How to Respond Positively to Negative Feedback

Reposted from my column in the Portland Business Tribune.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles | freedigitalphotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles | freedigitalphotos.net

If it hasn’t happened to you yet, you’re lucky—but at some point, your business will be criticized. The Internet is pretty much a free-for-all of customer reviews, complaints and commentary.

Business owners often struggle to find the right words to craft a decent response. And some just don’t respond at all, which can be a huge mistake. When it comes to negative feedback that’s posted online, keep in mind that how you handle it is visible to the world. Ignoring it won’t make it go away, and may even give off the perception that you don’t care about your customers.

If and when you do receive negative feedback, you can turn it into an opportunity to regain the trust and respect of that customer, and you could win over some new customers, as well.

Be polite
It’s natural to want to defend your business, your employees or your products and services, but resist the urge. The customer may be in the wrong, but saying so will not help your public image. Never place blame on the customer, and never respond in an emotional, accusatory manner. Instead, step back and take a breath. Consider how the customer feels, and think about what you’d want to hear if you were in his place. Maintain a professional, polite disposition, but be careful not to sound robotic—people want to see that you’re genuine and compassionate.

Keep it short
It’s usually best to keep your response brief. Acknowledge the customer’s feedback, and invite them to discuss it at length with you over the phone or at your place of business. Going into too much detail in your public response is akin to airing dirty laundry. Consider a simple “We’re so sorry you had that experience with our company. We invite you to call our customer service desk if you’d like to talk more about the specifics of the situation.” It can go a long way toward making the customer feel heard, encouraging a real dialog and showing others that you give proper attention to unhappy customers.

See it as a learning opportunity
When you’re feeling criticized or even attacked, it can be difficult to see the value behind someone’s not-so-pleasant feedback. However, consider this: There are companies that pay big money to survey real people for insight on how to better themselves, and you just got it for free! The comments your business receives online are a kind of customer research, and you can benefit from it. Make note of any suggestions or questions that are mentioned in the comments, and seriously consider whether you can use this feedback to better your business.

To quote Winston Churchill, “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

Know when to walk away
You won’t be able to fix every problem and make everyone happy, and unfortunately, there are some people who derive pleasure from pushing your buttons. They don’t want your help; they just want to start an argument. On the Internet, this type of person is called a troll, and it is perfectly acceptable to ignore them.

How do you tell the difference between a real gripe and someone who just enjoys stirring the pot? Follow the steps above: Be polite, keep it short and try to find the value in the critique. If despite your best efforts they refuse to have a civil, productive discussion with you, it’s OK to let it go. Remember that everyone else will see how you handled the comments, and they’ll be impressed you kept your cool.

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