Tips for Responding to Negative Reviews

Consumers have a voice today unlike any time in the past. Various websites allow individuals to post ratings and reviews, along with comments about their experiences with businesses. Your insurance agency is not immune.

I’ve received numerous phone calls from agency personnel asking what they can do about negative reviews posted online. Generally, their first question is how to get the post removed. While it may be possible to remove the post, I’m not sure that’s the best strategy.

What do you do if customers criticize, complain, or attack you in public? Is it possible that your social media presences can be turned against you and do your agency more harm than good? Is there a way to minimize the damage, and maybe even turn the situation into a win?

Here are a few thoughts and ideas on how your agency can deal with negative reviews found online.

1. Don’t post in anger—especially when posting as your agency.

The advice I give for handling personal arguments online is even more important when you’re representing your business: never post in anger.

It’s true that timely responses matter in social media—but if the comments you’re receiving are getting you hot under the collar, in most cases it’s OK to give yourself a little time to cool down before you respond. And it’s definitely better to wait a little than to risk posting intemperate comments that you’ll regret later.

Responding to angry comments with anger of your own is pretty much the equivalent of trying to put out a kitchen fire by pouring cooking oil on top of it. So if you need a cooling-off period, take it. Go for a walk. Make some tea. Take out your anger on a video game or an actual punching bag, if necessary.

When you do respond, remember that you must be calm, diplomatic, and courteous even in disagreement. Keep your responses stoic and rational. Try imagining that you’re a Vulcan and channel your inner Spock.

Which brings me to this important point…

2. A soft answer can turn away wrath.

One of the most important tips to keep in mind may seem counter-intuitive, or at least counter-instinctive. But when you’re responding to negative feedback online, you can’t fight fire with fire. You have to fight it with sympathy, sincerity, and kindness.

To some extent this is customer service 101. When a customer complains, the first and most important thing they want is to be listened to—patiently and with a sympathetic ear. The reality is that in our overstressed, road-rage-driven world, people carry a lot of anger and resentment over situations they can’t control—and they often wind up transferring that bottled-up anger onto the first unfortunate customer service person who blunders into their path.

The main thing that most angry customers want is an opportunity to vent their frustration and anger, and know that they’ve been heard—and then they need to hear a sympathetic response. It’s important not to be defensive or dismissive. Instead, tell them you understand how frustrating it is to have a bad claims experience with an adjuster, and that you’re genuinely sorry it happened. Then tell them the steps you will be able to take to help them resolve the issue or problem.

It’s amazing to watch how quickly someone’s anger can dissipate when they realize they’re actually being heard and taken seriously. It’s almost fun to watch the wind go out of their sails when you respond to their anger with empathy and kindness. It throws them off balance. And if you handle it correctly, you can sometimes turn a potential enemy into a friend for life. Instead of the person who messed up their claim, you’re the person who helped them resolve it.

3. It’s better to hear complaints directly than to have people talk behind your back.

Here’s the sobering truth: Whether you set up a Facebook page or a Twitter account for your agency or not, your customers are talking about you online. If the discussion doesn’t take place on your own home court, then it’s happening on Yelp or on personal blogs or individual social media profiles.

The great advantage of having social media presences where your customers can communicate with you is that they can address their criticisms to you directly—and that gives you a chance to turn the situation around, by doing what you can to address their concerns.

Here’s an example from an article about how banks have used social media to solve customer problems:

At Bank of America, 1,200 to 1,500 requests for assistance come in each month through its @BofA_Help handle on Twitter. Sometimes the communication starts out looking hopeless. One customer recently tweeted that he was closing all six of his accounts with Bank of America. Less than three hours later, after being contacted by a Bank of America agent, the customer wrote:

BofA has completely rectified my problem. I am delighted w/ their reaction to my Tweet.

4. Solving problems in public can win you new fans.

One of the great benefits of solving problems and successfully responding to negative feedback in public is that if you do it well, it can win you goodwill and points with others who are watching and listening. They see how well you take care of your customers, and that encourages them to do business with you.

Also, if one customer is having a particular problem or question, others are probably having it too. So you may be able to save yourself time and help multiple customers by posting the answer where all of your customers can see it.

Sometimes, even when you lose a confrontation with one customer, if you handle the situation with aplomb you can wind up winning with the other customers who are watching.

Maybe you’ve witnessed a scene like this play out when traveling. An irate customer is abusing the gate agent behind the counter. The customer may have a legitimate complaint, but the way he or she is expressing it is rude and way over the top. The person behind the counter patiently attempts to solve the customer’s problem, graciously puts up with all the insults, and does everything possible to placate the customer—to no avail. The scene continues until the customer finally storms out.

At that point, what usually happens next is that everyone breathes a sigh of relief that the jerk is gone. And then, very often, the other customers will make a point of expressing their support for the gate agent.

The moral: Staying calm in the face of abuse is difficult, to say the least—but it can win you the loyalty of other customers.

5. Make sure apologies are sincere and meaningful.

If you find yourself in a position where you need to make an apology in public, it’s important to do it right.

Non-apology apologies don’t cut it, because people can tell when you’re BS-ing them. Don’t even think about going down the path of weaselly wordings like “We’re sorry if anyone was offended…” For one thing, by the time you’re saying something like that, you clearly already know that people were offended. And it’s the equivalent of saying you’re not sorry for what you did; you’re sorry you got caught.

Ideally, an effective apology should have three characteristics:

  1. It needs to communicate that you understand the impact that the mistake had on your customers, and that you empathize with them. People need to know that you recognize the problem, and that you understand why it was a problem.
  2. Next, your apology should communicate what steps you’re taking to make sure the mistake doesn’t happen again in the future.
  3. If at all possible, you need to make it up to your customers by offering them an olive branch. This is the equivalent of the free drink coupon at Starbucks, or an airline giving you an upgrade when you get bumped from your flight. Feel free to be creative—just make sure that whatever you offer is in reasonable proportion to whatever damage was done by the mistake you’re apologizing for.

If you don’t agree with the criticism, and genuinely don’t feel an apology is merited, then it’s better not to make one at all than to make one that’s obviously insincere or inadequate. State your position politely but firmly, and do what you can to let the customer know you still value them and what you can do to help them within reasonable bounds.

6. Negative feedback is an opportunity to learn something valuable.

Good listening skills are important in any agency if you’re going to be successful. And that’s especially true when it comes to social media, where listening is every bit as important as talking.

If your agency is receiving a lot of complaints, then that may be an indication that you have a process problem or a people problem within your organization. You need to explore why you’re receiving the negative feedback and take steps to correct any issues you find.

One of the best things about the social media age is that you no longer have to guess what your customers are thinking. They’ll be glad to tell you—directly and for free.

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