Managing negative sentiment
Negative commentary is an unavoidable and normal part of business and life. How you approach that negative commentary will determine how customers, whether past, present or future, will perceive you. Cecelia Haddad explains.
What was once a letter in the post directing complaints towards you directly has now become public information with people using the internet as their first port of call when lodging a complaint. If you prefer to bury your head in the sand and not listen to it, then stop reading now. If you want to do something positive with a negative, read on.
There will be a time when you are the target of negative commentary without asking for it. Of course it’s hard to listen to, but negative comments should be embraced. Why? Because they help us improve what we do. Because they provide an insight into other people’s perceptions of us. Because they can make us a better business person. And because they allow us the opportunity to change ourselves or what others think. What we do with that feedback will determine whether it is helpful or futile.
Unsolicited commentary is the most common form of negative feedback and can sometimes come as a surprise. Monitoring all sentiment, especially negative, is essential. The most cost efficient way to do this is through Google Alerts – it’s free and it will keep you updated on any online mentions, for example, on a review site. Check your social media pages daily. If the comment appears on your social media networks it is tempting to delete it. Don’t! Unless it is derogatory, defamatory or uses offensive language, leave it, but address it. First, determine if it is valid. If it is, take responsibility for the problem and communicate the action you are taking to rectify it. If it’s not valid, it is still a perception and needs to be addressed. Do this by using facts and evidence to back up your point. You may see their commentary as false, however if one person complains, it is likely others have shared the sentiment.
If you receive a direct complaint, usually by phone or email, respond as quickly as possible. Always acknowledge the issue. When people complain, they want to be heard, so ignoring negative feedback just adds fuel to the fire. Instead, listening gives people the opportunity to share their story and feel valued, as well as telling you what the problem was which highlights areas of improvement or perceptions of your business. It’s worthwhile to ask clarifying questions if you don’t completely understand what the issue is.
Solicited comments can help you become a better business person. Wouldn’t you prefer to know what people think and address it, rather than find out when they stop using your services? Inviting feedback is essential to the survival of every business. Think of solicited feedback as a regular check-up at the doctors for your business. It finds problems early on, allowing you to deal with them before they become compounded.
One of the most effective ways to invite feedback is through customer surveys. These can highlight areas of your business that need improvement and issues to be resolved. It will also show your strengths and what you are currently doing that your customers love. Surveys can be distributed to clients after each project, or conducted at regular intervals. They are particularly useful after a recent change to your business, such as offering a new service. Online survey platforms, like SurveyMonkey, make the whole process easy by compiling information for you and helping spot trends among answers. Soliciting comments gives you and your business the chance to understand problems – perceived or real – and address them or make improvements.
A Crisis Situation
If something has gone wrong but you don’t know all the facts, you still need to respond quickly. The longer you take, the stronger the rumours. In a crisis situation, respond using the CAP principle – Compassion, Action and Perspective: three simple steps to constructing a message during a crisis. For example, if someone is critically injured on a worksite you would prepare a message or holding statement for media using the CAP principle:
Compassion: this shows you are human and have empathy for the person or situation.
Action: this demonstrates what action you are taking to fix the situation.
Perspective: this puts the situation in perspective so others don’t think this is a regular occurrence and it helps with credibility.
Here is an example of a CAP statement using the scenario above:
We are saddened that Joe Smiths was injured while working on our construction site today and our best wishes go out to him for a speedy recovery.
We are currently working with the authorities to investigate exactly how the incident happened and what, if anything, can be done to prevent this happening again.
During our 10 year history of building we have never had a serious injury and have always ensured safe work practices.
The quicker you respond, the more likely you will minimise damage to your reputation.
We were working on a social media campaign with an organisation trying to change people’s thoughts and, ultimately, behaviour about a contentious issue. There were two extreme viewpoints (but the law was on our side). In implementing the campaign we decided to target the fence-sitters, knowing that was where we could make the most impact. The campaign commenced and the client’s social media pages were immediately flooded with negative commentary against our campaign.
The client wanted us to shut our Twitter feed and delete the negative comments but we convinced them that it would be better to address the comments with facts and evidence. While we knew we might not be effective in changing the author’s opinion, those reading the comments would at least be exposed to our viewpoint. Each comment was responded to publicly with a counter argument based on facts, but one that also acknowledged the perspective of the people who were commenting. This approach worked. Research conducted before and after showed the change in both thoughts and behaviour of the people we were targeting.
There is no avoiding negative commentary but what you do with it makes all the difference. By dealing with both solicited and unsolicited feedback in the right way you can change people’s perception and improve your business.