Our media cycle is 24/7 365 days of the year, and shows no sign of slowing down. People can express their joy, disgust, love, and hate within seconds, and broadcast their thoughts to millions around the world. From cable news to Twitter to increased telecommunications capabilities, the world has never been more connected than it is at this very moment.
This is both a great thing, and one that can be incredibly difficult to navigate and stay on top of. This is particularly true when you are someone who lives your life building a brand around yourself as an entrepreneur, your product, or your startup. Managing your reputation and social capital can be a time intensive process, especially as you start to grow and amass a larger customer base and media presence.
For every great review or positive critique you receive, there is always the potential for the negative to creep in. When you put a product or service up for sale, you open the gates for public opinion to flow in. Criticism can be incredibly helpful for your startup and brand; it can help you to address specific parts of your product that need improvement, test usability, and serve as a barometer for customer support and target market reach.
Not all criticism is constructive though, and negative criticism can be potentially devastating to your place in the market and ability to reach new customers. Responding to negative criticism, whether it comes from an individual in person, media, or through social media or the Internet can be a delicate process. Learning to respond to criticism professionally and appropriately can be a make it or break it moment for many entrepreneurs.
In order to respond to criticisms, you first have to hear it out. This may mean carefully monitoring the comment sections on your social media, setting up a Google alert for your startup or brand name, or opening up your brick and mortar store or e-commerce platform to comments. Absorbing public reactions takes more than a quick glance at your Twitter mentions or a quarterly review of the comment box on your website. If you have the bandwidth, consider implementing a weekly check-in where you compile, review, and address the reviews that have accumulated during the week. It can also be helpful to have another team member or someone whose instincts you trust be available during this check-in to gut check your reactions and help you to gauge your potential response.
Weigh the gravity of the situation
Does this person have significant influence? Does the critique address something that can be fixed, or is it just a voice of general dislike? Have you received similar criticism in the past or from multiple sources? All of these questions can help you to determine your next steps in responding to the critique. Let’s address the less significant issues first. Let’s say for example that someone posted a negative review on a review site like Yelp. They don’t mention anything specific about what they didn’t like about your product or service, just that they dislike it in general.
While you should still address that individual’s concern, perhaps in a kindly worded response to their post asking them to contact you directly to discuss what changes they’d like to see, this isn’t a devastating critique. No matter how great your product is, there will be someone who dislikes it based on a gut feeling or for no reason at all.
I hesitate to say that not all voices are equal, but when it comes to responding to criticism and negative reviews, there are some voices that are louder and more damning than others. A harsh review from a nationally read magazine has the potential to have a larger impact on the vitality of your startup than an anonymous user of a review site whose critique will only reach a handful of people.
Respond professionally and appropriately
We can all learn a thing or two from CEOs and business leaders who respond inappropriately to criticism (take United Airline’s CEO Oscar Munoz or Uber’s Travis Kalanick as examples of what not to do). Your response to criticism, whether it is a short response to a comment on your Instagram or a full fledged response to the media, should address the issue presented in a way that holds your brand to an elevated standard, acknowledges the legitimacy of the critique, and references next steps. Those next steps may be inviting the reviewer to speak with you or a member of your team directly or laying out exactly how you plan to address and resolve the issue at hand. Your response should mirror the gravity of the situation; you (more than likely) do not need to issue a press release for a negative comment on your social media, unless it speaks to a much larger issue.
Accept criticism both as a barometer and a learning opportunity
Criticism about your product or startup can feel deeply personal; after all, this is something that you’ve spent countless hours on and have invested your time, money, and attention into. However, criticism from a customer or non-customer is not necessarily a direct reflection on you as a person. It is easy to internalize criticism about your startup venture because we often frame our jobs and careers as an extension of ourselves.
Criticism can be very constructive, especially during the early stages of your brand. Positive criticism is less of a learning opportunity than negative criticism can be. You learn less, though you still learn something valuable, when people praise your product or brand. When people offer negative reactions or critiques, you have the opportunity to address issues you may not have otherwise been aware of, or to integrate real customer suggestions into their revisions.