9 Tips for Handling Online Criticism as a Business Owner
What to Do When Your Indoor Playground (or you!) get Negative Feedback Online
If I am being honest, this has been a post that’s been on my “idea board” for months. Handling online criticism has always been a struggle for me, and I am still constantly learning and maturing as a business owner.
This past week, I had an angry woman orchestrate a coordinated social media attack on my business and me personally, and it left me gutted for hours. I could tell soon after she messaged me that she was attempting to get a rise out of me for social media attention, which was confirmed by the other reviews she had been recently leaving local businesses.
However, I was able to take (most) of my own advice and quickly diffuse the situation. I didn’t handle it perfectly, but I have absolutely come a LONG way from my early years as a business owner, and I am proud of my response to the situation and still stand by it.
My hesitation to write this post stems from the fact that I am not perfect, in this area especially. I have made some major mistakes in dealing with online reviews and criticism that still haunt me to this day. My temper is HOT (like the SUN hot) and I often take reviews very personally because I care so deeply about my business and think of it as an extension of myself.
There was a time last year when a woman, Felicia, made me so irate after likening my indoor play area to a McDonald’s Play Place that I quite literally went into a sassy tailspin. Two days later, a “Bye Felicia” mug arrived in the mail from Amazon Prime. I am not proud of this moment, though I do enjoy looking back at my mug and seeing how far I’ve come.
But here’s a friendly reminder: some things can NEVER be deleted. A few months ago, I got a one-star review on Google from someone who has NEVER visited my business but did not like the tone of my replies to reviewers in those early years. Dear Felicia, I am sorry. I did not handle your complaints appropriately.
Even though I am not a perfect role model in this area, I do have a lot of experience and a lot of insight to share. I am finally at a place where I can avoid a tailspin when we receive negative feedback and I absolutely allow it to affect me a LOT less.
Follow these 9 tips and you will prevent yourself from making the mistakes I did when handling negative criticism
1) Never Respond Immediately
This tip is absolutely the most important. All of the remaining tips will be easier to implement if you give yourself a few hours at a minimum to gather your thoughts and respond appropriately. The person at the other keyboard is HOPING you respond immediately in a non-professional manner. This will only fuel their fire and add legitimacy to their review. As I have learned, this is NOT the time to put the customer on trial or show your emotions. This IS the time to diffuse the situation as quickly as possible, especially if their criticism is less than constructive.
Many times, we have had very honest 3 and 4-star reviews that offered actionable items to follow up on. For example, in 2016, a pregnant woman suggested we add to our decaf coffee offerings, which we gladly did and were able to retain her as a customer and raving fan.
I will never suggest to undermine or discredit a customer who has legitimate feedback or has been truly hurt or marginalized by a business in some way. Most of my advice and tips here are geared towards ANGRY reviewers who are deliberately attacking your business for one reason or another; there is a definite difference.
2) Validate and Empathize with the Customer’s Feelings
One of the best ways to both handle an angry customer AND attempt to retain them as a client is to validate their feelings and empathize with their frustration.
Remember, most people who post angry reviews are projecting their feelings about either themselves or about another area of their lives.
I will never forget the situation I was in when I, myself, left an angry 1-star review. I was about 10 weeks postpartum with my second child, and I was exhausted. I was finally able to coordinate with my husband’s work and travel and schedule myself a hair appointment, which was lucky because we had a fancy event to attend the next day. When I got there, I waited for about 30 minutes. After I checked in at the front desk for the 3rd time, they informed me that they double booked an appointment and I would not be able to get my hair done that day.
I was so frustrated and hurt that I posted an absolutely HEATED review on their Google page. They had messed up, sure, but most of my frustration was coming from other areas of my life. However, at the time, this was a tangible thing to take my exasperation out on.
This experience reminds me that hurt people hurt people (and businesses). Try and remember that almost anyone who truly “flies off the handle” on social media or a review app feels as though they are losing control in another area of their lives, and are desperately trying to regain it by submitting their “feedback.”
Empathizing and validating WHATEVER they are feeling is the first step to successfully handling this situation.
3) Leave the Details for Private Messaging
If a reviewer or critic mentions a specific incident or interaction, ask them for more information, but ask them to send you a private message or email you so you can better understand what happened, but also protect their privacy.
Showing publicly that you are responding to their complaint and appear to be taking steps to improve based on their feedback will show potential clients that you are ready and willing to listen to your customers and ensure a positive experience when possible.
This will also prevent a back-and-forth between you and the online critic, which is never helpful for the business owner. As a rule, I now try to get the customer into a private conversation as soon as possible.
4) Suggest a Phone Call or In-Person Discussion
If a person is private messaging, emailing, or posting online in a particularly furious fashion, try to get them on the PHONE or in an in-person meet-up as soon as possible. Typically, even the suggestion of a phone call or meeting will soften even the toughest keyboard warrior.
These types of critics feel post powerful behind their screen and their demeanor will usually change considerably if you take that barrier away and make a true one-on-one connection.
This will also show potential customers and current clients that you are attempting to resolve whatever issue they are having in the quickest manner possible and are willing to go out of your way as a business owner to listen to and address their concerns.
One of my favorite things to suggest to upset customers of my brick-and-mortar business is that we sit down together to review the security footage of the incident that caused them to become upset.
