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Seven steps to help businesses deal with online criticism

Many businesses are uncomfortable dealing with social media, where customers can write very public, often permanent, online criticism and reviews. Should you respond to the reviews and, if you do, how do you protect your reputation and not lend authority to unjust complaints?

Responding to criticism is a delicate art, so here’s our step-by-step guide to a strategic approach.

1. Take a deep breath, step away from your screen and collect your thoughts

Don’t give into the temptation to act on any negative comments right away. While a spur of the moment reply, fuelled by anger, sadness or defensiveness, may give you immediate satisfaction, it is unlikely to reflect well on your business in the longer term. Always take some time to calm down and approach the criticism with a clear head.

2. Read the online feedback carefully

When you feel ready, sit down and read the criticism through several times. Pull out the key points addressed in the feedback and identify any potential failings on the businesses part. This will allow you to address all of these appropriately.

3. Discuss the comments and issues raised with the relevant members of staff

There are two sides to every story. Be careful not to assume everything your customer has said is correct and your business or staff are in the wrong. If the criticism relates to issues with customer service or particular members of staff, it is vital that you gain all the information you need to deal with the complaint (and any arising complaints) properly.

After all, some complaints may neglect to mention certain factors in the situation (such as the complainant being aggressive towards staff or asking for something against company policy) that mean your staff may have been justified in their actions.

Approach the staff members in question and gently raise the issue of the complaint in a neutral manner, asking for their response and account of the situation. Not only will this help you tackle the issue appropriately, from an employee engagement perspective this will ensure your staff are listened to and treated appropriately. Once you have the fullest picture possible, you can move on to the next step.

4. Spend some time considering whether and how to respond to the complainant

Not all complaints need a response. The rule of thumb is to respond when a) you wish to show your business is active in dealing with this particular issue b) have made changes or acted as a result of the criticism and c) you wish to apologise or make amends. Additionally, consider the way you are responding. On some online platforms, such as TripAdvisor or Facebook, the standard means of response is a often public reply. On other platforms (or where sensitive issues or personal data is involved), responding personally via private message, email or phone may work better. It is up to you.

In the case of many complaints about the same issue (such as KFC’s chicken shortage), a public statement, supported by clear and positive action to resolve the issue, may serve you better than individual responses. Likewise, comments to the mainstream media may complement and reinforce your online statements (as long as you do so with clear, strategic aims in mind).

5. If you decide to respond, formulate a calm, professional and strategic response

Ensuring your response reflects as well as possible on your business is key. If you are responding publically, others will be watching to see the message you give and will be making a judgement about your company based on this. With this in mind, keep your tone as professional and emotionally neutral as possible, focusing on the facts and message you want to deliver. Be sympathetic to the hurt the complainant feels, even if you feel the complaint is not supported by the facts. If people feel let down or hurt, they may lash out – bad language does not necessarily mean their message is not valid. The tone of your response can take the heat of the situation.

If your business is at fault, apologise swiftly and clearly for the issues caused. Always ensure you say how the business will make amends for the issue and outline any changes you are making as result of the feedback. This approach will help you come out of the situation in the best way you possibly can.

6. Apply valid criticism to your business practices

When faced with negative feedback, the immediate response can be to explain it away or deny there is an issue. However, even the most ill-phrased criticism may contain a kernel of truth. This is why it is important to carefully consider whether there is anything you can improve on, however uncomfortable it may be. Perhaps it might be a small thing like acknowledging a situation was dealt with poorly and ensuring you tweak your approach if something similar happens in future.

If you receive repeated comments with the same theme, it generally indicated that you need to make a process or product improvement or, in the case of customer service complaints, improve staff training. Don’t neglect the opportunity to use feedback to improve your business.

7. Don’t feed the trolls

Unfortunately, while their numbers are very small, there are some people who post content designed to cause conflict or damage. These people are called ‘internet trolls’ and they can range from people who enjoy causing mischief, being downright malicious or bear a specific grudge against your company or a member of your team.

If you ever receive clear abuse, do not to engage with them. If they continue to harass your business (for example via social media), be sure to block them. Likewise, if you receive comments that contain no useful or actionable feedback, feel free to ignore them.

Dealing with online criticism is not an easy job. If you’re worried about your online reputation or are facing a wide-reaching communications crisis, consulting a professional can help. 360 Integrated PR has many years of experience supporting businesses who are facing a range of reputational issues. Contact us today to find out how we could help you.

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