Following on from his recent article on handling customer complaints effectively, Professor Martin now opens up another Business Clinic session to tackle an altogether more modern offshoot from this timeless problem – the online critics!
Nowadays, it seems that everyone’s a critic, and wounding negative comments about your small business can be typed out in seconds and put on display for the whole world to see!
So, what are the best methods for dealing with online negativity and criticism? Do we try and be sensible and rational with these people, hoping that they’ll eventually change their minds and be nice to us? Or do we offer to meet up with them in the nearest convenient pub carpark, and then threaten to poke their eyes out with a big stick?
Professor Martin grabs a red hot poker (just in case) and goes out into the internet wilderness in search of those pesky Trolls….
Here at the Business Clinic, we’ve had a lot of interesting feedback from my recent article on How to Handle Customer Complaints and Criticism Effectively.
Nigel, my increasingly strange lab assistant, has been kept very busy opening up and responding to all your letters, queries, suggestions, and offers of large sums of money if we just go away and stop bothering you with all this nonsense.
One particular question that kept cropping up regularly in our Business Clinic Postbag was “What am I supposed to do when somebody posts negative comments about my business on the internet?”
It’s certainly a very contemporary problem that every cutting-edge entrepreneur should know how to deal with.
In this technological age, it’s easier than ever before to become a critic and make an online complaint or criticism.
Let’s face it, in the olden black-and-white days, not that many people would have been all that bothered about trying to summon up the vast energy levels required to actually pick up a telephone and make a complaint.
Even fewer people would have gone to the considerable effort of walking up and down the streets with a big megaphone, in a bid to make their humble opinions about customer service heard by as many people as humanly possible.
But these days, it’s the easiest thing in the world to make a complaint or comment. No effort, no confrontation, no awkwardness, no need to be polite about it. Just type in exactly how you feel about something and BANG! – it magically appears on the worldwide web for a potential global audience of millions.
Easy, isn’t it? Very probably too easy.
Nigel and myself encountered this problem ourselves a couple of years back, when we were getting ready to launch our innovative new website dedicated to safely removing elephants from your back garden.
Yes, you’re absolutely right, it was a very bad idea. There was a terrible mix-up with the market research figures, and it turns out that we’d significantly over-estimated the demand for advice and support on how to safely remove an elephant from your back garden.
But at the time, I was genuinely excited about the website launch, and we’d developed a wide range of message boards and forums, in order to engage with our prospective new clients.
The day after the launch, our message boards were crammed with thousands and thousands of deeply offensive comments which seemed to question my integrity, my sanity, and in a couple of bizarre cases, my personal hygiene.
I was so wounded by this hurtful criticism, that I closed down the website immediately, and vowed never again to enter the elephant removal market.
It was only much later on that I discovered that Nigel had been responsible for every single one of those messages. As Nigel can only communicate in clicks and whistles, he had decided that this was the most effective way of expressing his strong disapproval of our new business venture.
Needless to say, he didn’t get any chocolate muffins from me that week.
It’s easy enough to post a negative comment or criticism on the internet, but how easy is it to handle these online complaints? How should we respond to it? Should we respond at all? Should we hunt them down, one by one, and dare them to say that kind of thing to our faces?
(I should quickly point out for the benefit of those who may not make it all the way to end of this article, that the answer is most definitely NOT the last one. Please do remember this, it’s fairly important.)
Naturally, online negativity comes in all kinds of funny shapes and sizes. They can take the form of a minor complaint on your own website forum or Facebook page, a very bad review on an external website over which you have no control, or even a scathing attack on somebody’s personal website or social media page.
But first and foremost, it’s important to assess the nature of the criticism.
Is this a genuine complaint that is worthy of your attention?
You’re obviously going to get deeply annoyed if you ever come across a particularly nasty and completely unwarranted piece of vitriol that has been clearly been written by somebody with far too much time on their hands, and who is just trying to provoke a reaction by being needlessly unpleasant.
They might even be just doing it for a laugh, or to see if they can wind anybody up with their silly shock tactics.
So, the first question you have to ask about this type of cruel negativity is;
Is it actually worth responding to at all?
If you happen to be in full control over the arena in which this message has been posted – for example, if it appears on your own website or social media page – then the sensible thing to do is simply delete it, forget about it, and don’t let it bother you or ruin your day. It’s not remotely worth it.
You might also want to consider using any tools at your disposal to block this user from ever wasting your time again.
If you don’t have the power to delete this particular slice of venom, then consider the potential impact of the message and carefully weigh up your options.
Is this message likely to be viewed by a sizeable audience, or is it simply languishing in some unloved backwater of the internet, hoping that you rise to the bait?
