How NOT to Handle Criticism and Complaints on Social Media

By Missy Sheehan

In the social media world, how businesses respond to negative feedback from customers can often make or break them. And many businesses over the last decade have experienced harsh customer backlash, loss of sales, and some ultimately even failure due to their inability to mitigate an admittedly tough, but to-be-expected situation. After all, every business faces criticism on social media at some point. It’s best to just suck it up and learn to make the best of it.

Every business faces criticism on social media at some point.

Of course, there are dozens of how-to articles out in the Internet ether that offer advice on how to respond to complaints with grace. But where’s the fun in that? Instead, let’s take a look at how NOT to handle the situation.

Pretend They Don’t Exist

One surefire way to fail at dealing with criticism and complaints is to pretend you didn’t see them. If you don’t acknowledge them, they don’t exist, right? Wrong. If you’re not going to bother trying to fix the situation and appease your customer, you might as well not even bother monitoring your social media pages.

Delete Them

Customers who post complaints love when you delete their comments. Just kidding—they really don’t. Remember when Smucker’s tried that on its Facebook page in November 2014? According to an article by Eric Samson for Entrepreneur, the jelly, jam, and preserve company reacted to questions about its use of GMOs and its position on mandating GMO labeling by deleting the posts rather than responding.

Unfortunately for the company, the sneaky move caused more negative buzz on the Web than the comments themselves, and I doubt the many people concerned about GMOs will forget about it soon.

Get Angry and Defensive

Not many enjoy being criticized, and when it comes to negative feedback about your business, it’s only natural that you might get mad and a bit defensive. But firing back with angry or insulting language will only exacerbate the situation, so try to suppress that urge.

Case in point: Remember the notorious Amy’s Baking Company in Scottsdale, Arizona? I’ve written before about the company owners’ epic social media fail in 2013. After the owners admitted to some rather dishonest and sketchy business practices on an episode of “Kitchen Nightmares,” they took to Facebook to post a series of extremely offensive messages directed at those who had criticized them. The incident made national news headlines, and is still being talked about on social media to this day.

Let Them Linger

When a customer has lodged a complaint or posted a question on social media, a delayed response from the business can make the situation so much worse. Customers expect a timely response from brands they support, so even the most minor of issues can attract attention if not addressed within a reasonable amount of time. “An event in the online world gathers social steam with such speed that your delay can become more of a problem than the initial incident,” wrote Micah Solomon in an article for Forbes. “Even an afternoon’s lag in responding can be catastrophic.”

Attempt to Punish Complainers

Another way to fail at handling criticism is to try to penalize customers for complaints or bad reviews. Ask the Union Street Guest House in Hudson, New York, how well this method worked. According to an August 2014 article by Mara Siegler for The New York Post’s Page Six, the hotel had an official policy on its website that stated that for every negative review left on an Internet site by a guest at a special event such as a party or wedding, a $500 fine would be deducted from the deposit paid by the event’s host.

The hotel’s owners removed the policy from its website and claimed it was a joke on Facebook, according to a follow-up article by Caroline Moss for Business Insider, but it was too late to stop the public relations nightmare that had been created.

Offer a Hollow Apology

It’s pretty obvious when a company is apologizing simply to placate a customer who’s reached out about a problem or concern. Carole Billingsley, in an article for Social Media Today, fittingly refers to this method as the “Gosh, Sorry You Feel That Way. We’ll Try To Do Better” approach, and it typically only makes the situation worse in the long run. “People are aware when they are being appeased,” Billingsley wrote. “Most importantly, this approach offers no solution to the problem and the customer may not give you a second chance.”

To avoid sounding insincere in your apology, take off your marketing hat, and act like a human, not a PR robot trained to issue a canned apology for every complaint. Avoid stiff, formal language and use a more conversational tone. It can make a big difference in how your message is perceived.

So now that you know what not to do, are you wondering how you should respond to complaints and criticism? According to Billingsley, the only proper response is the “We Hear You and Value Our Customers. We Will Make This Right Immediately!” approach. She suggests offering both a sincere apology and a solution to make the best of a potentially bad situation.

How does your business respond to negative feedback from customers? Let us know in the comments section.

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  • Author: Missy Sheehan
  • About Me: aka Media Marketing contributor, freelance writer for regional publications like Blue Ridge Country, WV Living, and Hagerstown magazines. I write articles on food, travel, and outdoor adventure as well as marketing materials for businesses. Connect with me on Twitter @SheehanWriting.