Oftentimes customers “build-up” a scenario in their head and their anger gets amplified as their network validates their feelings online. However, confronting them with the actual footage of the incident is enough to give them a reality-check and acknowledge that perhaps they blew their issue out of proportion.
5) Write your Response with POTENTIAL Clients in Mind, NOT the Reviewer’s
When responding to an unfavorable review or comment online, try to craft your response knowing that there is not much you can do to salvage the customer you are actually responding to (and you likely would not want to, anyway!).
Instead, write your response as if you were speaking to a potential client who is combing through your online reviews, trying to understand if there are any “red flags” about your business or you as an owner.
Remember, consumers tend to try to talk themselves out of buying something. If you receive a negative review, make sure you make your potential customer aware that you value your customers, accept legitimate feedback, and operate in a professional manner.
A great example of this happened this past week to us. A customer reviewed us on Google, sharing an incident between her and another customer that made her upset. This customer also shared that she did not like our response to her private message, where I suggested she bring this to the attention of our on-site manager who is trained to handle these types of incidents without confrontation.
Since I had already dealt with this customer privately prior to her review, I responded referencing our ongoing private conversation and reiterated our policies regarding issues between customers, confirming that anyone who feels hurt or disrespected at any time during their visit can feel safe to approach a manager with the issue.
6) If you or your Staff did Something Wrong, Admit it AND Make it Right
Even if the online reviewer seems (to you as an owner) as though they are overreacting, it’s important to closely examine the source of their anger. Did they encounter a rude staff member? Did you fail to deliver on a promise? Were they overcharged? Have they tried other channels to resolve the issue and have been unsuccessful?
It’s crucial to look at this matter objectively, so ask an outside source if you need to. Many times, as owners, we are so close to and so passionate about our business that we can take certain things about our business for granted. For example, our facility allows children through 6 years of age. However, we really specialize in play for four-year-olds and under. We have several unfavorable reviews from parents of 5-6 year olds who did not enjoy their visit with us. As an owner, I tend to scoff at these because these customers likely didn’t do any research ahead of visiting us, which is easy to feel is “their fault”.
However, I force myself to look at the situation through their eyes. Parents are busy, and they may have just been looking for a fun activity that day with their children and didn’t have time to dig deeper into the details. Typically, by explaining why we DO allow children through 6 though it isn’t our “core” age range helps quite a bit. I also try to offer them free passes to a class or event geared towards that age range.
The important takeaway here is that even if you do NOT feel you or your business did anything wrong, education can go a long way. For example, if they are angry about a policy you have, take the time to explain WHY it’s in place.
If there was a misunderstanding, ask if you can contact them privately to clarify. Failing to “fall on your sword” as an owner will never serve you. While I don’t necessarily agree that the customer is ALWAYS right, I do agree that again showing empathy and attempting to address their concerns (whether that involves a refund, passes to return for free, etc) is the best way to not only salvage the relationship with that customer, but future customers reading.
7) Do your Best to Leave your Emotions OUT of It
As long as you wait several hours before taking action and respond using the other tips, you should have no problem leaving your emotions out of your response, but it is worth reiterating anyway.
Remember, even though you may feel your business is like your child or an extension of yourself, your customers don’t feel that same attachment.
Typically they review the business and not the business owner, so try NOT to take each negative piece of feedback as a personal attack. Even if they DO personally attack you, (yes, it’s happened to me multiple times) don’t sink to their level.
If you find this too difficult to do and often feel a sense of regret after dealing with an angry customer online, try delegating this task to a manager who feels less emotionally invested in the business. If they need to escalate the problem to you, at least you will have had even more time to digest the events, calm your mind, and come up with an action plan of response.
8) Don’t Fan the Flames
Many times, when a customer has a negative experience at a business, they try to entice their friends and family to bash and review the offending business as well.
The more you respond and “fan the flames” of the fire, the worse it will get. Screenshots will get posted, your replies will get shared, and the interactions will start popping up into groups.
Again, the person at the other keyboard is HOPING you respond immediately in a non-professional manner. This will only fuel their fire and add legitimacy to their review and their feelings and affirm to their family and friends that they need protection from this business and you as an owner.
Waiting to respond, moving the conversation to a 1-on-1 format, and remaining professional will help reduce the likelihood that the original poster will continue sharing and garnering support.
9) Establish Boundaries and Keep Doing What You’re Doing
Remember, it’s understandable to be passionate as a business owner. Nothing hurts more than working long, hard hours and making sacrifices no one sees, only to open up your inbox to see criticism from a customer or client who has NO idea what goes into your business or how much you truly care.
Instead of showing them how much you care by leaping into defensive mode and then retaliating, show them you care by establishing yourself as the face of your business, a real-life person who cares about the people they work with and wants to improve for them.
If you still struggle with this as I do, establish a separate inbox for feedback and complaints, and have a manager take a first pass at it before you can access the customer sentiment. Even one unfavorable review in a sea of positive feedback can drain our creative juices as business owners and hold us back from growing our business.
It would be unfair to the customers who know and love you to give up and quit or stop innovating just because of a few negative reviews. Keep pushing on for THEM, and remember that the people who “bite” the hardest online are often dealing with wounds themselves.
Be kind above all else, and your ideal customers will continue finding you.