A version of this article previously appeared on Inc.
For many small businesses, their online reputation is their passport to virtual word-of-mouth referrals. Unfortunately, an articulate and engaging negative review on Yelp!, TripAdvisor or Amazon can have an outsized impact on a small business.
You operate your business from a small boat in the remote waters of northern Fiji and your customers are spread across the globe, residing in the US, Europe and Asia. How can you protect your company's reputation when a rouge customer unjustly flames your startup?
In searching for world-class examples of public responses to irate customers' complaints, I found one that emanated from an unlikely place, Savusavu, Fiji. The respondent to the customer complaint 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.
In addition to utilizing reputation management services such as YellowBot, entrepreneurs must become proficient online advocates, defending their businesses against unjust and unfounded attacks. Left unattended, such attacks are detrimental. Inartfully handled, such reviews can be disastrous.
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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 pattern holds true for Tui Tai Expeditions. Of its 51 reviews on TripAdvisor, the large majority (40) award the company the top rating of five stars, while 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." This post drew my attention because of the deft manner in which Tige politely addressed the customer's concerns, while firmly supporting the veracity of his company's value proposition.
Below are some customer complaint rebuttal lessons entrepreneurs can draw from Tige's skillful approach.
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.
Startups should similarly communicate with an intimate and friendly tone and avoid the off-putting formality of a corporate spokesperson. Clearly, the relative degree of informality should be consistent with your company's marketing "voice." However, when dealing with angry customers, overt formality can be misinterpreted as bureaucratic insensitivity.
To gauge the degree to which your customer communications reek of corporate speak, read them out loud to your significant other and ask them if it sounds like something they would want to hear if they were an angry consumer. Hopefully your significant other won't tell you that your customer responses sound like text generated by a foreign call center agent,cut and pasted from an email template.
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 startup's product or service.
Counter, Don't Call Out - When a customer slanders your business with an outright lie, it is more effective to show an inconsistency between their complaint and their actions, rather than calling them out 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."
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 for many years to come.
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 witnesses' 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.
Humorous, Not Humoring - Realizing that his primary audience are 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.
Take Ownership, Not Umbrage - Although Tige cannot control the weather, he willingly claims ownership of the aspects of the honeymooner's trip that he could influence, stating, "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, as described more fully below.
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 you encounter a negative online comment about your startup from a disgruntled customer, resist the very natural temptation to write a hurried, angry reply. Instead, first 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 (all of whom are listening intently to your response), you will no doubt craft responses that are as effective and engaging as Mr. Tige Young's social media missives.
Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I won't tweet a photo of a killer burrito I am about to devour - just startup stuff.