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Five Steps for Responding to Online Criticism

By Annetta Hanna, Vice President Content, Jennifer Connelly Public Relations

Remember the Online Disinhibition Effect? It’s the term that psychologists use for the loosening (or complete abandonment) of social norms in online encounters. You’ve probably witnessed some examples of this effect when an online discussion turns mean and ugly. And if you’re responsible for a business, the Online Disinhibition Effect can have especially dire consequences if it influences customer reviews on a social media site like Yelp.

In an earlier blog post, I discussed whether and when you should respond to these negative comments. Assuming you’ve decided that a critical review needs an online answer, you’ve now got to figure out how to manage your response with finesse. Barging in aggressively on a social media conversation, even one that’s full of unfair criticism, won’t win you any friends, so remember these important points before you respond.

1. Don’t jump right in. Read all the complaints, all the way through, before you write a word. Then read them again. If you’re feeling agitated, wait for your hands to stop shaking and your heart to stop racing. Remember, complaints about your company aren’t really about you. They’re about the customer who posted the comment. They’re about how that person feels. How they were let down. What they needed. What they didn’t get. So flip the old adage on its head and don’t just do something. Sit there for a few minutes.

2. Identify the real problem. Look to identify the underlying issues that prompted the critical comment. Sometimes this means looking beyond what the reviewer actually says. Your product may have failed them, but perhaps it was your customer service rep’s response to their frustration that really set them off. The reviewer may not have the language or insight to express what really bothered them, so you need to make an effort to identify the underlying problem without, however, dismissing the stated issue.

3. Respond calmly and clearly. Good luck resolving any online disturbance if you can’t take criticism without going on the attack. The moment you lose your cool, you’ve not only lost the discussion but you’ve dumped kerosene into the blaze. If you can’t step back and respond calmly, find someone else to handle your business’ online complaints. And remember that customers don’t want corporate jargon or complicated explanations for what went wrong. So write like a human being – and if need be, like an apologetic human being.

4. Be honest. If you’re going to engage a negative reviewer, be honest in your response. Apologize for any mistake you may have made. Don’t make excuses. Don’t whine. Don’t try to spin the situation to make it look like you’re the victim. If you messed up, ‘fess up and then offer a solution. If you didn’t mess up, then clarify what happened, without pointing fingers.

5. Express Appreciation. If possible, provide a solution to the reviewer’s complaint. Offer to contact them for further discussion, invite them to return their product, send them a comp or coupon, promise that you’ll try harder in the future – do whatever you can to make amends. And then thank them for taking the time to their express their thoughts. This alone can go a long way in rebuilding goodwill and good business.

The use of social media, with its many amplified outlets for comments and opinions, has magnified the risks of customer dissatisfaction. But used effectively, social media can also help businesses avoid the worst consequences of the Online Disinhibition Effect. That’s because, in the final analysis, the best way to avoid an online firestorm is by using social media tools to respond clearly and calmly. Even if the original poster is unable or unwilling to reconsider their criticism, others will judge you by your response. And this allows you to do more than manage your brand reputation. It allows you to build—and become—the brand you want.

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