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Branding and Identity Beyond Design: Overcome Small Business Horror Stories

Get a negative phone call or review? Here's how you can salvage branding and identity for your small business.

Are you sitting down? Good. We’re going to dig a bit deeper into branding and identity here and get into some of the things you may not want to think about but that you need to hear: yep, this one’s about when things go wrong. Such as when things like negative reviews and crazy customers come your way. What can you do when you encounter these things (and odds are, you will, there isn’t really an “if,” because almost everyone does no matter how great of a job you think you are doing running your small business)? What we are looking for you to get as a takeaway from this is that it is important to stand your ground while still being sure to maintain the high road by utilizing a positive and professional approach, always. While most of our posts will be full of blab about art (that is kind of our obsession, after all), branding and identity is not always about the design aspect. It’s about your image… and that doesn’t have to be a literal or physical thing, such as your logo, colors, fonts, marketing materials, website, packaging, etc., important topics we went over in a previous blog.

When our founder first started her career, she found herself fresh out of school working a full time job with a bit less time to focus on freelance or entrepreneurship. One day her cell phone rang and since it was about 4:55pm on a Friday and she was about to leave for weekend plans across the state, she figured it was probably pretty safe to pick up a personal call.

It was an older sounding woman.

Potential Customer: Is this Art by Adina?

Adina: (In a very chipper voice, excited that someone must have both seen her scrappy little ad somewhere and was actually using that phrase) Well, this is Adina, so I think you’ve come to the right place!

Potential Customer: *silence*

Adina: Hello…?

Potential Customer: (Flatly) Is this or is this not Art by Adina.

Adina: (Quickly) Um, yes, yes it is.

Potential Customer: I need to have photo retouching done for my (name withheld for anonymity) business.

Adina: (Getting excited again) That’s actually one of my favorite things to do!

Potential Customer: (Impatiently) Excuse me. Do you do photo retouching? Yes or no?

Adina: (A bit taken aback now) Yes, of course. I can do that. (Boss walks by) You know what though, I am about to head out and the snow storm is looking pretty bad out there so I’m not sure I should talk on the phone while driving, do you mind if I take down your phone number and get back to you just as soon as I can, hopefully in a few hours?

The ornery woman begrudgingly (telling by the grumbling under her breath) obliged and gave the young founder some contact info. After a long time of driving very slowly and nervously in the dark, snowy, traffic-laden night, Adina finally skidded to her destination. Tired and soaking wet from her trek between the parking area and the place she’d be spending the night in the blizzard, she picked up her phone to start dialing. Then she looked at the clock and realized it was a bit late to be calling a customer and didn’t want to disturb her. She decided to call first thing in the morning and figured the woman would appreciate her making the effort to reach out while away and outside normal business hours…and that it really was a difference of a matter of hours, after all. Bedtime. Saturday morning she called and there was no answer. Not even an answering machine or option for Adina to leave any sort of message. Just endless ringing. She tried again that afternoon. Still nothing. More tries throughout the day. Starting to wonder whether this was a real number, she gave it one more try that evening.

The chat went as follows…

Ornery Lady: Hello.

Adina: OH, yes, hi! It’s Adina, you know, from Art by Adina!

Ornery Lady: *Silence*

Adina: I’m retuning your call…

Ornery Lady: And…? So what.

Adina: I… uh… didn’t you need some photo retouching done? I thought I’d get some more information about your project, I’d be happy to help! Sorry about the delay, the snow was really bad and—

Ornery Lady: No. I don’t need you. I found someone else.

Adina: (Disappointed but hiding it with the chipper voice again) Oh… well in that case, I’m really glad you found someone, maybe we can work together in the future!

Ornery Lady: No we will not. I will not be calling you again. You do not keep your promises, you are unprofessional, you… (proceeds to hurl insults and tear to shreds while our young, now CCO, holds back tears).

Adina: (putting on one of the most fake smiles and fake friendly voices she can muster at this point, does the only thing she can think of doing from a customer service and general nice person standpoint) I’m very sorry you feel that way but I still hope you have a great rest of your day. (Tries to quickly add in how she did actually try calling several times with no answer—hears a click.)

