will be repeated over and over inaccurately, with negative connotations for you and your business.
  22. You’re better off letting someone else do it, bloggers, media, customers, Chowhounds, etc.
  23. Your PR firm may fire you.
  24. Potential lawsuit.
  25. Google.

Reasons why initiating public shaming of customers by a business on social media is a great idea:

  1. You’ve slept on it and considered all 25 reasons above and are convinced that you, your employees, future guests, your brand and your business will benefit in the long run.

There are exceptions when we’re backed into a corner and need to defend ourselves, our families, staff,  brands, businesses, the ‘truth’, and fight fire with fire. Absolutely. And there’s no doubt with the way that technology has evolved, and the way people sometimes use it as a threat, that we’ve all been tempted to strike back, and have in some cases. I’ve done it probably more often than I should have via blog posts. We all wish we could have moments back and could have handled things differently. As business owners, employees and customers, we can all learn from this recent spate of public shamings, and reflect on how we might respond the next time we’re tempted.

I strive for the mission of this blog and my book project to present balanced views of the issues. That doesn’t always happen because we’re all biased and my bias has a (strong) tendency to sympathize with workers/owners vs. customers in most instances. I understand that, and I’ll continue to work on being more objective while researching and posting here.

I welcome your comments and perspective.

9 Responses to “To Shame or Not to Shame?”

  1. Christine Babb says:

    I’m sorry, but a company can defend its reputation and make its case without resorting to “fight(ing) fire with fire,” (publicly shaming, engaging in name-calling, etc.).

    There is never a good enough BUSINESS REASON to publicly attack/belittle/demean/insult a customer, no matter how egregious their online comments may have been. All other reasons are just justifications for immature behavior, IMO.

  2. tim says:

    Its a tough call to make. I would err on the side of not saying anything but if the same people are constantly a problem, it just might be easier to very quietly pick up their check and tell them to take their biz elsewhere.

  3. Big Louie says:

    Patrick, congratulations on taking the high road. I admire that, but beg to differ. Yelpers and the like are gaining momentum and holding hard-working owners and their staffs hostage by making outrageous demands and then resorting to exaggeration and outright lying on Social Media in retaliation if their every (off-the-menu, after-closing) whim isn’t accommodated.

    The latest hubbub was the restaurateur whose troublesome customers threatened to post a bad Yelp if they weren’t accommodated. These two sat themselves in a reservations-only restaurant, and proceeded to behave in such a way that the owner actually included calling the police in his problem-solving list (but didn’t because he didn’t want to escalate it to that). He took the high road and so did his staff — despite the absolutely despicable behavior of these persons.

    Of course, petty Yelping which is par-for-the-course should not be responded to negatively. Indeed, “kill ’em with kindness” in Yelp owner responses is a great way to perhaps turn a customer ‘on’ who’d have been potentially turned off by the review itself.

    In 90% of cases, your 25 reasons apply without question. The 10% of cases — cases of persons whose behavior actually make one ideate about calling the authorities — are fair game for anything the restaurant wants to say about them. It’s a matter of setting boundaries and standing-up when the level of disrespect becomes unacceptable quickly and escalates to the degree that not only does it make the owner/manager and their staff uncomfortable, but also the customers who must endure overhearing these boors.

    In a perfect world, the boors would eat at home and we would be “ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” But that’s not the case, now. The spoilt great-grandchildren of the Greatest Generation have changed the game.

  4. Big Louie- I appreciate your insight. I disagree that the disruptive customers should have been “killed with kindness” and allowed to stay, drink and occupy a reserved table. Several people have asked me, “Well, how do you get abusive customers out?” Every situation is unique, and you have to go with your instincts in the moment and gradually escalate until the problem is resolved. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway–Everyone in a hospitality job should do everything they can to “turn” difficult customers before getting to the point of ejecting them. Sometimes it’s hard as hell and sometimes it’s impossible, but you have to try hard before 86’ing ’em. All hospitality pros have great stories about some of the worst customers becoming their best ambassadors (an entire, separate blog post).
    When someone crosses the line–physical or verbal abuse, threats, property damage, etc., it has to be made clear to them that the conversation is over, their behavior is unacceptable, they’ve violated the social contract of mutual respect, and they have to go. Protecting your staff and good customers requires decisive, swift action. There can be no negotiation like there was in the Cambridge incident, despite the hashtag stating otherwise. Removing guests may require clearing their drinks and everything on their table, asking to speak to them outside, demanding that they leave, embarrassing them into leaving, threatening to call the police, and then doing it if necessary. It rarely comes to that. If you’re direct and forceful enough, even quietly without disrupting the whole restaurant or business, most people will leave. You can’t let them stay, and shaming them in public does not solve the problem in the moment, and potentially creates a bigger one.

  5. Lynne says:

    Hi Patrick,
    I believe in taking the high road. Although, not easy at times. Nor have I always done so.The behavior of public shaming is never warranted. If you are the owner, and or management, by showing this kind of behavior, are you not setting this as an example for your staff?
    That being said, would you want to go to the establishment for dinner? Feeling that if asked too many questions about the menu, server had to fill up my water glass 10 times, etc, would a picture of me with an unbecoming hash tag show up on instagram?

    There are many ways to ask a patron to leave the establishment in a peaceful way. Again, sometimes easier said than done, but not often.

  6. Nicely put together piece Patty. I’d prefer to keep my personal thoughts and feelings, well, personal, but I enjoyed reading your comments and really think you’re on to something. Thanks for taking the time to think this through and share!

  7. Big Louie says:

    Patrick thanks for your thoughts about mine. I’m thinking more and more that a truly professional restaurateur ought not to lower oneself to the level of childish tit-for-tat arguing on Yelp. So I’ll adjust my attitude more toward 0% of the time instead of 10%.

    However, about ejection from the premises: our current place of business has a demographic that’s pretty volatile sometimes. When you’re a neighborhood bar, there’re bound to be creeps that you just must “86” because they’re so far off the spectrum of acceptable behavior (even, in some cases, off the spectrum of questionable behavior), it’s bad for business to keep them around.

    What my customers say and do to me and to my staff, unless violence is used, doesn’t result in the customer being ejected or barred. They’re given water to drink and ignored. But when one customer interferes with the peaceful enjoyment of our bar by another customer, the violator has to go.

  8. Faith says:

    I work for a major retail chain and it amazes me how many down right anti social people are out there. It is my experience that some people go out of their way to turn product upside down or back to front, move product from one area to another or fill up a cart with product and then abandon it just to get their jollies.

    Then of course the next level are those that steal (as in this case – yes they stole food). FYI nationally the chain reported $12.4million leakage last calendar year!!

    Customers expect standards from restaurants and shops and will moan if they are not met so it is only fair that it works both ways. Public shaming is a good place to start after all while it helps the business as a bit of a deterrant to anti social behavior it more importantly ensures a better experience for the honest, no fuss customers whom it is a pleasure to serve.

  9. Jeff Toister says:

    Patrick, I think you’re spot on with this one.

    One interesting side note — I did some analysis specifically on Twitter and found that most of those rants aren’t nearly as damaging as people might think. I don’t know if the same holds true on Yelp or other platforms, but it’s a possibility.

    Here’s the link:

Leave a Reply

Permalink | Posted in Customer Hall of Shame | 9 Comments »