Woman checking her phone with shopping bags

It happened again.  This time it was really not pretty.  I was called names.  My shop was labeled unacceptable. I used all of the tactics that I had used in the past.  She continued to be nasty, rude and someone I would have thrown out of my doors if we had a brick and mortar shop.

She was an online shop bully.  In my case, since I was dealing with her on Etsy, she could also be called the Etsy shop bully.  They linger in the shadows until they find a helpless victim.  Then they pounce.

Sadly, I actually saw this shop bully coming.  I knew after I received her order communication that this one was going to be trouble.  I even tried to do something about it by asking her to leave.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t forceful enough.  That’s how I ended up in trouble.

Unfortunately, online bullies are everywhere these days.  We have what I like to call an Amazon culture.  A place in the online universe where customers believe that they can stomp their feet, yell obscenities and create a scene from the comfort of their home.  All in the name of business.  And they think it is okay.

There was once a time when the online shop bully had a harder time hiding.  When I started Katarina’s Paperie on Etsy, there used to be a function where you rated the customer from the sales end.  This was mostly based on if they paid on time, if they were kind and if they didn’t cause too much difficulty with their order.

At the time, I didn’t really understand the purpose of this function.  I’ll admit that I rarely used it.  Why would I want to rate the customer?  Does it really matter how the customer behaved?

Actually, it kind of does.  Especially to other shop owners.  If there is a wretched person going around causing havoc to small handmade businesses doesn’t everyone want to know?

Unfortunately, I realized this a bit too late.  About two years into my time on Etsy, the marketplace decided to remove the function.  Only the customer could now leave a review.  There was still a way, though, if you received a terrible review that you could publicly respond.  If you felt like the review was not deserved or defamed your shop, then you could complain to Etsy directly.

Until recently.  Although I can still report a negative review, they require different reasons for the complaint.  I no longer can complain because the customer is being a bully.  Only if they use objectionable language, which interestingly few usually do.

So it is our responsibility as shop owners to provide the most enchanting experience to them.  Although that’s always been the case, I have felt more empowered to dismiss the unruly customers in the past.  Now, no matter how mean, pushy and difficult they want to be, I am supposed to still be extremely charming.  I guess it is the new world of online business.

The problem when I get into a bad customer interaction (and I am happy to say this happens about once or twice a year), is that I get extremely distracted.  I can’t move past it, especially when I know that I am right.  When I have followed all of my policies, had great communication (at least on my end) and completed everything as promised, I get pretty upset when I am accused otherwise.  And then my family suffers.  And I can’t enjoy my precious moments with them because the shop bully is all that I can think about.

Woman carrying colorful shopping bags with the text overlay "How to manage the online shop bully"

I have learned many things about shop bullies over the years though and there are ways to not let them win.  Unfortunately, this weekend was not one of them for me.  But the experience made me start reflecting on things to do differently next time.

Know your current time schedule

When I first started the shop, I would complete orders on Saturday mornings.  It helped last minute customers get their designs in time, increased sales and I didn’t mind too much since it gave me a much needed (and productive) break from the kids.  As they’ve gotten older, though, I have started closing the shop on weekends.  It is family time and so limited.  No shop bully is going to take that away from me.  Except this one.

When you choose to accept an order, make sure you have enough time to complete it.  This week we had fallen behind on our handcrafted orders do to lack of proof approval from customers.  We had no room for an express delivery of a digital order.  I knew that.  I tried to refund twice.  The customer refused to listen.  I should have pushed back more and just refunded any way.  I could have chosen the reason “Shop owner cannot complete transaction”.  Because I couldn’t in the time frame demanded.

If you feel in any way that you won’t be able to get the order out to the customer in the amount of time they need it and they are still insisting on ordering, feel free to cancel the order.  It’s okay.  Keep in mind, new orders will come in.

Let the customer know that you can’t get it completed under the terms given.  Depending on the customer, they most likely will not understand.  They might still be annoyed, but that’s just part of running a business.  It’s better than the bad review that might follow even after you have tried to do everything right.

Get a sense of the customer through communication

The e-commerce world is funny sometimes.  At some point it will hit you that you have never met any of your customers.  They are real – they just don’t always feel real.  I think they probably feel the same way about our shops.  It’s this view that brings out the bad attitudes.

We need to use the tools that we have to gauge a customer and how we think they will behave.  Emails and communication exchanges are the best way.  Every time I have predicted that a transaction will go wrong based on communication, I have been right.

Use these communication channels to your advantage.  The tone of an email can say a lot.  If a person is pushy and trying to tell you how to run your business, the transaction may not end well.  That’s okay, but get out as fast as possible.  It will be better in the end.

Go with your gut feeling

Do you ever get that feeling?  The one that tells you to leave a situation or run away.  This feeling is called intuition.  Although its stronger in some people than others, we all have it.  And as you are in business longer, you will find that your intuition will sharpen.  You will know when you should jump ship faster.

If you’re having any concerns with a customer – from getting paid to making them happy – move on.  Get out.  Your gut feeling is rarely wrong.  Remember to trust it.  You’ll be thankful later.

Woman shopping at jewelry stall with the text overlay "How to manage the online shop bully"

Try explaining, even if you are right

If you do get pounced upon, try explaining what happened and your shop policies again.  With this customer interaction, I went through a timeline explanation of the exact communication we had about her order.  Unfortunately, pointing out that she was in the wrong only made her madder.  She knew she had messed up.  It didn’t matter, it was going to be our shop’s fault.

