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Learning when to bite your tongue

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If you're like most marketers in the U.S., you're probably already listening in on public conversations about you. A natural tendency is to step in and try to resolve any negative situation, but that may not always be the wisest course of action.

Elisa Camahort Page, co-founder and COO of the popular BlogHer network, is a case in point. The 2,500 bloggers who contribute to the BlogHer network, and the millions more who visit each month, aren't shy about sharing what's on their minds. Page sees hundreds of e-mails, blog posts and tweets a day, but adds, “That doesn't mean every complaint seeks or even wants a response.”

She offers an example. When a group of BlogHer members engage in a gripe session over a new policy or rule, Page often stays out of the discussion. People sometimes need to blow off steam, she says. Further, if she were to wade into a conversation among friends, it could actually unnerve participants. Page calls it the “creep factor”: People expect private conversations to remain at least semiprivate, even if they're going on in a public space.

“You want to make sure you aren't creating a chilling effect on hearing what people really think,” she notes.

Yes, customer service innovators such as Comcast Corp. have demonstrated that public response and resolution can markedly improve customer relationships. But that doesn't mean all gripes are created equal.

Here are some questions corporate bloggers might ask themselves when people go negative:

• Is the complaint indicative of a bigger problem? Most people are “lurkers” who prefer not to state a public opinion, but that doesn't mean they don't have one. If you believe a vocal critic speaks for many others, then you probably need to show your concern. If the complaint is isolated, it may not be worth your time or may be better dealt with offline.

• Will your response make matters worse? Bending the rules to address the complaints of one outlier may create a precedent that prompts others to come forth demanding the same benefits. As a rule, it's best to take engagements to a private venue for resolution as quickly as possible. If special accommodations are made, remind the beneficiary that the arrangements are unique to his or her case.

• Can the complainer be satisfied? Experts I've talked to use a “two and out” policy to deal with persistent critics. If the naysayer persists in flaming you after two attempts at engagement, the person is probably never going to be satisfied. State your case publicly and let them rant.

• Will the problem resolve itself? Businesses that do a good job of satisfying their customers often find that the community rallies to solve a complainer's problem or simply tells him to shut up. This is the best of all possible conclusions. Find out who these advocates are and make sure they know how much you value their loyalty.

• Are there regulatory or compliance issues involved? As far as the Securities & Exchange Commission is concerned, your public response to a shareholder's complaint obligates you to handle all future problems the same way. Better to either say nothing or to issue a public statement that addresses the general issue without engaging in each individual discussion. A FAQ page is a good option.

Listening to customer feedback is great. Constructive response can quickly turn critics into supporters. However, pick your battles with an eye to the consequences of your actions.

What lessons are you learning about dealing with public negativity? Share them below.

Paul Gillin is an Internet marketing consultant and the author of three books about social media. He also writes the “New Channels” column in BtoB.

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