Sooner or later, someone is going to take issue with something you say. This may come as a shock to you (yes, I know—you’re perfectly lovable). But when you’re in the business of building a business, there’s one inarguable truth you’ll have to face: You can’t please everyone.
Nor do you want or need to.
So what do you do when the criticism flies and you’re left to play a raucous game of Defending Your Life?
Here’s your definitive guide to dealing with negative feedback. As the owner/operator of a bold, brash and occasionally offensive brand, these are my tips from the trenches. I write an uncensored blog, columns for multiple magazines and speak at a myriad of conferences throughout the year. We won’t even begin to mention my equally uncensored Facebook, Twitter and Google+ feeds. When the negative feedback rolls in—which it always does—my first task is to assess the situation.
Understanding The Venue
My first step is always to take into account the venue that brought about the negative feedback. For instance, negative blog comments are different from negative feedback at a conference.
If you’re blogging, it’s likely a part of a content marketing strategy designed to introduce new people to your brand. In this case, it helps to remember that we all tend to click on things and find they’re not the droids we were looking for. If you’re speaking at a conference, you’re the main attraction in a room filled with diverse personalities. Consequently, not everyone is going to be picking up what you’re putting down, and you may hear criticisms from people who disagree with your point of view.
Once you understand the venue, you can delve into the source and the issue—the person doing the complaining and the complaint itself.
Who Said It And Why
There are three types of sources for negative feedback. Let’s break these audiences down so we can figure out how to deal with them.
1. A fan with a complaint. The most memorable brands become that way by taking a stand every now and then, by being steadfast in who they are and the audience they serve. When a fan of your brand brings up a legitimate complaint, your ears should perk up. Your torso should tilt forward. Your mouth should close. This is the most serious of all sources of negative feedback. In these instances, I’m responding instantly (or as close to instant as I can get), offering explanations and seeing what I can do to rectify the situation. Without fail, these cases have always offered an opportunity to learn and improve—and if I’m lucky, show brand fans that I do read my email and I do care about what they think. While I can’t please everyone (including my fans) all the time, I can let this person know that I take their feedback to heart.
2. A non-fan with a complaint. When I say non-fan, I mean someone who's new to your brand and hasn’t yet had the chance to fall in love with who you are quite yet. It could also mean someone who doesn’t like you and never will. When someone new to my brand takes issue with (fill in the blank—my list is pretty long), I look at the whole of their argument and see if there’s an opportunity to at least salvage a friendly relationship.
I always thank them for sharing their thoughts. If it’s in response to a talk I’ve given at a conference, without fail, I thank them for sharing part of their day with me. I never go primate and sling poo, taking the defensive approach and seeing if I can come out on top. I respond civilly and graciously, and see if there's an opportunity to have the next (and better) conversation. I've found, much to my delight, that there are wonderful people behind not-so-wonderful words. I never would have discovered them if I hadn't swallowed some humble pie and dug a bit deeper into the issue.
3. A non-fan (or even a fan) spewing filth. Sometimes, people have no manners. I’ve received the most vile, hate-filled comments from one person in an audience of 2,000 following a standing ovation. Sometimes these sucker punches can come from people who are long-standing members of your audience. And if the heat of the moment takes over, before you know it, someone you know is hitching horses to a bandwagon of negativity, leading your audience down a path that never ends well.
No matter who you are and the flavor of brand you run, you always deserve to be treated with respect. When someone comes into your house and chooses to be disrespectful to you, you have a few choices:
- Ignore them. Trolls feed on attention, and the less you give them, the better. Name-calling doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to do the same in a return-fire sequence. By doing nothing, you always (and without fail) emerge the bigger person.
- Reel it in. When one of my audience members gets into it with another audience member, I put the kibosh on that and fast. I simply and respectfully (and often with a bit of humor to diffuse the situation) remind all involved that respect is a given and if they can’t operate under that single rule, they might want to find somewhere else to play.
- Respond with care. If all else fails and you decide to take the snarky route, I suggest you do so only if you're an experienced practitioner of the fine art of snark. If it all goes south, you can certainly hit the block or ban button, but you should be sure you really want to go there before a word leaves your keyboard. Admittedly, this is my least favorite choice, though I remain a steadfast fan of the snark.
Finally, it's important to remember that not everyone is going to like who you are or what you do. If you’re not getting a complaint every now and then, odds are, you're not pushing any sort of edge, much less the envelope. Don't be afraid to have an opinion—as ones that differ from yours are powerful chances to start conversations.
In the end, the best defense against someone who's taken offense with something you’ve said or done is:
- Being steadfast and secure in who you are,
- Knowing the audience you serve, and
- Seeing whether the complainer’s issue offers you a chance to improve how you honor your brand’s most important asset: your core audience.
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