Some people don’t even allow room for discussion when it comes to customer service.  But do it anyway.  And document it.  If they ever choose to dispute their order, you will have documentation to back up what you did and that you followed your shop’s policies.

Solve as best as possible

For me this meant working on the customer’s designs on Saturday morning.  Even though I didn’t want to.  Even though it took time away from my family.  I still did it.  Because it was the only way to get the customer out of my mind.  And I didn’t want to face it on Monday morning.  I didn’t do it for the customer (although they think I did).

If you do end up getting bullied, try to move the customer on in the best way possible.  The solution may not be pretty.  I was reading about a customer interaction the other day, where the customer claimed the piece of jewelry they purchased had broken soon after.  She was quite awful to the shop owner.  Eventually she bullied the shop owner to provide her a refund.  The customer then told her that the refund was wrong.  In the end, the necklace that was broken was not even purchased from the shop giving the refund.  Even though it was that shop owner that ended up giving the refund.  The shop owner chose not to ask for additional proof, but just move on.  Sometimes this is better for mental health than to endure the heckling.

But remember, it’s not always your fault.  Customers can become mistaken.  They lie, cheat and throw tantrums.  It’s human nature.  The difference today is that they can hide behind a computer screen to do it.  This behavior puts a small online shop at a real disadvantage.  Sometimes it’s just easier to take the loss.  It will let you move on to the other customers who actually follow online etiquette.

Make sure you have clear shop policies

One reason customers are able to take advantage of small shops is because the shop policies are not always clear.  Before opening your shop, make sure you have written the exact policies that you want followed.

Etsy customers have an interesting misunderstanding.  Etsy has policies that your shop needs to follow.  But each individual shop sets their own policies for the customer to follow.

A number of customers have informed me that my policies are wrong since they have shopped at other Etsy shops and they have been different there.  I review with them that each shop has their own policies and direct them to ours.  I have a statement in the policies and listing that by purchasing from our shop, you are agreeing to them.

Most people don’t take the time to read the listing description.  But when you purchase from a vendor on Etsy, you agree to whatever policies they have laid forth.  If you don’t like their shop policies, you shouldn’t buy from their shop.  End of story.

This Etsy policy is there to protect you as a shop owner.  Make sure you use it if necessary.  The first step is by having very clear policies in your shop.  If it isn’t in the policy, then you will have trouble defending your actions if there is a dispute.

Remember words have never hurt us (unless said publicly)

People will say anything and make up any kind of story just to get their way in the retail world.  Why not?  Big retailers have let them get away with that behavior for years.

Remember Amazon?  No matter what someone may call you, your shop or your products in an email, remember that it isn’t true.  They just want something or are mad about something.  Just be grateful they aren’t saying it publicly where it might actually do some damage.  At least not yet.

Move on as best as possible

This is not always that easy.  I let things eat at me like crazy – especially when it’s their fault, not mine.  My mind will spin out of control.  I won’t be able to enjoy my family time, play with my kids or relax.  Over the years, I have discovered that solving the problem helps me move on the fastest.

I don’t like drawn out arguments, never have.  It’s best for me to move a shop bully out of my shop as quickly as possible.  This prevents furthering arguing or enduring even more mean emails.

In this case, I went ahead and completed the order on my day off.  But it was better than it ruining our entire weekend with me worrying about it.  In the end, after all of the fuss, she didn’t bother downloading the files until late Sunday night.  But it was done.  And I knew it.  I didn’t have to deal with her cruel behavior again.  And now she is as nice as can be to me.  Of course, she got her way.

You control how you respond

Most likely the problem is not your fault.  In this recent case, the customer failed to plan and allow reasonable turn around times.  It was not our shop’s fault that her event was so soon.  She had months to plan.  She chose to plan with very little time.  That is not something that we could control.  Your shop can only control how you respond.

Normally when a customer has failed to plan and wants us to perform a delivery miracle, I kindly apologize that we are unable to handle rush orders and can’t complete their order.  They might try to talk me into it, but I am firm on our policy.

I have even written language about not accepting rush orders any more in our shop policies.  This gives me a place to send customers who don’t like “no” for an answer.  It shows them that they weren’t the only ones.  If you wanted to order from our shop, you needed to purchase earlier.  Hopefully, next time they will consider this when planning.

Prepare for a bad review

It may or may not come, but it’s always good to be prepared.  Really mad customers tend to leave reviews before you have even had a chance to address and solve their problem.  Even once you resolve their issue, most of these customers won’t change the review.

Make sure you have a list of possible positive responses that you can use when you get a bad review.  It will save you time from always having to write a response from scratch.

And don’t worry.  A couple bad reviews will not sink your business.  I promise.  They tend to make your business seem more human.  Just work hard to get as many positive reviews as you can.  It makes it easier to shrug off the occasional bad review.

If a bad review is getting you down, reread some of your positive reviews.  It’s always good to remember what customers say about your shop.  This is also a wonderful way to keep you motivated.

Final Thoughts…

The good news is that the online shop bully tends to only come around every once and awhile.  Even with over 10,000 sales on Etsy, I see only a few of these customers a year.

The problem is, though, that these are the customers you remember.  How could you not?  By having a plan in place to manage the online shop bully, your business communication will be smoother and leave you feeling more positive.

And remember, you are doing the best you can.  Not every communication exchange ends positively.  But leave knowing you did everything you could to help that customer.

Here’s to not encountering another shop bully for at least a few weeks.  No, no, make that a couple of months.  I need a break after this last one.