Some customers have legitimate complaints. Others are just itching for a fight--or a refund. How to respond.
For many small businesses, a solid online reputation provides a gateway for virtual word-of-mouth referrals. Unfortunately, a negative review--especially one that is articulate and engaging--on Yelp!, TripAdvisor or Amazon, can have an outsized impact on a small company.
I found one of the best public responses to an irate customer complaint from Savusavu, Fiji. The respondent was Tige Young, CEO and owner of the Tui Tai Expeditions, cited by National Geographic as "one of the best adventure travel companies on earth."
With an excellent online reputation, it would be understandable if Tige chose to disregard the occasional negative review. However, rather than ignore discontented customers, Tige does a masterful job of crafting rebuttals that are informative, appropriately deferential and amusing.
The reality of customer reviews is that, in most cases, the people who take the time to share their thoughts online either had a euphoric experience or were extremely dissatisfied. Thus, online customer reviews tend to be either highly positive or grossly negative. This is certainly true for Tui Tai Expeditions. Of its 51 reviews on TripAdvisor, 40 are extremely positive, giving the company five stars. Only three customers voice negative opinions.
I was particularly impressed with Tige's response to this irate customer's review, posted on TripAdvisor under the heading "Very Disappointing." In it, the customer complains about, among other things, the food and the variety of activities available on the trip. Tige politely addresses the customer's concerns, while firmly supporting the veracity of his company's value proposition. Here's how he does it.
Tip #1: Authentic, not corporate.
When you read Tige's comments, you can picture him having a calm, polite conversation with the "very disappointed" honeymooners who wrote the negative review. His reply is not perfect, but neither are real people's conversations.
Start-ups should similarly communicate in an intimate and friendly tone, and avoid the off-putting formality of a corporate spokesperson. Of course, the relative degree of formality should be consistent with your company's marketing voice. However, when dealing with angry customers, overt formality can be misinterpreted as bureaucratic insensitivity.
Tip #2: Pander, don't preach
When addressing complaints via social media, your intended audience is not the person who feels they were wronged. Rather, you should indirectly speak to the potential future customers who will consider the negative review, and your response, when assessing the purchase of your start-up's product or service.
Tip #3: Counter, don't call out
When a customer says something untrue about your business, it is more effective to show an inconsistency between his or her complaint and his or her action,s rather than calling out the customer as a liar. In Tige's case, he notes that the disappointed honeymooners were offered "the choice to disembark and move to any number of nearby resorts, OR to stay onboard for 2 additional days. The reviewer chose to stay onboard for 2 additional days. That did not strike us as an indication of dissatisfaction."
Tip #4: Deferential, not defensive
No matter how rude or unsavory the negative comments, always treat your customers (even pissed-off former customers) with deference and respect. Even when there is little chance of winning back their business, keep in mind that your conversation is being held in the public square and will be accessible online for many years to come.
Tip #5: Break it down. Never rant.
Tige addresses each aspect of the customer's complaint in a compartmentalized manner, just as a skilled lawyer refutes a hostile witness' adverse testimony. Rather than force the reader to dig through a dense rebuttal, he clearly outlines his counterarguments by using headings to denote his response to each topic raised by the dissatisfied customers.
Tip #6: Humorous, not humoring
Realizing that his primary audience is his future customers, Tige uses humor to undercut some of the more ludicrous aspects of the reviewer's diatribe. For instance, when responding to a complaint about the weather, Tige notes, "That trip was indeed affected by heavy rain. Still, passengers were able to complete nearly every activity scheduled. Better weather certainly makes it a better experience, and try though we may, we haven't found a way to control the weather : )." Yes, Tige included a smiley face in his response.
Tip #7: Take ownership, not umbrage
Although Tige cannot control the weather, he willingly claims ownership of the aspects of the honeymooners' trip that he could influence, writing, "As an owner, Service is one of those areas we can control (unlike the weather), and it's the area I care about most." He then defends the quality of the service provided by stating the results of a contemporaneous survey, taken on board at the end of the voyage.
Tip#8: Facts, not flatulation
Whenever possible, counter a negative reviewer's comments with concrete facts. In Tige's case, he shares the collective numerical scores of the passengers who accompanied the honeymooners on their disappointing voyage. For instance, the honeymooners noted that the food did not meet their expectations, yet Tige notes that the cuisine was given a "9 out of 10″ by all of the passengers, including the disenchanted honeymooners.
The next time a disgruntled customer writes a negative online comment about your start-up, resist the natural temptation to write a hurried, angry reply. Instead, pour yourself a large glass of pineapple juice (rum optional) and take a deep breath of an imaginary tropical breeze. If you then pretend you are sitting on the Tui Tai, calmly chatting with the disappointed customer, while surrounded by a multitude of your future customers, you will no doubt craft responses that are as effective and engaging as Mr. Tige Young's.
JOHN GREATHOUSE is a partner at Rincon Venture Partners, an early-stage VC firm. A serial entrepreneur, John led Computer Motion’s $110 million public offering, and the $236 million sale of Expertcity (creator of GoToMeeting) to Citrix. Check out his hands-on start-up advice blog at Infochachkie. Or, follow his start-up oriented Twitter feed, where he promises not to tweet about koala bears or killer burritos.