Leading With Change + Innovation

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“If you really want to know about business, you should refer to Scott Steinberg.” -Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Group

Customer Service: How to Create Conversations, Not Critics

As customer service speakers, we can’t help but ask: Does it ever feel like the people who engage with you or your brand only seem interested in creating heated debates, rather than meaningful dialogue? When you’re dealing with customers, online or otherwise, it’s important to remember that the goal is to create conversation, not critics. When a customer takes the time to write a scathing review of your product on the Internet, for example, it’s often related to a miscommunication, one-time poor experience, or even an initial gut reaction to a product or service designed in such a way that they perceive it to be counter-intuitive. In other words, the item or service in question probably doesn’t actually “suck,” as critics claim, or operate as faulty as in the customer’s particular case. (Such as a diner who visits a restaurant understaffed for the evening due to multiple employees’ unexpectedly calling in sick.) Rather, as customer service speakers often point out, the client may simply have encountered a roadblock, temporary glitch in the system, or anomaly (e.g. being ignored or mistreated by a worker you’ve since let go), or merely be acting off the cuff due to emotional reactions. Happily for such a common problem, there are ways to rectify it, and negative scenarios and exchanges are oftentimes avoidable. A few suggestions that can help you create more positive outcomes from these interactions are below:

  1. Understand that You Can’t Please Everyone – First and foremost, realize that you are a human being dealing with other human beings and occasionally you won’t be able to please everyone. Even your best efforts may still yield a negative comment or reaction. All you can do is think impartially, act empathetically, and do your best to see all sides of the scenario. Treat dissenting opinions with respect, address them professionally, and do so to the best of your ability, especially in highly-public interactions, e.g. on message boards, review websites or online forums.
  1. React Swiftly to Address Complaints – The sooner you react to negative comments on the Internet, the better (provided you’ve taken adequate time to ponder your response, and simmer down, first). Your reaction should be polite, fair and appropriate to the situation at hand, and address the topic being raised. Email or contact the customer directly and attempt to resolve the situation without making it a public issue. This acknowledges that you are responding to their voice, which the client is looking to have heard. If you reach a positive outcome, they’ll often times be willing to update posts to this effect; if they don’t, you can always post a fair response, and explain how the situation was addressed to viewers, letting them know that you did indeed response, and in a professional manner.
  1. Acknowledge and Act – Like most customer service speakers can tell you, customers may be interested in apologies, but what they truly desire is action – i.e. a fix to the problem being presented. Communicate with them, and when you do, ask questions to fully understand what happened and take the appropriate actions to rectify any outstanding issues. You may find out that the customer misperceived the messages being sent by your enterprise (in which case they may need improvement) or discover that something went wrong with the exchange of goods or services (in which case room for process upgrades may also exist). Whatever the case, it is vital that you take action. A quick “thank you, we’re looking into it” or “sorry to hear about your difficulties, you’re on our radar” is a welcome opening gambit. More pressing pleas for forgiveness, however, can wait until you have acted upon the situation to more positive effect.
  1. Once You’ve Acted, Make it Known -This means that once the situation is resolved that you make others aware that it has been rectified or addressed. Your post should explain what was done in a polite, professional and respect manner, and grounded firmly in the facts. Occasionally, an issue may not resolved: In this case, it’s still OK to post, so long as you speak truthfully and respectfully – and about the steps you took to make things right, rather than actions taken or opinions adopted by your customer. Being honest and direct can impress other customers and those who are thinking of purchasing from your business if you show a willingness to acknowledge their opinions, and act upon them promptly, and in a professional manner.
  1. Listen For Valuable Feedback – All feedback, even criticism, is valuable, even if it has nothing to do with tangible product errors, glitches and failings. If a user isn’t happy with a feature, find out why; if they find the item confusing or frustrating, ask questions to determine the reason. Instead of getting defensive or worse, angry, listen to what your customers are telling you. Let them know that you value their opinions – and apply insights gained to improving your offerings or organization. Take their advice, thank them for it, and if the advice is helpful, implement suggested improvements into future products, services or programs. Frankly, customers are the best focus group you can ever ask for. When you introduce a new product, service or innovation to the market, people will gladly tell you what they think—especially if they have a negative experience. If you examine online channels and forums related to your product, you’re almost certain to find commentary and feedback. Go out of your way to respond to the users, and solicit as many suggestions as possible. That way, you do more than harvest feedback; you also let your customers know that you’re listening to them, and that you appreciate their loyalty.
  1. Provide Support and Help Features – One way to achieve better communication with customers is to include readily-available help, support and frequently asked question (FAQ) programs. Put as much information and access to assistance at customers’ fingertips, and create communities and forums where fans can share insight and expertise as well. When you make it easy to find answers and solutions, or contact those who can, you may be surprised at just how much smoother the support and service process runs, and how much more efficient and affordable it can be to maintain.
  1. Don’t Feed the Trolls – Trolls are individuals who like to post negative thoughts and comments online to prompt an equally negative reaction out of those who view them. Some may harbor a grudge against your business (perhaps they had a bad experience with your customer service team, or maybe your product didn’t live up to expectations). Some may simply get a thrill out of antagonizing others. But at some point it will become clear that these individuals are simply trolling: Which is why it’s important to have firm rules and guidelines in place concerning appropriate behavior on official communications forums, and moderators in place to enforce these regulations. If certain users break the rules of the forum they can be censored or even banner, but in many cases, often ignoring them is the best solution, as eventually they may lose interest and move on. In all cases, you need to think about the validity of their concerns (and work to defuse points of contention), as well as think about the impact that their actions are having on others’ experience.

While not every customer who is unhappy will do an about-face and come to see things your way, like customer service speakers frequently point out, you can always take positive actions to address their concerns. Many can help boost your business’ standing and reputation in both their eyes, and in the eyes of others who are watching. Handling criticism effectively (especially online where it’s highly visible and often permanently there for others to see) can be an enlightening experience that helps improve your business, and provide you with a much more informed sense of public opinion towards your brand and enterprise. It all depends on how you choose to handle the situation, and act accordingly.

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