Upset over a negative customer experience? Here's how your small business can utilize its branding and identity to overcome.

Ornery woman had hung up on her so Adina never even got a chance to truly explain herself, to say that they had not even started working together, to tell her that she has never had anyone be displeased with her work once they actually tried her, and that if she could have humored her and given her the opportunity to show what it is really like to work with her, she just knows she would love it. Having someone actually become a client and then missing their deadline on an established project would be something to rightfully be upset about, she thought to herself, plus, given the circumstances, how could this woman have assumed things and gotten so negative and so nasty so quickly... she doesn’t even know me! And either way (she continued in her inner dialogue), who calls 5 minutes before the end of the day on a Friday and expects to have some sort of graphic design services commitment or scope of work agreement made, with contract signed and process and details discussed, all within a few hours?) Years later Adina realizes the importance of only working with people that align with the company and knew she would not have enjoyed working with someone like that anyway.

Did you pick out the key learning opportunity there?

We didn’t write this to put a damper on your vibe or have you picturing a happy-go-lucky kid being let down. If you have not picked up on this by now, what we’re getting at is that beyond the graphics aspect, what your branding and identity is used for is deciding how you want others to see your company, what you want them to think of or how you want them to feel when someone mentions you—and trust us, as much as you think some particularly difficult customers might “deserve” some sass, and no matter how badly you want to give a person a piece of your mind, what you definitely do not want your business rep to become is a bad one. It’s not worth it. Do not let anything tarnish your reputation, if you can help it, regardless of how infuriating a situation might be. Hold it in… well, to an extent. This does not mean let people walk all over you. We all know the old adage, “the customer is always right.” Some of us might be more aware of this than others unfortunately but let’s just say there are people in this world are not out to spread joy. Rather, oftentimes people have proven to be after their own agenda and will do anything to make themselves feel better despite that potentially meaning they’ll have to take someone else down to satisfy that.

Branding and identity is important and can help turn around any exchange

Good news is if a bully of sorts does come along, there are some things we can and should do to take matters into our own hands, as natural customer service people (if you have your own business you should aim to have exemplary people skills since you are putting yourself in a highly client-facing role unless perhaps you’ve hired others to do that for you). As mentioned in the intro, the biggest pieces of advice we can give in these types of situations are:

  1. Attitude: Stay calm, positive, and professional, no matter what. This is not about you, as a person. It’s not about being right. It’s about a different entity (or you can of course choose to have it be tied to you as an individual, but we suggest keeping them somewhat separate). Decide what you want to be reflected in your branding and identity. Be tough but not in an obvious, public, outward sort of way—rather in an internal way, as in, you should not let anything get to you. You are welcoming and friendly but you are also a wall. Better yet? A fortress. Find the balance and protect your brand (anyone see the South Park episode where they refuse to break character?) You are in charge of creating the look and feel, don't let others create that picture for you... bringing us to our next point.

  2. Stand your ground: Being nice regardless of what happens does not mean let someone take advantage of you. Clients and customers are important but you also don’t want a marshmallow sort of rep when it comes to branding and identity. You need to keep your business running smoothly and have people understand that there is a structure and that you know what you are doing. Don’t let people think they can get away with anything… this is how you could end up with someone trying to evade payment. People still need to respect small business owners (and *coughcough* artists). Although it was upsetting, the above story was easier for the founder to deal with because it all took place over the phone rather than being an online review. If you receive a review that you believe is unfair, inaccurate, or just outright wrong, by all means please do stand up for yourself. Lack of doing so could let stand a claim that others might see and believe to be true, if unchallenged. Tactfully disagree and pleasantly tell your side of the story, then try apologizing for the “confusion” and invite them to allow you the opportunity to show them a better experience next time (that’s what we instructed a dentist client of ours do recently after someone claiming to be a patient left a harsh review, and when the office looked into it--to see if he even had a file, since they did not remember him whatsoever--they discovered he was never actually treated at their office but probably at one nearby with a similar name).

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