Customer behaviour has changed drastically in the last few years with the advent of the social media age. Customers are now extra vigilant, more outspoken, and to some degree, outrage-prone.
Almost every week I comment on a story in the media where businesses are criticised by the general public, their customers and subsequently often penalised by authorities because of an advertising message, product or business activity deemed offensive or immoral.
The general public, once nameless, faceless and almost voiceless are now actively participating in defining your business. Where once public opinion (particularly for small business) had hardly any say in the way you ran your business or marketing campaigns, nowadays, if people are unhappy with the things you do or don’t do, they express their dissatisfaction all over social media – and all hell breaks loose.
In the past few months alone, several Australian businesses and brands became targets of consumer backlash, with issues ranging from “distressing advertisement” to “being not child-friendly”. Many of these businesses saw their reputations change from good to bad overnight because one negative comment snowballed into something big, and they simply couldn’t handle the pressure.
So how should a business respond when under attack? When do you give in to a demand? When do you ignore? Are customers always right?
Below are tips to consider when responding to negative feedback:
1. Identify the problem. Is it a business error, a misunderstanding, or spam? If the complaint involves wrong information about your product, service or business, politely correct them with proper information. If it’s about a marketing campaign that is deemed offensive, evaluate if it’s worth the fight. When you know what you’re dealing with, you’ll know the best solution to it.
2. Proof your words before you send your reply. Never use sarcasm or insults. Be responsive, not aggressive.
3. Be careful not to sound defensive. Sometimes when we are criticised, we tend to just defend ourselves instead of addressing the issue directly. Being defensive will probably just make the situation worse as it triggers the same response in the other person.
4. Take it offline. If concerns are legitimate, respond privately wherever possible. This will reduce the number of prying eyes that are just waiting for you to say something wrong.
5. Have a sense of humour. It’s an effective way to diffuse the negative situation. But do be careful not to upset the customer even more. You can laugh at yourself, but never at other people.
6. Don’t reply just for the sake of it. Though it’s ideal to respond to a negative feedback immediately, it’s still best to leave it for another day if you are not ready.
7. Think twice before you delete. Deleting a negative review or comment most of the time won’t help. You are indirectly telling them that you don’t care about their opinion. They’ll also see it as an effort to sweep an issue under the rug. Remember, it’s quick and easy for your followers to Print Screen and store evidence of the deleted message.
8. Seek their suggestion. Turn a complaint into an opportunity by making them feel valued. Sometimes, customers that have bad reviews also have the solution.
9. Choose the right person to handle the task. Instead of dealing with the issue yourself, why not hire someone to do it for you. Just make sure the person dealing with your angry “customers” is equipped to handle it, preferably someone who has crisis management skills and the common sense to handle the issue correctly.
10. When replying to a negative comment from someone who is not your customer, or not a customer you want, keep it short and sweet. A simple, “Thanks for your feedback” will suffice. You need to understand that not all customers are good for your business. Often, those who talk the loudest and the meanest are not really your target market. Be wise and choose your battles.
However you decide to respond to an issue, keep in mind anything you send out there on social media, or even in private email, will impact your image. Don’t say anything that could potentially alienate your target market. Good marketing is about knowing who your best customers are.
On the other hand, ignoring negative comments in the hope that they’ll go away is also a poor strategy. Every criticism, constructive or otherwise, needs your attention.
Finally, don’t beat yourself up. No one’s really safe from a consumer backlash. Even the most cautious and ethical of brands experience it too. Just keep learning.
Since starting her outsourced national marketing consultancy Marketing Angels in 2000, Michelle Gamble has helped hundreds of SMEs get smarter marketing. Michelle helps businesses find more effective ways to grow their brands and businesses.