Nine tips for dealing with online feedback

If you’re running a business, at some point you’re going to get feedback from your customers. This is usually a great thing. Feedback can help you learn what your customers or clients want, spot mistakes or technical problems, and sometimes just give you a warm glow.

The downside is that sometimes feedback isn’t very nice!

Online feedback can be particularly brutal: people will often fire off an angry comment, email or Tweet in the heat of the moment, and they won’t hold back.

People speaking

At various points in my career, I’ve found myself handling online feedback. Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. Answer before they ask.

Some feedback is predictable. If you’re aware of things that some people don’t understand, or questions that are often asked, answer them in advance. This could be by having a blog post or page covering a topic that people often ask about (perhaps details of your services or pricing) or via an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page.

Not only does this help your customers, but it saves you time answering the same things over and over again.

Remember that if you have FAQ, these should be constantly evolving. Check and update them often. Keep the page well structured and make sure it’s easy to navigate.

If you’re about to change something, think about what people might want to ask, or might find difficult, and answer these upfront too. Social media is a great way to give advance notice of upcoming changes.

For email feedback, you may like to use an auto-response. This can, for example, outline which type of query will get a reply and how quickly you’ll reply. It can also provide links to useful resources, such as your FAQ or a support forum.

If you use an auto-response, remember to keep it short (otherwise people just won’t read it) and above all, make sure it’s helpful.

2. Always be professional…

It can be hard to keep your composure when someone sends an angry or nasty message. Sometimes you want to rant back at them. It might feel cathartic for you to send an angry or emotional response, but it won’t help your client or customer, and it won’t endear you to them either!

If you really need to get it off your chest, my top tip is to draft the reply you’d like to send, but write it in Word or Notepad so that you can’t possibly send it by mistake. Often by the time you’ve finished, you’ll feel calmer.

Now delete it and start again.

3. …But be human.

Online, it’s very easy to forget that there’s a real person at the receiving end of that email or social media rant, so people are sometimes more aggressive than they would be in person. You can often defuse that simply by (indirectly) reminding them that you’re human.

While working at the BBC, when I did this I would sometimes get apologetic messages in reply to mine saying “I’m sorry I was so rude – I didn’t think that a real person would read my message”. I like to think that for each one who sent a message like that, there were many who didn’t bother to reply, but still felt much better about the BBC as a result.

The key thing to remember that negative feedback is often given in anger. If something doesn’t work as expected, people will be understandably frustrated and will need an outlet for that. Try to understand why they’re annoyed and think about how you can ease that feeling.

Humour can be a great way to defuse criticism, but use it with caution. If you don’t get the humour spot on, it can easily backfire.

Tempting though it is, try not to hid behind corporate language. Don’t use stock answers that sound like they were generated by a computer (or a lawyer)!

4. Answer the question.

Have you ever had a reply that completely ignored the point of your complaint? Or, worse still, a message that seemed to be made up of disconnected paragraphs picked in response to keywords in your message? Then you know how frustrating it can be.

It’s absolutely fine to use a pre-prepared reply, but make sure it answers the question!

Better yet, try to customise the reply: remove parts that are irrelevant, and add extra bits if it helps to show that you’ve read their comments.

For example, if your standard response says “Try doing X”, and the complainant mentions that they’ve already tried it, just change that to “I see that you’ve already tried doing X”. That small change can make all the difference to the recipient: rather than mindlessly telling them to do something they’ve already done, you’re acknowledging their efforts and engaging with them.

It can be tempting to only answer the easy parts and leave a key question unanswered. Again, think about how you’d feel if that were you. Try to answer all the important points.

Having said that, you don’t have to answer everything! Some questions are clearly designed to provoke a discussion, and may not be relevant to solving the problem: if someone has sent a list of nit-picking questions, don’t get dragged in to answering every single one. It’s not a good use of your time and there’s a good chance they’ll just come back with another list!

5. Check your facts – and your spelling!

Replying with inaccurate information can be worse than replying with no information at all, so make sure you answer as accurately as possible. Even trivial details like whether a link says “Log in” or “Sign in” can be significant, especially to people who aren’t very tech-savvy.

Incorrect spelling isn’t disastrous, but I know (from bitter experience) how much people who are already angry will enjoy pointing out mistakes… 😉

6. If you’re wrong, apologise. Properly.

If someone is frustrated because something went wrong, often an apology will be all it takes to calm them down. An apology should have three parts:

  1. an acknowledgement that something went wrong;
  2. an explanation of why; and
  3. reassurance that it will be dealt with.

It’s hard to be angry with someone who says “You’re right. This shouldn’t have happened. Here’s why it did happen and here’s what we’re doing to stop it happening again”.

Sometimes, it can be nice to make a gesture in addition to the apology but it’s not essential.

7. Stick to your guns.

You’re never going to be able to please everyone. But if you can’t do what someone is asking for, explaining why not can go a long way to making them feel better. Be sympathetic and show that you understand their point of view, but stand your ground.

Once you’ve answered a question, don’t get drawn into a debate. It’s good to respond to feedback and keep your customers happy, but that doesn’t mean you need to go to extreme lengths to keep every single one of them 100% content.

8. Be appreciative.

If someone sends a suggestion (even if it’s daft), thank them. It doesn’t take much effort and it will make them feel valued. Of course, if it’s a good suggestion, that’s even better!

9. Learn from it.

As I said earlier, the best thing about feedback is that it helps you to improve your business. Review your feedback regularly to check whether a lot of people are getting in touch about a similar issue. If so, look at what you can do to change it. Or, at the very least, acknowledge the problem in your FAQ (see point 1). Even if you haven’t got a solution (yet), you can say you know there’s a problem and you’re trying to fix it.

Having said that, remember that people who are happy rarely bother to get in touch – so don’t change your entire business model to suit one or two complainers!

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