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Don’t Be Spooked by Bad Customer Feedback

by Margot Carmichael Lester, Staples® Contributing Writer

Whether it’s on a comment card, a local review site or social media, negative customer feedback strikes fear in the heart of small business owners. But instead of running away from it, ignoring it or responding to it in kind, use the criticism to build your business. Here’s how.

Start with a new mindset. “Avoid the attitude that it's ‘negative feedback,’” suggests Laura Lee Rose, a business coach in the Triangle area of North Carolina. “Tagging the customer feedback as ‘negative’ is already setting up an adversarial response. It's merely feedback — neither negative or positive. Then look upon the feedback as an indicator that you are either hitting your customer satisfaction goals or that you simply need more data in order to hit your goals.”

Do Unto Others

“When handling negative feedback, I always think of how I would want to be treated,” says Kristin Rae, founder of Inspire Travel Luggage in Normal, IL. “I acknowledge the issue quickly and really listen to what a person has said. Even if the criticism stings, it’s best to keep in mind that taking a minute to just listen will go a long way. You may not be able to make everyone happy with your product or service, but they can be happy with how you handle conflict.”

It is most important to acknowledge and apologize. At Junket: Tossed & Found, owner Julie Kearns and her staff acknowledge customer disappointment and apologize as quickly as possible. The Minneapolis entrepreneur also makes a strong effort to better understand the situation. “We seek additional feedback and work to identify the root issue,” she explains. “It's rare to hear requests that aren't completely acceptable and legitimate — and often, the customer's preferred resolution is way less onerous than the reparations we might otherwise propose for ourselves. And if we’ve failed in any way leading up to the negative feedback, we share what we've already done to address the problem. It helps the customer to know that we're committed to and serious about fixing their problem.” Of course, after an initial public acknowledgement and apology, it’s perfectly acceptable to take your correspondence with an unhappy customer private via direct messages or emails.

And ditch the script. “There are so many customer service reps I deal with over the phone who will continually say a scripted phrase like, ‘We are very sorry, Ms. Coloccia, that you are dissatisfied,’” laments Jane Coloccia Teixeira, owner of JC Communications in Irvine, CA. “It doesn't sound genuine and it is continually repeated over and over in exactly the same phrasing so you know someone gave them a script.” Instead of scripting employees, she suggests having a policy set ahead of time that “empowers your employees as to what they can and can’t do. Are you going to refund money, give them a new widget or something else? I feel so much better when I know the person I’m talking to has the power and authority to solve my problem. I don't want to hear that a supervisor isn't around or there is nothing you can do.”

Resist the temptation to remove negative comments on review sites or social media to keep others from seeing them. Doing so can escalate the dissatisfaction because the commenter will feel ignored. Responding to the post is better, says New York–based entrepreneur Cassandra Droogan, founder of PYSIS, which sells “overboots.” “If one person is saying it, many more are thinking it, so responding positively and respectfully to one negative comment allows you to make your case to everyone reading the exchange.”

Benefit from Customer Feedback

Thoughtfully responding to feedback increases customer loyalty, according to Amelia Willson, content manager for SeniorAdvisor.com, a reviews and ratings Web site for senior living and home care providers. “Reviews become an extension of your brand, and customers view your responses as indicative of how much trust they should place in your business,” she says. Data from BrightLocal’s Local Consumer Review Survey bear this out, reporting that 88 percent of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations.

Criticism can help you identify opportunities to improve. Emily LaRusch, founding Bettie of Back Office Betties in Glendale, AZ, was recently disappointed that her company received a 3.5 out of 5 on a review because a commenter had an issue with the phone system. LaRusch’s immediate reaction was to defend the business. “Instead, I looked at the complaint and went to my IT director to ask if we can tweak the system. At the end of the day, I'm thankful to the reviewer as we now have a fantastic new feature to offer our clients.”

Spot trends by aggregating complaint information. Rasheen Carbin, director of business development for Washington, DC–based nspHire, suggests putting all the comments in a shared document all staff can access. This helps identify bigger issues and lets you crowdsource possible solutions from your employees. “Look for patterns — usually a theme or two will emerge. Choose one item to improve on and publicize the efforts you're making. Customers will appreciate your responsiveness and transparency.”

Think you don’t have time to handle negative feedback constructively? Think again, Teixeira advises. “They say a dissatisfied customer tells an average of 10 people — and nowadays with social media, those 10 people is more like 110 people. Try to do something for your customer if you value them, because the cost to acquire a new one will probably be a lot more than what you need to do to make this situation right.”

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