19 March 2010 ~ 2 Comments

Dealing with negative feedback or your community turning on you

Risk TournamentNestle are currently having a bit of a community management nightmare (screengrab) dealing with vast amounts of negative feedback being posted to their Facebook community page. Their customers (and non-customers) are expressing opinions on Nestle’s use of Palm Oil in their products, arguing that it’s production damages the environment. The negative feedback ranges from abusive to constructive, via sarcastic criticism of the brand by people posing as monkeys, and is further amplified by fast dissemination via social media tools such as Twitter.

Generally, the expression of some negative feedback is positive for an online community, as it gives the Community Manager or company representative an opportunity to respond to, if not action these comments. At the very least, being respectful and responsive will promote the view that your company cares about what their customers think, and are willing to take these views on board.

Sometimes though, as a Community Manager you will come under sustained attack as the company representative and will have no other choice than to don your flack jacket, tin helmet and hit the trench. A combination of a clear head, strict suppression of emotion and thick skin (think rhinoceros, not cow) will see you through; the following checklist covers the main routes to follow when faces with a variety of scenarios. Prioritisation is vital in crisis situations and you need to be able to pick your battles, as some are not engineered by the protagonists to allow a fair playing field.

The bottom line

First, you cannot ignore the following: You are tasked to speak with the community and represent the company. You have the inside track and information to answer customer questions, and are expected to feedback internally, get answers or courses of action, and respond to customers appropriately. You cannot avoid your customers, you must embrace their views whether good or bad, and if you can’t do that then you need to find a new job. A company that understands this fact of online community management and social media communication wouldn’t expect any less from you.

Sticking it out? Good…

Now’s the time to start prioritising complaints and customers into batches, to make it easier to decide how to respond to each of them. This is a vital part of the process, as it allows you to take a bird-eye view of what is going on in your community, assess the different kind of views being expressed and scope out who the protagonists are, whether there are teams gathering around specific arguments and flag up any ring leaders that are driving attacks on the brand or product. hydraWhich complaints are legitimate, and what are the motivations of those engaged in the argument (and, hard as it is, try not to be paranoid if your company has a history of being attacked over business decisions)?

Oh, and try to avoid deleting people’s comments – criticism of your company is very rarely something that you can add to the rules of use of your community. If the comment is libellous or in any other way illegal that’s another matter, but generally deleting a critical comment will lead to two new one. Don’t feed the Hydra!

When responding can lead to Social Media success (or what used to be known as good old customer service)

  • Can you identify those amongst your community who wield social influence? If you can target those and get them onside through judicious customer service, you will remove them from their role as ring leaders and dilute the power of the charge. You can contact them directly, whether by email or phone, or invite them in as a group to discuss opinions on how the company can improve its operations, making sure to communicate the result back to your community with testimonials from those involved in the group discussion.
  • Have you been a good Community Manager and spent time nurturing your brand evangelists? This has to be done on an ongoing basis to be truly effective, so that you can rely on them when negative criticism occurs. Engaged evangelists will often defend your brand and be willing to help you manage the onslaught, diffusing negativity through acting as an authentic voice in your community.
  • Is it possible to apologise without losing face? Apologising if you have truthfully screwed up can go a long way, but make sure you do it without caveats. Following this up with a clear plan of action of how the company is going to rectify whatever your customers are complaining about will most likely take the wind of out any further argument, and calm the storm to a more manageable level.

When responding will take you out of the game (and lead you to escape to the mountains)

  • Do you suspect the customer to be mad at your brand in general, and latching on to any excuse to give you a good bashing? If they are posting non-factual opinions, then by all means respond calmly correcting them, but getting drawn into a slanging match will end up with you losing, regardless of how you approach it or the arguments you put forward. You will most likely waste a lot of time reasoning with them, which could be better spend nurturing more constructive discussions and chasing up responses or actions internally which will have a more positive affect on the whole.
  • Can you feel the red mist rising? involving yourself in a debate with customers when you are feeling overly emotional is bound to make you look unprofessional and result in more harm than good. Never give in to posting sarcastic responses if you can avoid it, and don’t become a case study for how not to engage in social media customer service by flying off the handle. Ask another member of your team to take over or talk to a friend or colleague about it until you’ve calmed down.
  • If the feedback loop is turning into a cyclone, trying to respond to everyone individually will become impossible. Retreating into posting general updates responding to multiple people is not failure, but rather a way of ensuring you spend your time constructively collating complaints and seeking responses from within your company, rather than getting tied down answering an ever increasing number of strands of conversation.

Being the point of contact for the company online can be a harrowing experience when you are faced with a social media backlash – but it doesn’t have to end in disaster. Keeping cool, staying impartial and maintaining a professional demeanour at all times will see you through. Looks for the angles, recognise the opportunities for headway and avoid getting trapped in pointless battles.

Have you faced a situation like this? How did you deal with it? Can you add any tips on how to respond to criticism online effectively and any other situations that are best avoided?

Bonus: Selection of funny posts on Nestle Facebook page

[photo by derekGavey and sketch by Andrew Jian]

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