How to deal effectively with online complaints and criticisms
Recently, a woman accused a Starbucks barista of using caramel to create satanic symbols in two cups of coffee that she’d bought: one was a Pentagram symbol and, the other, 666. She posted her complaint to the Starbucks Facebook page and her post was liked and shared 1,800 times before being taken down. Starbucks did apologize to the woman but this story was nevertheless picked up by bloggers and media across the country.
Earlier this year, the head of a Cleveland job bank, Kelly Blazek, became part of a local controversy that went international. A young professional had reached out to Blazek for help and she responded in a scathing manner. Once the response was posted on social media, it became the talk of the town – and then beyond. In response, Blazek closed her LinkedIn account, Twitter account and blog. Although she ultimately apologized, the news spread further and further while she was silent.
These are just two of the numerous times that people have brought their complaints against companies and/or well-known people to social media channels, and it’s unlikely to slow down. The question is – if this happens to you or your company, how should you respond?
There are three basic steps to follow:
- Acknowledge the issue in a timely manner
- Provide an offline resolution path
Acknowledge the issue in a timely manner
When someone posts a complaint or criticism, he or she is most likely emotional about the situation. This means that he or she is probably checking for your response frequently and becoming impatient when it isn’t nearly instantaneous. So, unnecessary delay isn’t recommended.
Yet, you also don’t want to respond too quickly. You need to give yourself enough time to:
- Ensure that you’ve read the post carefully
- Make sure that you aren’t responding in a defensive manner, which will only escalate the situation
In other words, the person posting is probably reacting out of emotion, but it’s important that you not respond out of emotion. If you notice that you are having an emotional response, try to determine what exactly about the posting is triggering that reaction. Sometimes, it’s quite obvious (you’re being called names, the complaint is way off base and so forth) and, other times, it’s more subtle.
In your response, remember, you’ll want to acknowledge the issue, apologize – and then redirect the other person to contact you offline. As a final caution, don’t type out your response and then immediately send. Proofread it and make sure that it’s precisely what you want to say.
Example: let’s say that you run a carpet cleaning business and someone named Sam posts that your company did not clean his carpets well and, besides that, your staff broke a vase.
Perhaps the reality is that the carpeting in Sam’s house was so stained and dirty that it was virtually impossible to get clean, and perhaps you were in the house personally and you know that no vase was broken. Yep. It’s easy to respond emotionally, no doubt. Instead, start your response with something like this:
Sam, thank you for reaching out to us to share your carpet cleaning experience . . .
The emotional response to this step might be – “Why should I? I didn’t do anything wrong.” But, the reality is that you want to treat clients/customers well. And you might be thinking, “I don’t really care if I ever clean Sam’s carpets again.”
Well, your response is still important. He put his complaint on Facebook, so your response – or lack of one – will help to color the perceptions of you and your company in front of a larger audience as they follow the discussion online.
The most effective apologies are direct and sincere. Those that aren’t can cause even more problems than the original complaint.
Bad example #1: I’m sorry that you think your carpets weren’t clean enough.
Bad example #2: My bad.
The first example contains fighting words, putting the blame on the other person’s perception, rather than the actual situation. The second one sounds flip, something you might say when you bump the grocery cart of the guy ahead of you in line. Both of them invite more controversy, rather than calm the situation down.
Instead, try something like this:
I’m sorry that we didn’t meet your expectations. (It’s tempting to write “I’m sorry that your expectations weren’t met.” That’s better than the two bad examples above but people tend to respond more positively to others when they take responsibility for the situation.)
Provide an offline resolution path
Ideally, the person with a complaint will feel listened to because you restated the issue and feel someone mollified because you apologized. You then want to continue the discussion and ultimately please the customer but you don’t want the details to play out publicly. So, the next step is to provide a phone number where you (or the appropriate person in your company) can be reached.
While waiting to hear from the customer, do some fact finding – not so that you can debate the person, but so you have more information about the situation.
If the unhappy customer contacts you, then once again follow the formula listed above. For example, your phone script might read like this:
Sam, thank you for following through on your Facebook post. We appreciate the chance to discuss the carpet cleaning issue with you further and want to apologize again for not meeting your cleaning needs to your satisfaction.
Then, you’ll need to offer some sort of resolution. Will you, for example, offer Sam another carpet cleaning, free of charge? Does he bring up the broken vase again or is that issue apparently being dropped? (If so, that claim might have been said in the heat of the moment, when the real issue was the carpeting.) If the vase is brought up again, how will you reimburse him for that piece of property?
Two additional issues
There are two more things to consider: how to handle chronic complainers and how to avoid liability when apologizing. Because we aren’t attorneys, we will address the second issue by recommending The Art of the Apology: How to Apologize Effectively to Practically Anyone by Lauren M. Bloom, J.D., LL.M. While not a new book (2008), its advice is timeless.
Lauren Bloom is an attorney with an undergraduate degree from Yale and her J.D. from the Columbus School of Law. She is also a certified compliance and ethics professional, and her consulting firm focuses on “helping professionals, business and association management executives build trust with their clients, customers and members by walking the ethics talk in their daily practices.”
As far as chronic complainers: your business needs to come up with a threshold of, say, how many times you will offer free or discounted services to satisfy an unhappy customer/client. Then, follow your company policy.
As far as dealing with people who post multiple negative comments and complaints on your Facebook page or other social media channel:
- Respond to each negative poster once (per situation).
- Let your original well-crafted responses stand on their own merits. Resist the urge to re-comment.
- Don’t delete negative comments unless they use offensive language or would otherwise be offensive to readers, as that will most likely cause even more negative comments to occur.
What’s under your control – and what’s not
Here’s what is NOT under your control, much as you’d like it to be:
- You can’t stop someone from posting something negative about you.
- You can’t stop others from sharing what someone else has posted.
- You can’t control how someone will respond to your acknowledgement and apology about a complaint or criticism.
What is under your control:
- How quickly you respond to complaints and criticisms
- How professionally you respond to complaints and criticisms
- How well you follow through on your promises
- How well you adjust your business policies to address genuine issues (is any company or person ALWAYS right, even you and your company?)
What recommendations do you have to deal with online complaints? What experiences can you share?
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