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Taking a break from your own hype

It is generally considered a good idea to act in business as if you are the best at what you do - After all, if you think you are second or third best in your industry, this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

However; Regular reality checks are a very, very good idea.

So how do you do this ?

In the past, this was often done with surveys, focus groups and telephone polling. In todays' instant Internet society, however, often your favourite search engine is your best - and quickest - option. It often, believe it or not, as simple as searching for "{your company name} sucks" or "unhappy with {your company name}"

Ideally, your search will turn up zero results. Over time, however, given the simple fact that no one can please all of the people all of the time, you will discover someone - or some people - saying some unflattering things about your firm.

How you deal with these public negativity is extremely important.

First and foremost - Do not jump into the online forum or review site, angrily denying everything and accusing the person of being a liar, trouble maker or working for the competition.

Why ? Is it because this would be bad PR ? Would it make you look immature ? Would it sound like sour grapes ?

It would indeed be some of all of the above, but there is an even more important reason:

It may be true.

There is an old saying: "Unable to see the forest for the trees" - This usually occurs when one becomes so involved with the running of their business, of expanding clients, growing sales or developing new products that the very basics can be overlooked. These "basics" are most often simple things like customer service or quality control, but they can equally be something more serious, like a rogue employee or a catastrophic design failure of your product in an unforeseen use.

So how do you deal with negative, public feedback ?

  • First, acknowledge that you recognize the client had a negative experience even if you have good reason to suspect it is untrue. Many potential customers will judge a company by how they deal not with accolades and awards, but by how they deal with criticism and complaints - In a nutshell, they want to know that if they have a problem with your product or service, they'll be treated with respect and with the goal of solving the issue.
  • Next, offer to contact the customer personally and directly. Many customers will be mollified and more than a little pleased if the owner or senior management of a company is willing to reach out to them directly to resolve an issue. Again: Stay positive, professional and polite: Assume they really did have a genuine problem, even if you think it is unlikely, and offer to solve it.
  • If the problem was a significant one - involving the inability to use the product or service, offer a discount on a future purchase, or the next months' subscription fees. Some companies take the attitude that discounts or refunds are the root of all evil and I can tell you from over 20 years of public relations, the cost to a companies' reputation over the refusal to refund $19.95, or swallow a $50 shipping fee, especially when it turns out the company bears some of the blame - it will cost you more than you save.
  • Assuming you can resolve the issue, there is absolutely nothing wrong with asking the customer if they would mind posting a follow-up review to let people know that their issue was fixed - It looks good on you and lets potential clients know that you are interested in your customers' satisfaction.
  • If the issue cannot be fixed or if the customer is intractable - Offer to refund their money - It simply is not worth the hit to your reputation to keep a piddling amount of money from a customer who is not happy with your product. (This is, of course, assuming your product can be returned to you in a resalable condition - If it's a service you offer, this is a no-brainer: Refund the purchase)
  • In cases of poor customer service by your staff: You actually have to deal with the employee that provided the poor service: They literally are your face to the world: If they are taking out the fact that they've had a bad day, are behind on their mortgage payment or just got notification that their child failed a history exam, that is absolutely unacceptable business practice - especially since it is costing you money. Speak to your employee - Find out their side of the story - There may even be reasons for their poor representation that you can help to alleviate, but under no circumstances, should they be taking poor attitude out on your customers.
    Then call the customer in question and let them know that you've spoken to the people involved and are working towards ensuring it does not repeat again. Better yet, make a point of calling that same customer 90 days afterwards, to ask them if they are satisfied with your service to date.

As your business grows and if you are moving further away from the "front lines" - dealing directly with your customers or public - never, ever assume that all is perfect, all the time, even with staff that you think very highly of - It is far too expensive when you are mistaken. There is another saying that goes will with this advice:

"Trust, but verify!"

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