If it’s the latter, then it’s not worth your time to even acknowledge it with a response. You’ll probably do more harm than good, by drawing more attention to it.
Is the negativity just ridiculously obnoxious and spiteful, and clearly written by somebody with big problems of their own?
If so, then don’t give it a second thought. It’s very tempting to fall into the trap of responding angrily to material like this, but it won’t do you any favours in the long run.
The image and profile of your business is not going to be enhanced by engaging in petty scraps with simpletons over the internet, where many of your future customers might be watching and frowning.
Rise above it. It’s easier than you think.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that the vast majority of your customers will see these obnoxious criticisms for what they really are. The good news here is that people aren’t stupid, and they aren’t likely to take too much notice of a poorly worded angry rant.
They’re more likely to be impressed with the professionalism of your business if they can see that you’ve considered this material to be unworthy of a response. It gives off a better image and vibe than actually locking horns with the troublemakers and creating a harmful and attention-grabbing online battle.
Despite all this well-meaning advice, I can fully understand that some of us will find it impossible to let any criticism go unanswered.
If you are absolutely compelled to make some kind of response (and I would again urge you to resist the temptation) then do it just once, and keep it polite and cheerful and informative.
As I discussed in my previous Business Clinic, the most effective weapons you can possibly use are politeness and understanding, as your detractors will hate that.
You haven’t risen to the bait, you haven’t put your reputation on the line, you haven’t played right into their hands and allowed them to score a minor victory.
You’ve calmly explained your viewpoint, and you’ve put your own mind at rest.
But please do just leave it at that, don’t let them lure you into a lengthy online argument. Just one polite response is all you’ll ever need – although I would suggest that it’s actually more than enough.
Ok, so we’ve got rid of those nuisance Trolls by deleting them, ignoring them, or simply being incredibly nice about the whole thing.
But what about genuine online complaints? The kind of situations where a customer, either rightly or wrongly, has felt genuine disappointment or cause for concern over your products or services?
It could be that they themselves have made a mistake, and that you now have an opportunity to correct them and put the record straight.
In which case, grab this opportunity to make a response and clarify the situation, but remember to use the same levels of politeness and understanding as before.
This is a unique chance to display your levels of professionalism and customer care to a global audience, so use it wisely and sensitively, and don’t make it sound as if you’re giving them a bit of a slap in the face for getting their facts wrong!
If this kind of flawed criticism crops up on your own pages, it might be tempting to wipe away any trace of it, so that any future customers won’t be discouraged by what appears to be negativity – but before you do, just make sure that you’re not missing a trick here.
Can this be turned into something positive which actually reflects the quality of your business and should definitely remain online for everyone to see?
If a customer has come along with a slightly unfair complaint or concern, then you could actually be impressing your future customer base by responding politely and putting the record straight. It might also end up being of real value to other customers who may have had a similar concern or query, which you have just resolved in style.
If you’re fortunate enough to have a very loyal customer base, then you may even find that some of these clients will ‘jump in’ and help you defend your name and business against this slightly unfair criticism.
So, something which begins life in a fairly negative nature, can quickly be pulled inside out and upside down and transformed into a positive bonus for your business!
But what if the critical customer has a perfectly valid point?
It’s unfortunate fact of life that sometimes things do go a bit pear-shaped, despite our very best efforts.
In these circumstances, it’s more important than ever to display understanding and genuine sympathy for the customer’s plight, and make every assurance that you will rectify the problem in a professional, efficient, and friendly manner.
Of course, having somebody broadcast a genuine complaint online can at best be described as ‘tricky’, and it’s something that you’ll need to wrap up as quickly as possible.
A crucial tip in this situation is to deliver a polite and measured response, but then gently guide the customer into continuing the conversation over a more private channel.
The last thing in the world that you need is this potentially delicate conversation to drag on and on, whilst still very much in the public eye.
By encouraging a more private conversation, you’ll be ensuring that your initial sympathetic and polite response is your final public word on the matter. You can then offer a more personal and dedicated resolution to the customer’s problem, whilst giving yourself a welcome chance to iron out some of the trickier details in complete privacy, and wrap up the matter discreetly.
Ah. It would appear that I’ll now have to bring this Business Clinic session to a finish. Nigel is trying to attract my attention, using wild gestures and strange sounds.
I think he’s trying to tell me that there’s an elephant in the garden again.
Hmmm. I’ll need a bit of cheese and a shoebox propped up with a stick.
In the meantime, how do you handle your online critics? Do you have any cunning strategies of your own? Feel free to share them below!