Customer Complaints and Virtual Bitch Slaps: Dealing With Web-Based Criticism

by | May 14, 2008

After leveraging harsh criticism against PRWeb, I was contacted by the company’s marketing manager, Joe Beaulaurier. And much to my surprise, he not only responded but actively resolved the problems affecting my clients. In this post I chat with Joe about dealing with public criticism constructively.

Today anyone can publish anything, positive or negative, about you or your company quickly and easily. A blogger can rant about you (no surprise here). One of your customers can send out a scathing review to all of their social network “friends.” You could be bashed by a popular Twitter user. You could find a nasty video criticizing you, your company, your product, etc. up on YouTube. The worst part is that Web-based critiques can go viral. They sometimes spread. Quickly.

So how should you deal with it the next time you come under attack in the social media realm? Should you lash back at the person? Should you pout and whine? Should you ignore it? No. You should take it as an opportunity to start a discussion, evaluate why you’re being criticized, and most importantly do something about it if the complaint has any merit.

Case in Point: PRWeb

I’ve been a harsh critic of PRWeb in the past (still am to a degree). Yet Joe Beaulaurier, PRWeb’s Marketing Manager, sets a perfect example of how to productively deal with virtual critcism.

My first interaction with Joe was on a webmaster forum that I frequent and now help moderate (where I spend a lot of time networking with the online entrepreneur side of my client base). While I can’t remember exactly what was said that got Joe’s attention, I’m sure it was at least a little bit harsh. Quite frankly, I’d gotten sick and tired of Internet marketers and others pushing PRWeb as some God-given gift to the PR world – when in fact they were simply pandering to the link-loving, keyword-stuffing, spam-a-holic crowd, contributing to the growing heap of “garbage” press releases littering the Web. (While I’m a bit “tamer” on the PRWeb front these days, that gives you an idea of the attitude at the time.)

One of my specific issues with PRweb in the past (which they’ve since resolved) was that it was a pain in the ass to go over their package details when clients were interested in using them, because those details weren’t available if you weren’t already registered with the site (and most new clients weren’t). Joe addressed that on the forums, and proceeded to leave me a voicemail to try to connect and chat about some of my issues. I never did return that call (sorry Joe). When I finally found time, I decided instead to address some of my issues with PRWeb here on this blog instead – I think that may have actually been the first of the now-typical rant posts here.

Despite that choice (because my concern was more about helping webmasters – then the primary readers of this blog – and not PRWeb), I have to admit I was impressed that anyone with the company even took notice of the comments, nonetheless responded. I was even happier to see a company take criticisms constructively and actually make changes in the long run (such as making their package information more readily available).

Later on, in that same forum, someone pointed out a technical issue with PRweb – URLs automatically become live links (at least with certain packages), and if there was a comma following the URL, it was included in the live link (meaning dead links). It was affecting more than a few old releases up on the site. Remembering how well Joe had addressed past issues in that community, I brought it to his attention directly. Within a few days, the problem was fixed, and all links were functioning properly again – and he addressed the issue directly on the forum as well as here. Again, I was impressed. A company rep actually taking complaints seriously? Things actually getting fixed, and quickly? Wow, right? People… this is how you deal with criticism. And by dealing with it professionally the first time, you’re able to potentially alter the “tone” of future comments from the same critics.

When to Address Online Criticism

I talked to Joe about his own choices in addressing or ignoring Web-based slams against PRWeb, and how he manages to keep his cool in the process. I think it’s far better to learn from a good example than to simply have a PR rep rattle off a list of tactics for online crisis management. First, I wanted to know why he bothered to respond to me. Here’s what Joe had to say:

“Your criticisms of PRWeb, albeit colorfully harsh, were not founded on misinformation or falsehoods. You presented knowledgeable expert positions founded on many years of walking the walk and your large audience included PRWeb customers and prospects. You were definitely a worthwhile person to develop a line of communication with.”

And that’s where Joe makes a distinction between what he considers worth a response, and what he doesn’t – whether responding (especially publicly) will actually help someone (in my case, their customers – also my clients, who cared about what I had to say).

So what kinds of motivations are there behind online criticisms, and when is it worth your time to respond publicly?

“Sometimes criticism is merely for the sake of being snarky to stir up controversy/conversation to promote blog readership or in the hope something free will be tossed out to quell the complainer. I’ll often pass on those. Sometimes it is based on misinformation or falsehoods. I will respond to these but only if it’s in a visible location and future visitors could make incorrect decisions based on the misinformation or falsehoods unless some clarification is made. And other times it comes from the fact that we screwed up and need to take responsibility for it.”

Should You Respond Publicly or Privately?

Joe shared some additional thoughts on responding to information posted about your company on the Web, more specifically his thoughts on what should be responded to publicly, and what warrants a private response:

“There’s also the matter of choosing whether to engage within the public-facing comments of a blog or contacting ‘offline.’ Sometimes it helps the blogger or site owner to save face if there’s incorrect information in something they’ve posted. I recently encountered a guest blogger scenario and the guest blogger was introduced as an employee of PRWeb. Even though I didn’t recognize the name (we’re a relatively small company) I scrambled to be sure we hadn’t hired someone recently before contacting the site owners offline. They responded quickly recognizing there was a miscommunication. No harm, no foul and I sent them a coupon for a free release as thanks.”

