How to turn negative feedback into a business win

We’re dreaming of a perfect world: a world in which everyone is friends with everyone, every business delivers perfect service, and every customer gives five-star ratings… sadly for us, though, this isn’t the case. The truth is that customers are often highly observant, hot on detail, and even downright picky – meaning that negative feedback is a part of day-to-day life for most businesses.

But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to handle a customer complaint. Even if you work in customer support and regularly encounter negative feedback, managing tricky customers can be the toughest part of the role: after all, if you care about your job and the company you work for, it can be difficult – and even painful – to have to deal with criticism. You care. You want your customers to love what you’re offering, because you do. However, in order to succeed, you must put your emotions to one side and handle the situation with sensitivity and skill.

The good news is that, if you can do so, negative feedback doesn’t have to be a blow for your business: in fact, it can be a real bonus. Here’s how to turn negative ratings into a business win.

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Seeing negative feedback as an opportunity for growth

Let’s start at the beginning. All of us – whether as a consumer, employee or customer support professional – will have come across negative reviews for a product or service. These can range from reasonable to abusive, but they all have one thing in common: they signify that there’s a gap between expectation and delivery. It could be that your company is doing something wrong, which means that you need to act quickly; or it could be that the customer’s expectations were unreasonable. However, even if it’s the latter, you still need to listen - because there’s a chance that something has happened during the user journey to create those expectations, and the only way to find out is to attempt to start a useful dialogue with the customer.

So that’s the first thing to bear in mind: whilst negative feedback is rarely easy to deal with, it also provides a valuable opportunity for growth. The service recovery paradox states that receiving negative feedback is actually desirable, because - if dealt with successfully – the customer can be left with a more positive impression of your company than if they’d never had a problem at all! As a result, a customer could be more loyal to your company after experiencing a service failure than they were before. Mind. Blown.

To make the most of this opportunity, though, it’s crucial that your company’s response to complaints is both efficient and effective.

How to handle negative feedback

Step 1: Respond quickly – but don’t react.

It’s vital that you address any and all complaints as quickly as possible. If a customer isn’t angry about the issue, a quick response can often nip the problem in the bud; and, if they’re already irate, delays will only exacerbate their mood. Responding quickly shows that you’re attentive to your customer’s needs. This should be a priority – so if you need to make a change to the way customer complaints or negative reviews are processed and handled (setting up a specific channel of communication or a dedicated workflow), you should do this sooner rather than later.

That said, don’t be tempted into a knee-jerk reaction. At this juncture, you should think of your correspondence as a fact-finding exercise: you’re going to engage with the customer and try to get to their bottom of their problem, but at this point you shouldn’t make any decisions. Take care not to go on the defensive, and try to avoid commentary about the ‘correctness’ of their allegations.

Step 2: Ask the right questions.

However the complaint is phrased, it’s still a learning opportunity. Your mission, at this point, is to investigate – to find out where the points of tension are, and determine whether your company needs to take action to resolve them.

Avoid closed questions or making assumptions: instead, try to draw the customer out so you can identify if there is useful feedback contained within their complaint. Ask open-ended questions like ‘Can you provide more detail on X’ or ‘is there an example of what you mean?’. These sorts of questions will give the customer a chance to explain what they mean, but will also probe them to be specific – to back up their allegations with proper examples.

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Step 3: Tailor your approach

Think about the customer.

First, try to put yourself in the customer’s shoes. This will help you settle on the right approach.

Ask yourself:

  • Is this a VIP? Customers who opt for your top-tier service or product options do so for a reason: they expect the service to match. Skip the waffle and head straight to the solution; these sorts of clients typically expect a no-muss, no-fuss resolution, and will lose patience with anything that could be interpreted as timewasting.

  • Is this name familiar? There are customers who just like to be in contact – a lot. Though seeing the same name cropping up over and over again can occasionally fill a customer support professional with dread, in fact these kinds of clients often prove to be the most loyal. Take the time to respond to their (many) messages or calls and you could earn a great deal of repeat business.

