As a small business owner, you work hard to promote your products and expand your customer base. You focus on providing top-notch customer service and are understandably proud when your loyal customers recruit others through word of mouth. But do you have a plan in place for when the opposite happens? If a disgruntled customer were to launch a negative word-of-mouth campaign against you, would you know what to do? Hopefully, you’ll never need to deploy such a plan, but it’s always better to be prepared than caught off-guard. Take time to think through your word of mouth advertising approach now so you can respond effectively if negativity comes your way in the future.
The best way to begin formulating your course of action in the event of negative customer feedback is by learning the principles of incident management. While often thought of as strictly a technology response to system failures, many of the guidelines can easily be transferred to any type of adverse event, including an unhappy customer who is publicizing their grievances. Some of the key elements of incident management include having a clear response plan, ensuring that all employees understand the steps, keeping a log of all events related to the issue, and, perhaps most importantly, documenting the lessons learned once the threat has passed. Having this procedure set up ahead of time, following it closely, and analyzing the outcome can turn a threat into an asset.
While it’s important to have a plan in place for responding to negative word of mouth from customers, you should also recognize the personal toll it can take on you. Your business is near and dear to your heart, and any attack on it can feel like a personal affront. Before implementing your response to negative feedback, take a moment to center yourself. Acknowledge that the situation is upsetting, then take a few deep breaths and jump into handling it.
The most common, and potentially damaging, method a person can use to spread negative word-of-mouth opinions about your business is through social media. Because of its wide reach and swift spread, social media amplifies the dissemination of information. This can be both a blessing and a curse for a business owner. If a consumer has posted potentially damaging material, you need to respond quickly. If it’s not possible to communicate directly and privately with the person, post an immediate, sincere apology on the same platform where the comments were placed. Thank the person for bringing the situation to your attention and emphasize that you value their feedback. Offer to make the situation right, even if you don’t believe your business was at fault. The key is to defuse the situation, so don’t enter into a debate. Remember that your goal is to mitigate any damage to your business’ reputation. Arguing with or belittling an already angry person will only drag you down into the negativity with them.
Fix the Problem
Stay focused on the big picture, which is protecting your business. Behind the scenes, investigate the facts surrounding the customer’s complaint. Talk to staff, if they were involved, and get their side of the story. If additional customer service training is needed, implement it as quickly as possible. If the issue was related to a faulty product, inspect your quality control processes, and tweak them if needed. In some cases, it may be necessary to terminate your relationship with an employee or a supplier. In short, do whatever is necessary to prevent a repeat of the situation.
Keep in mind that most disgruntled customers are actually looking for assistance, not trying to destroy your business. By responding calmly and doing your best to rectify the situation, you may be able to turn a potential foe into a friend.
Once the specific individual’s negative comments have been addressed, redouble your efforts to create positive word of mouth advertising. Actively solicit comments and reviews through post-purchase surveys; request permission to use the positive testimonials on your website and social media. Reward loyal customers with special programs, discounts, and other perks. Consider incentivizing your existing customers to recruit new ones by offering bonus coupons or a special gift for each successful referral. Demonstrate your commitment to the community by hosting or sponsoring local events and serving as a collection site for area food drives.
Make sure you’re optimizing your website by using it to emphasize the importance of your customers. Prominently feature your commitment to high-quality customer service. Consider highlighting a “customer of the month” or sponsoring fun contests where customers can post photos of themselves and your products. Provide easy ways for consumers to contact you and, most importantly, be sure to promptly follow up on each inquiry in a courteous and helpful manner.
Stand Out From the Crowd
Another way to protect your business from the occasional negative word of mouth is by establishing yourself as an expert in your industry. One of the easiest and most effective ways to do this is through your own social media channels. Post informative and compelling entries that demonstrate your knowledge and willingness to be of service to the audience, with no sales pitches allowed. Can you offer online training or a free class? Could you reach out to a local radio or television program to see if they’d be interested in interviewing you for a segment? Be creative in thinking about ways you can position yourself as a knowledgeable and trusted member of the community. Your goal is to have your business come to mind whenever a potential customer has a need for the product or service you provide.
While you can’t guarantee that nothing negative will ever be said about your business, you can and should ensure that its overall word of mouth advertising is positive. By laying the groundwork of an authentic presence on social media and a sterling reputation in the community, you can position your business to not only survive but thrive when negative comments do arise.