In this case, the response wasn’t directly related to negative information about PRWeb being published, but simply incorrect information. However, I think he has a really good point when it comes to letting the blogger save face. Even if the misinformation is of a more serious nature, it’s generally not a good idea to bash the blogger for it publicly. What you do then is alienate them (something you should avoid, especially if they have any influence with your target market or audience). Many bloggers would be more than happy to retract incorrect information or post an update if you’ve fixed a problem if you simply ask them to privately. Many would also be grateful to even know that you’re monitoring their blog to begin with.

Monitoring Online Feedback

So how can you keep on top of what’s being said about you or your company online anyway? Joe brings up a good point, in that finding these discussions is sometimes where companies struggle:

“I think the challenge for most companies is a lack of awareness that these online conversations are even occurring or having the means to monitor. I’m an information junky. I’ve set up many dashboards which I can quickly scan that show me the conversations around PRWeb and others in my space. I wouldn’t assume their silence is a deliberate approach to the situation.”

Personally, there are a few ways I like to keep tabs on what’s being said about me:

  • I set up alerts through Google or Yahoo.
  • I run regular blog searches in Google and check sites like Technorati to see who’s been linking to me recently.
  • I do more thorough backlink checks to see who’s linking to my sites, what particular pages, and why.
  • I constantly monitor the stats for all of my blogs and sites, seeing what sources are suddenly sending traffic (and again checking to see why).
  • If there are specific sites I feel a need to monitor, I run searches on them periodically.

The system I use isn’t perfect, but I do pick up the bulk of blog posts, comments, tweets, forum posts, etc. that mention me or one of my sites this way.

Don’t Take it Personally

It’s no secret that when I feel strongly enough about something to rant about it here, it’s probably going to be relatively harsh. While once in a while I come across someone like Joe who actually tries to turn the criticism into a constructive conversation, others don’t. What has always baffled me is the fact that those who respond by taking it personally are usually the ones who come under even more fire later, but they choose to do it anyway.

They might leave a nasty comment on the blog post (which usually does precious little more than amuse me and egg me on). They might delete your critical comment from their own blog. They might ban you from their blog. They might remove you from their social network. They might bitch about you on Twitter. That rarely helps.

Sure, it’s hard not to take things personally if the comments are directly about you. But when they’re directed at your company, product, etc., you have to be able to detach yourself a little bit more, and as Joe puts it “put your ego in your pocket and realize that, yes, your company, a member of your staff or a customer service policy may suck.” When you’re open to the possibility that you may actually be in the wrong, you can proceed productively while minimizing further damage.

Joe very nicely sums up the simple plan you should try to follow the next time your company comes under some virtual fire: “Find out what motivated the criticism, how it can be resolved and how it is not going to happen again.”

So what do you think? What’s the best way to deal with online criticism? What if it’s particularly harsh? What can you do to avoid taking things too personally? Is there ever a time when you should take things more personally? Do you have any stories to share of really good, or really bad, examples of companies or individuals effectively handling blog-based or similar attacks?

2 Comments

  1. Hi Jennifer,

    I really enjoyed this post; thank-you! I work for an organisation that has serviced its customers badly in the past. Even though we’ve moved on (new people, acknowledgement of past faults), once you’re known for bad attitude it can be hard to shake. Consequently, every time there is the slightest problem with one of our products, we get flamed on community discussion lists (email groups). It can be horribly personal and disastrously critical, but my “coping mechanism” is to recognise that the harsher the comments, the more the frustration that has engendered them – so I’m feeling bad, but boy, my customer is REALLY fed-up. That helps to take the sting out but I’d never recommend *not* taking it personally: it’s taking these things personally that has changed the core values of our business, vastly improved our customer service and, for the most part, turned around our brand identity.

    My responses to these criticisms vary but my general mantra is (a) make it personal – no-one wants to hear a corporatised robotic response, and it helps to improve our customers’ perception of the organisation if they recognise that it’s other human beings on the end of their frustration; (b) mea culpa – if there’s responsibility to be taken, take it (c) but don’t overdo it – and keep your response concise, so that you’re not forcing your frustrated consumer to read reams of text (and also, subliminally, you’re downplaying the issue by not overreacting to it).

    Any other suggestions?!

  2. Good observations Charlie. Just to clarify though, I wasn’t trying to imply that you shouldn’t respond in a personal way to complaints, but rather that the individuals involved need to be able to separate criticism of their company (or blog, etc.) from criticism of themselves. It’s when we take it as a more personal attack (instead of an attack on a policy, product, idea, etc.) that we tend to respond more aggressively and less productively.

    I’d also love to hear if others have suggestions as to how they deal with online criticisms.

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