  • Is this customer too upset to communicate constructively? These are often the trickiest customers to handle. First and foremost, any response that you make should be extremely neutral and measured: you must refuse to be drawn into any sort of argument. That said, don’t be afraid to be firm. You are there to help, not suffer abuse. If the conversation takes an aggressive turn, react firmly – yet politely – and make it clear that you cannot resolve the issue unless you’re able to discuss things calmly.

Think about yourself.

Next, turn your critical eye on yourself. Are you really the right person to handle this complaint? This is not necessarily a reflection on your abilities or experience, but rather concerns the nature of the issue. If you don’t feel confident, or don’t have quite the right level of expertise, you might be best to pass it along. Should this be the case, take care to communicate this to the customer so that they don’t feel fobbed off.

Think about the medium.

Email is the most popular form of workplace communication – and it’s a real bonus in some situations, allowing you to respond to queries quickly, in a neutral tone (no danger of sounding as if your voice is growing louder or impatient!), with a complete paper chain (so you always have a record of what has been said).

A word of caution about relying on emails, however. Whilst they seem neutral, the tone is also completely open to interpretation – and therefore misinterpretation! Furthermore, customers may read a chain of emails as impersonal, low-effort responses. Picking up the phone demonstrates that their issue is being taken seriously; and, importantly, gives them the space to dialogue in a much more human way, rather than venting into a cyberspace void.

Yes, phone calls with an angry or upset customer can be an intimidating prospect, but by speaking on the phone you’re ensuring your customer knows that they’re being heard – and that can really ease the process.

Step 4: When crafting your response, take care to avoid…

  • Copying and pasting a stock message (particular on social media or in a public forum like Trustpilot). Nothing says ‘your feedback is of little importance’ more clearly than message that has been repeated elsewhere.

  • Using vague language. If a customer complains that their delivery is late, or an item broken, apologise for that. By showing that you’ve actually read or listened to their complaint thoroughly and are taking the specific problem into account – rather than saying ‘we’re sorry to hear that’ – you’ll be on much stronger footing.

  • Rambling. When put on the spot, either because the customer is irate or because a huge error has been made somewhere, it’s common to ramble. Don’t. The perfect solution is short, sweet and sincere: a customer with a problem wants it to be solved quickly, without hearing too many excuses or platitudes.

  • Dodging accountability. The contemporary consumer has little patience with companies who seem to care more about covering their own backs than caring about customers – and attempting to dodge blame could have ramifications (such as negative publicity). If a mistake has been made, own it: apologise sincerely and be honest about where things could have been improved.

  • Failing to show gratitude. Even if the wording was aggressive or difficult to hear, every bit of feedback presents an opportunity for improvement. Thank your customer for their feedback in a sincere and respectful way.

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Step 5: Follow up

Once you’ve assessed the situation, identified the cause of the complaint, and proposed a solution, don’t simply disappear. Companies that go the extra mile are the ones which really turn negative feedback into business wins – so, at the very least, you need to follow up with your customer to see how things have gone.

Leave it 24 – 48 hours and make contact again to check the problem has been solved to their satisfaction. Consider offering a little sweetener, too, as a gesture of goodwill: a discount or freebie, perhaps, to show that you really care about their experience.

Final thought about negative feedback

It is possible to transform a complaining customer into a devoted client, but it takes work. And is it worth it? Research suggests so: a Zendesk survey on the impact of customer service on customer lifetime value (originally published in 2013 but updated this year) found that, according to 87% of the respondents, good customer service changes buying behaviour on a long-term basis. Indeed, almost half of the participants (46%) stated that their buying behaviours are negatively impacted for two years after a bad customer service experience.

Our advice? Managing negative feedback with sensitivity and care is worth the time and effort. See every bit of feedback as an opportunity to show your customer base just how much they’re valued, and you could be flying high.