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How to Use Sound Reputation Management to Respond to Negative Feedback

Okay, it finally happened. Someone placed an unflattering comment online about you, your business, or your organization. And you’re wondering what to do about it. Take heart, there is a lot you can do, and I’m going to show you how.

Surprisingly, your first move is to do nothing. At least, not immediately. Never address comments when you’re angry. In the heat of the moment, you may make an emotional response, which will only make things worse.

After you’ve had a bit of time to collect your thoughts and get your emotions in check, though, there are a few steps you should start with, to prepare a proper response.

What to do

First, read the negative comment completely. Verify that it is aimed at you and not another outfit with a similar name. If you don’t do this right from the start and you later find out it’s not about you, you risk harming your reputation over an irrelevant comment.

Once you’ve confirmed that the comment is about you, your next step is to contact the relevant people involved on your team and get their side of the story. If the complaint turns out to be justified and accurate, you will want to take ownership of the situation — don’t try to cover the incident up or ignore it and hope it will go away. Apologize, and try to do something nice for the customer to make amends. Let’s say that one of your people was rude on the phone and the customer is justifiably angry at being insulted. You might send a coupon that offers a hefty discount, or credit the customer’s account for the amount of a purchase. The point is to satisfy the customer, and maintain his or her good opinion of your business. So, act accordingly and do whatever it takes to show people you care.

What if your investigation finds that the comment wasn’t justified, and that you and your people have done nothing wrong, embarrassing, or rude? The next four steps can help you determine the right response to defuse the situation and turn the tables in your favor.

1. Your reply must come from, and be signed by, a senior executive. Do not foist this off on a blogger, assistant, or anyone else. This is management’s job. Only management speaks for the company. Should your response contain false information, you will incur the wrath of the complainer, who will likely blast the mistake across the net. This results in disaster because you look like you’re trying to cover something up. Do you want that?

2. Dissect the comment. Who wrote it? How is it signed? Where was it placed online? In a blog post? On Facebook? On Twitter? Is it written in an educated, professional tone or in braying, vulgar, profane language? The comment is a window into the soul of your attacker. Use it. Would a third party take it seriously? That’s an important question. If you elect to publish the comment, put quotation marks around it and include the name of the writer — even if the name is, “BigDog,” “CutyPants,” or some other nonsense. This is an excellent way to show, not tell, the reader that the criticism has no merit.

Your customers are not stupid and can see for themselves when a criticism is bogus, and there is nothing more powerful than using your attacker’s own words against them. We use this technique, and its power is magical. On that you may rely.

3. Evaluate your time frame for responding. Your response must be done with deliberation and should not be rushed. Take the time you need to do this right. How much time? That depends on how much damage it can do to you. Remember, it’s already on the net. If it can hurt you, get right on it, but never rush. If the complaint is of low consequence you have more time, but not forever.

4. Write your response, keeping these tips in mind:

  • You are not writing for the consumer who complained. You are writing for all third parties who know only that someone complained — not necessarily the entire situation.
  • It is your job to craft a response that maintains the sympathy of the reader.
  • Avoid using overly general, obtuse wording, a condescending tone, or corporate speak — these will only reflect negatively on you and your business. As I say in my book, “Web Content Rx,” communication means transmitting the thought that’s in your mind into the mind of the reader.
  • The message you want to show the world should be this: “We bend over backwards to satisfy our customers.” But you don’t want to say this outright — demonstrate it by listing the actions you took. This is the ultimate way to show that the complaints leveled  against you might be unreasonable (which is exactly what you want).
  • If you have several points to address, it’s helpful to list them with bullets. Do not use numbers unless the sequence is critical. Numbers imply importance or a chain of events. (Take note of this sentence. I could have written, “Don’t use numbers…” It’s likely that people will scan your response, and when scanning a web page, it is easy to misread “don’t” as “do”. For this reason, stay away from contractions in this type of writing.)
  • Write at an eighth-grade reading level. Online you always write at an eighth-grade level for the general public. This is not our opinion. It comes from tests on how people read on the Web.
  • Limit your sentences to 12 or 15 words. Paragraphs to five or six sentences. Use subheadings, so the reader knows what’s coming and for ease of reading.
  • Draw attention with bold text (not underlined text, as it might look like a link and cause confusion — the last thing you want to do at this point).
  • Title your response appropriately. Think keywords here. You want this to be found by search engines, so put words in the title that you expect people to search for. 
  • Sign your name, title, company name, and company Web address.

5. Slowly and dispassionately do a final edit to make sure you’ve incorporated all the pertinent materials and have outlined what you have done to attempt to satisfy the consumer who had the complaint.

  • When your response is complete, ruthlessly spell check and grammar check the document.
  • You may also want your legal department to look at it. Why? Let’s say that you are ready for an IPO, or a merger, when negative comments begin to show up. You have got to get this right the first time. Having legal involved only makes sense.
  • Upload your response to the appropriate sites — particularly the site where the criticism was posted. If the comment was posted on a blog, post your response there as a comment to the offending post.
  • Check back the next day to verify that your response has been published. If not, contact the administrator directly. Post on your website, LinkedIn and elsewhere if you need to. Should your reply not be allowed on the offending blog, you have the rest of the internet at your disposal. Don’t waste time – get your response online elsewhere..

One final note on monitoring the conversation

To keep your finger on the pulse of the net there are many tools you can use from Google Alerts to products that give virtually real time reports. A search for “social media monitoring” will return millions of hits.

We’ve given you a lot to think about. Take the time required to do this right, and stay calm. You’ll be fine.