Getting up close and personal with your critics is one of the hardest parts of maintaining a presence in social media. But it’s actually quite a typical story for how companies tend to get started in social: someone gets wind of a blog post, tweet storm, or even a dedicated site slam-trashing their brand all over the place. Panic ensues. What to do?
Here are some guidelines, mostly from a corporate customer service perspective, for addressing negative feedback on the web. And as always, common sense and best judgment apply.
1. Decide whether or not the item warrants a response.
There are such things as posts you should ignore, including obvious “troll” postings, rants, or degrading portrayals of people or companies that are baseless and inflammatory. Feeding these beasts is usually a waste of time; instead, monitor quietly to gauge the response to the item from the *rest* of the community and respond to substantive criticism only when it will result in progress.
2. Acknowledge the issue.
The “I’m sorry we disappointed you” can go a long way to diffusing a tense situation and an unhappy customer. It’s not about admitting fault, it’s about acknowledging someone’s feelings of frustration or disappointment. Do this publicly in the medium where the complaint or negative post occurred – it helps the community see that you’re paying attention and responding – and take the follow up conversation to private channels if needed.
3. Find out what went wrong.
Ask to understand what happened, and what made the experience go awry. Ask what will make it better. You can do this via a backchannel like email if more comfortable for the customer or if confidential information needs to be shared, but make sure you do it.
4. If there’s misinformation, correct it.
Provide factual (not emotional) information in response, along with an offer to elaborate or provide more detail if needed and available. Keep your points and information relevant to the complaints or criticisms specifically, never make it personal, and don’t speculate or presume you understand the surrounding circumstances without gathering more information. Provide contact information for a real person for follow up whenever possible. (not a general customer service line).
5. If you have a solution at the ready, offer it.
No solution yet? Explain what next steps you’re going to take to come to a resolution. If at all possible, have the responder be someone who is authorized to actually solve the problem without having to escalate it and pass them around to several people. Follow up to be sure that whatever was promised – whether resolution or just information – is delivered. Your CRM systems come in handy here.
6. Realize that not everything needs fixing.
If you want to respond to a situation or criticism but don’t intend to change your product or practices as a result, that’s fine. A critique doesn’t always mean there’s something that needs correcting. But if you can, offer a calm explanation of your position, in real words. Just clearly stating your position can be reassuring to your customers, even if you agree to disagree. Skip the corporate speak.
7. Don’t be terse or defensive.
Nothing kills trust faster (and it’s amazing that company representatives do this, but they do). Focus on positive outcomes and moving the situation forward, not rehashing details that have already been covered. In fact, gauge the tone of the conversation and be willing to have a sense of humor and a dose of humility. Those can diffuse a situation faster than putting your guard up.
8. Respond in public whenever possible, and bring the right person to the conversation.
Contrary to what you might think, acknowledging and accepting criticism in front of an audience can strengthen your reputation. When responding, use a professional but friendly tone, take a few moments to think through your response (vs. an off the cuff reaction), and support information you’re providing with links or other references wherever possible. Bring in the right person for the response – like, say, a product engineer vs. a public relations person – if you can. *Who* you bring to the discussion can speak volumes about whether or not you take it seriously.
9. Be creative about what’s next.
What about having a negative reviewer be part of your next product innovation brainstorm, or contribute ideas for your loyalty program? It’s not for the faint of heart, but it can be a gold mine of new perspectives.
10. Say thank you.
It’s just as important in the face of a critique as when you’re told something nice. Thank them for sharing their experience, and caring enough to be angry and say so. It’s a great opportunity for you to learn, and graciousness can diffuse even the most sticky situations. (It’s called the art of diplomacy.)
Bonus round: Know when to fold ‘em.
Realistically, there is a time to walk away. When you have attempted resolution for a problem through all rational channels, sometimes you have to say you’ve done the best you can, thank them for their perspective, and let it drop.
If criticism of a product or service devolves into mud slinging, accusations of malpractice or illegal activity, or personal threats or attacks, it’s time to walk away (and perhaps consult legal counsel for your business if liability or other regulatory issues are in question). Civil discourse and discussion is fine, even healthy. Nastiness is not.
Perhaps the most important lesson in addressing criticism online is to keep the door open, and don’t get discouraged. If you’re thrust into a crisis and need to respond, take the opportunity to keep the channels of communication open with your customers and learn from what you hear and read. Responding to negativity isn’t the ideal way to start the conversation, but it can sure be a great incentive to keep it going and learn a few things along the way.
What have you learned about engaging detractors online? Can you share examples of what’s worked for you and what hasn’t? We’d love to learn from you, and help guide others too.