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How to Deal with Negative Online Comments

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Responding promptly and effectively to negative feedback online shows your commitment to customer service and transparency.

“Don’t ever read the comments” is a well-known adage in today’s world of Internet trolls. It’s good advice for the preservation of your Internet psyche — negative online comments can be really draining. If you’re a business with a digital presence, however, it unfortunately doesn’t apply to you.

Blog comment sections and social media channels offer an open avenue for customers to discuss their thoughts about your company for all the world to see. And, unfortunately, one negative comment can be infinitely louder than one hundred positive ones. The potential impact it could have on business is scary.

But that doesn’t mean you should delete or ignore every unfavorable tweet, post, or comment that someone posts on your digital platforms. In fact, companies can use negative online comments as an opportunity to exhibit top-notch customer service and much-appreciated transparency in the way they do business.

Even on platforms where you can choose whether or not to enable comments, opening the comments feature indicates that your business is interested in hearing from customers and engaging with them in meaningful dialogue. And while you’ll inevitably receive some negative feedback, you will most certainly learn about problems that you would never have known about otherwise. You may even win back customers if you handle things correctly.

Here are some tips for managing negative online comments.

1. Establish a written policy for comments.

When it comes to a forum like a blog, set clear boundaries with your readers about what you consider appropriate. Let them know that comments will be reviewed before being published and that hateful, derogatory, off-topic, or spam-y submissions will not be approved. That way, if someone complains about his/her comments not being published, you can point directly to your policy and how it is being violated.

Tip: Requiring commenters to use their real names (instead of initials, pseudonyms, or business aliases) is a good way to encourage an environment of mutual respect because people must own the words they post. Just make sure to include this requirement in your policy if you decide to go that route.

2. Distinguish between the purposefully hostile and the legitimately concerned.

Public forums, especially those online, are the ideal place for the disgruntled to vent their frustrations with the world. But that doesn’t mean you have to right all their wrongs.

Comments that seem to be particularly malicious just for the sake of being so probably don’t merit a response — you won’t be able to win with some people. For example, someone who tweets at you regarding the physical appearance of one of your employees or uses derogatory language does not merit your attention. These incidents should be reported, and you should not engage with them in any way. Your time and energy is much better spent on someone with a legitimate concern.

Tip: If you seem to have a recurring problem like that mentioned above, or if a troll’s comments seem to be getting some attention among your customers, it might be helpful to send (via whichever channel it is occurring) a blanket message that your business does not engage with hateful speech and point to your comments policy online.

3) Respond within 24 hours.

The advent of social media has drastically increased the speed of life. Customers now expect you to be open and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and they will sit with hands poised over their keyboards, refreshing their Twitter feeds until you respond to them. And if you don’t acknowledge them within a (perceived) reasonable time frame, they’ll assume you’re ignoring them. Cue further dragging your brand name through the mud.

Even if you are a small shop, having a designated person on call to respond to all comments within 24 hours is a good idea. That initial response may be mere acknowledgement — “We are sorry to hear about your experience. We have someone looking into it and will get back to you when we know where we messed up!” — but letting that customer know that you heard them is half the battle.

4) Don’t be a robot.

Having designated scripted responses for certain problems may actually negatively impact your efforts. Since anyone can do a quick search to see how you have responded to people in the past, they’ll know when you’re copying and pasting, and it will come off as disingenuous.

Instead, respond as a person, rather than a corporation. Training customer service reps or your social media person to write back to commenters within your brand’s tone is a good idea, but ultimately you want to give them leeway to make a human connection in solving the customer’s issue. That means treating each negative comment individually — which is something your followers will notice. It shows that your business cares immensely about solving problems and taking care of its customers, which will build trust and loyalty with your followers.

Tip: Is this something you can outsource? Hiring someone to manage social media and blog comments could alleviate stress from your internal team and allow them to focus on doing their jobs well. It would also ensure someone can give their full attention to negative comments on an as-needed basis.

5) Move the conversation offline.

After you acknowledge that you have received the customer’s comment on the platform on which s/he sent it, your goal should be to move that conversation away from the public eye. Ask the commenter to send you a private message with a phone number you can call to talk things through. It may take some time to resolve a particular issue, so it’s best that the rest of the world not see the play-by-play.

6) Admit when you are wrong, and do your best to make it right.

Justifying why an employee treated a customer a certain way, making excuses for a late delivery, or other such explanations will fall on deaf ears. Most of the time, a negative commenter just wants to hear you say that you messed up. And that’s exactly what you should do. It’s refreshing, and it shows the rest of your followers that the commenter’s experience is not the norm.

And then you should try to make it right.

In the same way that a negative customer comment can adversely affect business, a favorable one can attract positive attention to your brand and build customer loyalty. Above-and-beyond customer service experiences go viral all the time — like when a Southwest Airlines employee drove a woman’s lost luggage three hours, or when online retailer Zulily refunded a customer for a coat that didn’t work but told her to donate it to someone in need instead of returning it. Imagine how that kind of exposure could impact your business.

How does your business handle online comments?

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