How to Survive (& Thrive) When Everyone’s a Critic

On building a business and delivering an “excellent” customer experience in an era of high expectations and no margin for error.

Our 2017 Certificate of Excellence Award

I’m very excited to share that Paris Picnic, the experiential food and events company I helped co-found in 2013, has been awarded a Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor! It’s an honor to receive this recognition and in many ways helps validate our commitment to delivering an exceptional customer experience and doing whatever it takes to delight our clients. This has not always been an easy goal, but it has driven our business strategy from the very beginning and has led us to constantly refine and improve our product-market fit to stay on top.

Along the way, we’ve learned a lot about how to use online platforms like TripAdvisor to engage our customers (both as a sales channel and as a feedback mechanism), build our brand and narrative, and advertise our services to a global audience. Below are a few of these lessons, many of which I think are equally applicable to countless other businesses.

But first, a little context: when we launched the company, my wife and I were living in Paris and trying to “scratch our own itch” by creating a service that catered to people like us and our friends.

We thought we knew our customer, but we didn’t.

We envisioned Parisians ordering towards the end of their workday and then meeting with friends that evening for a relaxed outdoor meal of wine, good food and engaging conversation under the Eiffel Tower, in the Tuileries Gardens or along the Canal St-Martin. Fast forward to today, and over 80% of our customers are tourists visiting the city and wanting an authentic cultural experience.

These customers come from over 100 countries, speak dozens of languages and range in age from infants (with parents in tow, of course) to a few who are still picnicking well into their 90s.

Picnic time in Paris

Ultimately, our agility and adherence to four principles enabled us to design products and services that delight this extremely diverse customer base, and made us a better company in the process:

Lesson 1 — Don’t guess who your customers are or what they want: When we first launched, we thought we knew our product and market (picnics to Parisians, duh!). It wasn’t until online reviews started coming in on TripAdvisor, Yelp and Google that we began learning who our customers really were and what they wanted and valued. We started using data analytics across all aspects of the business to better understand and serve these customers (thank you Google Analytics!).

We changed several of our offerings, added new services (like surprise set-ups for an added “wow” factor for wedding proposals and balloons to help tourists find their picnic), formed new partnerships and re-focused our marketing efforts.

Lesson 2 — Set a platform strategy from the beginning: The Internet provides an infinite number of ways to establish and share your narrative, advertise your business and engage potential customers. The Internet also provides an infinite number of ways for people to provide feedback and comment on what you’re doing.

In our case, TripAdvisor and Yelp enable anyone to become a food critic while Instagram has become indispensable for travel bloggers to share their experiences. Millions of people rely on these reviews and recommendations to determine where to eat, what to do and to set their expectations before they ever buy anything from your business, so ignore at your peril!

Ultimately, you can’t control what others say about your business (nor should you), but you can control how you respond and engage both fans and critics (and yes, there will be both). Be responsive, provide clear answers to FAQs and make it easy for customers to find and engage with your business. Which brings us to the next point…

Lesson 3 — Don’t ask for feedback if you’re not going to use it: If you solicit feedback, there’s an implicit expectation you’re going to use it for something. And if you don’t, then you’re missing a huge opportunity. Today it’s possible to collect so much data on your customers, their preferences, how they interact with and use your product, what they like and don’t like, etc. etc. Information has to be acted on to become valuable.

Chances are your business is already sitting on valuable customer data that you may not even know about. Make use of the analytics services provided by the platforms you use, and look into 3rd party APIs to collect more. Use this data to improve your offerings. Make little tweaks as often as needed and don’t be afraid of big changes in direction.

Some goods on display in the Paris Picnic shop (16 rue Notre Dame de Nazareth, Paris)

Lesson 4 — Take ownership and make things right: Things go wrong every day, and the Internet has a long memory. While we make a commitment to each customer to deliver the best experience we possibly can, sometimes we fall short. Rather than get defensive or try and assign blame when this happens, we just focus on doing what we can to resolve the problem and restore trust (and like every other business, we’ve had some incredibly entitled and difficult customers).

People tend to recognize and appreciate efforts to make things right. Our customers know we take their feedback seriously (and we try to be proactive in asking for it), which leads to more constructive dialogue and helps us continually improve as a company.

Picnics about to go out for delivery

So with that, congrats again to the Paris Picnic team for all the dedication and hard work that enabled this award, and I hope these lessons and suggestions help other businesses put the customer first and succeed in the age of instant feedback.

One more thing: my co-pilot, Katya, published a few of her lessons learned from running the business in a related Medium article back in January titled What Making 5,000 Picnics Taught Me About Growing a Business — check it out!