How to Learn, and Profit From, Every Bit of Criticism
BY Khary Cuffe
Criticism...who needs it! Well, you do, if you truly want to understand your customers, take the bad with the good, and spin it into gold. Here's how.
Hear reason, or she'll make you feel her. - Benjamin Franklin
The quote above says it all: it's best to learn your lessons the first time around, or those suckers will keep circling back in different (typically, more painful!) ways until you bow down. Criticism from those we love and trust is an easier pill to swallow...at least we know they have our best interests at heart. But what about when criticism comes raw, with no filters, and possibly no good intent? Is that any less valuable than constructive criticism? I used to think so, but then I learned better.
Before, I was one of those cats who would throw the baby out with the bathwater, and dismiss criticism when it came from someone acting like a jerk, or someone who's own questionable behavior didn't seem to position them particularly well to dole out advice. But you know when I got smart and upped my tolerance for—well, actually, thirst for—criticism?
When I realized deep down that incorporating the lessons from people's criticism made me money!
Now, you can call it shallow if you want to. I sort of wish I could tell you that my ability to stomach criticism was rooted in a spiritual epiphany prompted by Oprah or Phil Donahue (if you're too young to remember, the guy that preceded Dr. Phil). But it simply wasn't that fancy. If you're like me, you agree with philosophical advice about criticism, yet have a hard time converting it into action. So here are three concrete tips I use to learn from criticism, honed through the school of hard knocks:
1. Consumer feedback is free. Consultants are expensive.
Consumer feedback is free, and often much more insightful than the findings a fancy consultancy is going to share about the same matter. So when I get a raw email from a consumer, I set it aside, and then later re-read it as if I'd gotten my hands on a confidential strategy document that our strongest competitor created in order to leverage my company's deepest vulnerabilities. This "role play" allows me to get past the rawness, absorb and act on the growth areas, and keep money in my pocket while still benefitting from authentic consumer insights.
2. Take a hint, or risk losing a client.
If you've chosen wisely, your clients seek smooth sailing on the path to profits, just like you do. So when I receive hard-hitting client criticism, I've learned to pay attention to the message, not the messenger (or the package, for that matter...it is tempting, but dangerous, to dismiss criticism just because it's loud, offensive, or lengthy). Case in point: straight out the gate, my company had a client contact infamous for being a hothead. I once dismissed some essential feedback he shared, thinking it was just his ridiculous attitude talking. Well, turns out that despite the horrible delivery, his sentiments were shared by several other decision makers...we almost lost the account. Thankfully, both parties were able to strengthen our businesses from the experience, but the lesson it reiterated was: Throwing the baby out with the bathwater can be costly.
3. Inventory your strengths in order to catalog your weaknesses.
There are two sides to every coin. When you receive positive feedback, take the time to write it down, and then write down a possible opposite. For instance, if a client compliments you on being "super responsive," receive the compliment, but also ask yourself if there are times when you take exceeding expectations too far with one client, to the detriment of not fully servicing another. Heading off foreseeable negative feedback at the pass can help you avoid making costly mistakes later.
I only truly learned to stomach criticism when I realized it made me an exponentially better entrepreneur. So, I'll amend the adage when it comes to business: If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all...unless it makes me money!
KHARY CUFFE is co-founder and CFO of Heritage Link Brands. In addition, he has served as a marketer for the Procter & Gamble Company where he was responsible for a global multi-functional team. @KCuffe