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Surviving Social Feedback

April 18, 2013

To do business in the social media era is to walk around with a giant "Kick me" sign taped to one's back. Evernote CEO Phil Libin put it perfectly in a recent Inc. article: "…the Internet is the most efficient invention in the history of the universe for concentrating dissatisfaction into its purest, darkest, and most bilious essence."

Every business from the corner coffee shop to the mightiest multinational is subject to public criticism that can be unfair, unkind, and at times deeply personal. Responding to legitimate criticism without letting the negativity corrode one's peace of mind can be a tricky balancing act. Here are some steps that anyone with an online presence can take to handle the onslaught:

  • Separate rants from legitimate complaints. Ranters have a remarkable ability to turn any situation into an opportunity to spew off about politics and a host of other unrelated topics, and it is far too easy to take the bait. Rants are emotional poison that have no place in business communication, and it's best to filter them (by moderating blog comments, for example) or removing them as quickly as possible. If they're left visible, they'll eat at team morale, even if no one responds to them.
  • Examine the complaints by first separating factual content from emotional content. A comment such as "Whoever designed this user interface doesn't know the first thing about ergonomics" offers the fact that someone is dissatisfied with the user interface. The comment might be spot on or misguided (perhaps the person is misusing the product or hasn't been trained), but the dissatisfaction is a data point that needs to be considered.
  • Analyze the emotional content for the audience needs it suggests. Remember that strong emotions usually mean the subject matter is important. Perhaps you're not performing the way every stakeholder would like, but at least you're striving toward a valued goal, which suggests that an opportunity exists. Then again, the anger in a comment may have nothing at all to do with the matter at hand; a commenter might just be having a rotten day, and it spilled onto Twitter or your blog.
  • Pay attention to team morale. Regularly remind everyone involved that negativity is an inescapable element of life online and that criticism shouldn't be taken personally. Gallows humor and a chance to blow off some steam from time to time can help people scrape off the emotional barnacles that tend to accumulate. Evernote's Libin emphasizes the importance of sharing good news, too. Doing so can soothe battered emotions and remind everyone that for every complainer, there might be dozens or hundreds or thousands of silently happy customers.

Ragers and trolls aren't going anywhere, so the ability to listen actively without sponging up all the negative emotions has become an important skill for business communicators at every level. Students who are active in social media may have experienced personal attacks, and discussing how they've reacted can be a good opportunity to advise them on how to handle public criticism on the job.

In addition to handling the emotional fallout from online criticism, of course, organizations need an overall communication strategy for responding to incoming complaints. These three articles offer good advice:

 

Image credit: Thoth, God of Knowledge