Bad reviews happen to everyone. So: What will you do about it?

We’re often asked by new clients, “what happens if someone posts a poor review of my product?” We respond that the reality is that very likely, someone already has – which begs the question, did you know at the time? And what did you do about it?

People regularly have poor product experiences; nothing new there. The real question is, how should companies respond to those poor customer experiences? The topic recently came up again in a new business discussion with a prospective client, and we presented them a link to a recent Marketing Profs article discussing the matter. (MP is a great site, BTW – strongly recommended if you’re in this business.) Their editorial premise is that there are several things to be done to better harness the power of customer reviews; they focus on 5 of the most important. And I’m largely in agreement with their stance.

The only quibble I’d have with this particular MP treatise is that they bury the most important step – taking decisive action to address the individual customer and the customer base at large – in the middle of the list, where it’s likely to be overlooked (or at least given less attention than the first and last items). In my mind, the single most important step a company can take in combatting a poor review is to address it head-on and in as close to real-time as possible. It’s easy to talk about being customer-centric, but how you handle bad experiences – as opposed to the good ones that come to be expected and tend to go without attracting comment – truly defines the extent to which you practice it. The goal is to validate the customer’s experience, improving upon it immediately if possible (say, in the case of operator error or a lack of understanding), or at least immediately offering a route to addressing it in the long run.

In a public forum such as reviews, your audience is more than the single customer who is complaining – it’s everyone, past, present and future (the web is forever, esp. if you don’t own the review site). As such, your goal is to neutralize the station a deftly and rapidly as possible, with an eye to turning the customer from a complainant to an advocate over time. How you handle the first moments means a lot, but your ultimate actions in addressing the complaint arguably count for more.

Take it from someone whose job in a former life was to help market Windows Vista. I’m sure you remember it, the Microsoft operating system that took >5 years to develop and which fell far short of expectations once released. Instead of being an apologist, I viewed that role as educator first, ombudsman second, and customer advocate throughout. That attitude served has me well many times and continues to do so today.

(Even if I only manage to change a small proportion of customers’ minds in the process.)

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