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How to face up to business criticism

There’s no doubt about it: the Internet has truly broken down the wall between businesses and their customers. This of course provides great opportunities for marketing, yet there’s a major downside too.
Business criticism on social networks, websites, or any other online channel sucks. There’s no better word to describe it. However, it’s one of those things that all companies will have to deal with eventually, even if they themselves don’t have a digital presence.
Bad reviews, complaints, accusations and even harassment are inevitable, no matter the enterprise: small, large, successful, a newbie, etc. But you can turn negative feedback around: use it to improve your service/product; strengthen your business’s reputation; and demonstrate that you value quality and are committed to customer satisfaction.
First though, there are two things you should not do when criticized:

  • Lash out/get defensive. This includes any form of unprofessionalism, such as denying the problem, becoming argumentative/abusive, or publicly calling them out.
  • Ignore it. This simply shows that you don’t care. Even worse (cringe) is if you delete the comment/post. Of course, if you have verified that the complainant is in fact a troll, shut them down immediately.

Now, here are some pointers on what you should do to deal with online criticism:
1. Have a plan & be quick about it 
Social media, in particular, is fast. Things tend to escalate pretty quickly, and people expect a response within the same day – if not the same hour! 
The sooner the better, but before you hit that reply button, your organization should have a system for responding to negative feedback. This ensures that the company avoids mistakes when addressing issues.
Such a plan would outline different types of responses for certain scenarios, best practices, who is responsible for moderation or community management, etc.
If you anticipate that a detailed answer/solution will take long, at least acknowledge the comment/post with a brief yet honest reply, letting them know that you’ve received the message and are working on it. 
Show them that they are your priority. Apologize if there’s any unreasonable delay, and reassure them that you haven’t forgotten about it (do this before they have to remind you about their problem).
But do something, before others notice the lack of response, join in, and start a virtual war against your business.
2. Monitor the media
Having a plan and being quick is useless if you don’t closely follow what’s being said about your business. You need to monitor all social conversations; do a keyword search for your brand’s name and see what’s circulating. Regularly check mentions, alerts, notifications, forums, etc.
I suggest doing this even on sites where you’re not active. When I started managing the online channels of a startup, I browsed through a site where we didn’t have a presence. I was mildly horrified to read unanswered questions and comments – both good and bad –about our business from months ago.
If nothing related comes up, don’t think of this as wasting time – it’s a way to keep up with industry news, market needs, and other general (useful) info that could help the company.
3. Identify the problem 
Every customer experience is different, and so is the complaint. So before sending a generic response, carefully read through the feedback. Pinpoint the following:

  • The person who’s doing the criticizing – Is it a one-time customer, a long-standing client, a former employee?
  • What’s the review or feedback about – A specific product, customer service?
  • The content of their post – It could be a suggestion, advice, or a warning to others against your business.
  • What they want or expect – Do they require an immediate apology or explanation?
  • The course of action – Is the customer truly seeking a solution? Are they just looking for a way to vent their anger?

4. Time to respond
a) What to say:
Firstly, greet them warmly and address them by name or as per company policy. Thank them for taking the time to write and immediately apologize for any inconvenience caused (especially if your business is clearly at fault). Acknowledge there’s a problem and/or that the customer has a valid grievance.
Be honest, admit your shortcomings, and let them know exactly what you are doing to address the problem. When you sign off, leave a human name (yours), so that they know that a real person is talking to them.
b) How to say it:
Be polite & professional, always. However, avoid being overly formal; you want to sound human, not robotic. Plus, there’s the risk of coming across as patronizing. 
Customize each response to the specific person and the nature of their comment/message. It’s dismally obvious when a company sends a canned response. The latter includes one-liners and vague statements.
Above all, be sincere.
5. Resolving conflict 
Sometimes, a customer just wants to be heard. Others (often rightly so) require things like reimbursements.
Your business should have a system in place for refunds, discounts, etc. Consider asking the person how you can make it up to them.
Serious allegations or criticism require longer conversations, which may need to be taken ‘offline’ – but make sure you do follow up on that. Don’t let phone calls or emails be your escape from the public eye.
Never give up on a person who has a genuine problem with your business. Work with them from beginning to end, whether it concerns a product malfunction, poor customer service, or anything similar.
While you or your team works on the issue, keep them updated on progress; this builds your trustworthiness and is likely to win you a loyal fan.
6. The aftermath
Even if everything is resolved in the end, follow up with the person. Apologize and thank them again for being patient with your business, and let them know that their feedback will help you improve your service.
It’s also a good idea to ask others if they’ve encountered a similar problem, or if anyone has other suggestions in mind. This gives customers a platform to express their views and demonstrates that even if you’re not perfect, you’re constantly striving to be.
I recall one very unhappy customer turning into one of our strongest brand advocates, simply because she was extremely pleased with the customer support that followed after her complaint. Her problem indirectly increased our customer base!
It is true that you can’t please everyone, and there are likely to be some who’ll never be happy with your business. However, it’s up to you to minimize that percentage of people.
Criticism is painful, but it’s also an opportunity to show that your company is transparent, dedicated, and puts its customers first.

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