In my last two blog posts, I introduced you to some friends of mine – business owners who were blown away by a brutal online review from a high profile client. And how this review started a downward spiral for my friends that resulted in them losing enthusiasm for their business, then losing actual business, and then sliding into a dangerous sea of inactivity.
In the first post, I addressed the inactivity, and what to do when you feel like doing nothing. (You can find it here.)
In the second post, I addressed the issue of how my friends allowed someone or something outside of them to define them — and their brand. (You can find it here.)
And in today’s post, I want to address something less emotional, and more pragmatic:
How do you deal with critics, angry customers, and haters online?
It’s an unfortunate fact that if you’re in business long enough, you’re going to receive a negative review or angry comment from a customer. Many of the negative reviews we receive will come from third-party sites. Sites we can’t control. And often these reviews will blindside us.
For those of us with small businesses or single-person enterprises, these negative reviews can feel like personal attacks. And when we feel attacked, it’s our instinct to defend. It’s our instinct to respond personally to something we feel is personal.
But this isn’t personal. It’s business. And it’s important – first and foremost – to stay in touch with what you hope to accomplish by responding to a negative review.
-You want to mitigate damage to your brand.
-You want to protect the reputation of your business.
-You may or may not want to pursue a second chance with the customer who posted the review.
-And you definitely want to demonstrate to others who read the review that you can handle customer dissatisfaction productively and constructively. You want to show that you care about your customers, and you’ll work to make things right.
This is the point where my clients will say, “Juju… this customer is unreasonable. This customer is wrong. Why should I have to eat crow to satisfy this one combative customer?”
And the reason is this:
You are NOT replying to one unreasonable customer.
Before you choose to ignore a complaint or to engage in an online battle, it’s critical to understand a social media phenomenon commonly called the “1/9/90 Rule.”
-Only 1% of readers on social media will actually post content. (Reviews are content.)
-About 9% of readers, commonly referred to as “the editors,” will participate by commenting, rating, or sharing the content.
-And 90% of the readers will be absolutely silent. They will simply read the content without responding or participating in any way.
When you reply to a negative comment online, you’re addressing that silent 90% even MORE than the individual customer who created the review.
Don’t get me wrong. You should genuinely respond to customer concerns for the sake of customer relationships. But it’s critical to remember the number of people who are following along and saying nothing at all, and to take their impressions into account BEFORE you react, strike back, or defend.
The 90% will read your response.
They will be watching to see how you solve problems.
They will expect you to respect your customers.
And they will judge you – and decide whether or not to conduct business with you – based on how you handle the situation.
I recommend the following:
- Breathe. Step back from the keyboard. It’s essential that your response NOT be fueled by emotion or perceived as emotional in any way. So take time to formulate your reply. Respond, rather than react.
- Don’t wait too long, though. You don’t want to let negative reviews linger. A timely response shows that you have nothing to hide and that you’re equipped to meet the accusation head-on. A quick response also prevents the issue from growing from a molehill to a mountain in your own mind. Mulling it over again and again gives it power.
- Find out what’s behind the story. If you weren’t personally present for the offending incident, find out who was. And get the story as quickly as possible. This research is vital, for it will be used to frame your response. Get the truth, and deal with it.
- Determine if this is an individual incident, or a recurring issue. If it’s a single occurrence, you’ll be able to apologize for the mistake and move forward. (Yes, I did say apologize. And I’ll get to that in a moment.) If it’s a recurring theme in your business, you may want to offer a policy or procedural change as part of your online response.
- If possible, bring the conversation offline. If this is one of your customers and you can reach out directly, do so. Discuss what happened and find a way to make amends. THEN return to the site and respond with a summary of how you addressed the situation. If you can’t reach out directly, post a public invitation for the customer to contact you, “We’d like to make this right. Please contact us at 555-5555 so we can discuss solutions.”
- If it’s true, admit and apologize. All the gory details are not required. You can be short and sweet: “We’re sorry that this occurred. It was our mistake. We hope we can win back your business.” If it’s a recurring situation, as mentioned in #4 above, you can offer a policy change explanation: “We’re sorry this occurred and we’re grateful for your feedback. With your input in mind, we’ve created a new procedure for handling applications. We think it will improve response times and create a more enjoyable experience for our customers. Thanks for taking the time to share your experience with us.” (Remember the silent 90%? They benefit from that policy or procedural change.)
- If it’s untrue, feel free to correct the inaccuracies. You can still apologize while stating the truth about your business. “I’m sorry that a misunderstanding about our refund procedures occurred. We do have a policy – clearly stated – that we will provide refunds for up to 60 days if product is returned in its original packaging.” You want to set the record straight with those silently reading along, without engaging in argument or debate.
- Never blame the incident on the actions of the customer. Correcting an inaccuracy (as in #7 above) is not the same as blaming the customer, which sounds like: “You never asked for a refund. Or I would have given you one!!” You will not be perceived well by potential new customers if you blame your current ones for your problems.
- Don’t over-reveal. It’s not necessary to get specific about an incident or about this customer. Stay as general as possible, so as not to reveal personal information inappropriate for public interaction. The goal, above all else, is to appear professional and courteous.
- Know the difference between negative reviews and abuse, and between complaints and rants. First, arguing with an abusive customer will only make you appear petty. And second, you are not required to respond to abuse. In fact, you can feel free to remove abusive comments from your own social media sites without response, and to request that they be removed from third-party sites, based on the guidelines provided for reviewers. This is something that REALLY trips up many small business owners, so it’s important to know your rights. For instance, Yelp’s reviewer guidelines state: “Try to tell your own story without resorting to broad generalizations and conclusory allegations,” and, “Make sure your review is factually correct. Feel free to air your opinions, but don’t exaggerate or misrepresent your experience.” In the case of my friends, the Yelp reviewer accused the business owner of being a criminal because he wouldn’t issue a refund. The reviewer said things like: “”Jim is a THIEF and he belongs in JAIL!” and, “HE STOLE FROM ME and committed credit card fraud.” Wow. That’s pretty conclusory, isn’t it? In fact, this customer approached her credit card company to dispute the charges, and the dispute was denied. There was no fraud. And if my friends had understood the guidelines, they might have had this review (the lion’s share of which is entirely exaggerated or untrue) removed from the site within days. Instead, they suffered under the weight of it for more than 15 months!!
- MOVE ON. Negative reviews and complaints are a part of business, at some point or another, for all of us. Respond appropriately, and move on. Don’t internalize the review. Don’t allow others to define your brand. And don’t stew and brood. Respond. And move on.
Experienced companies skilled at these responses actually turn negatives into positives on a regular basis. The opportunity to respond on review sites is an opportunity to state policies, procedures, pricing, discounts, product specifications, and all types of other things that show your business in a positive light, and might otherwise never have been seen by potential customers. Consider a complaint as an OPPORTUNITY for a response. Consider the 90% of readers who are silently following along. Tell them the truth about your business. And make it shine.
And if you’re truly feeling wronged – if you’re worked up and you want to lash out and win the fight, then ask yourself this question:
“Is it better to be right? Or profitable?”
And then take the high road, all the way to the bank.
So, the next time you’re stunned or overwhelmed by an attack, complaint, review or negative input, remember:
- Keep moving forward – don’t lose momentum.
- Don’t allow things outside your business (including customer opinions) to define your brand.
- Apologize – and admit or correct the inaccuracies.
Then move on, my friend.
Have you gone head-to-head with a hater? Share with me, in the comments below.