Handling Negative Online Reviews of Your Employees

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Online reviews can be an extremely beneficial component of your marketing strategy. But, as always, the good comes with the bad, and negative online reviews will come in from unhappy customers. Fortunately, there is a wealth of advice and strategy available to help business owners deal with negative reviews.

But what about cases where reviewers direct their ire at specific members of your team, identifying them by name in critical reviews?

As a business owner or manager, you may feel torn between two very real demands: the need to serve the customer and the success of your enterprise versus the equally important imperative to support and develop the human resource backbone of your operation.

We strive to work as if the customer is always right. Yet, without a positive, productive work force, there would be no business to provide products or services and draw the customer in the first place.

It looks like a chicken or egg question. Which one should come first? You cannot fully support one side without alienating the other. What kind of moves will let you come out unscathed and with everyone better off than before?

Handle Negative Online Reviews Like a Boy Scout

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And that means “Be prepared.” You should be working to respond to every review. Certainly, any type of negative review absolutely requires a response. And that needs to be an authentic, sincere response, not a canned, generic reply.

Once you accept that you are going to be responding to negative online reviews, it makes sense to get organized with a policy and a plan ahead of time.

First, decide who will respond. Maybe you have a dedicated social media person who handles all aspects of the review stream both positive and negative. Or maybe negative reviews get sent up to a manager. What about applying different strategies to various types of negative online reviews? For example, a complaint about cold coffee might be handled on the spot, whereas negative feedback about an employee gets sent “upstairs”.

Next, decide how to respond. You could anticipate potential negative online reviews or use past experience to help in building a response framework that allows for a variety of events including complaints about employees. Sure, no two situations are going to be alike, but having basic procedures in place ahead of time will communicate fairness and help prevent giving the impression of knee-jerking to either side – customer or employee – when the time comes.

De-Escalate

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Negative online reviews can stir up a lot of emotion, and it is important to remove that emotion from the mix. You don’t want to make the wrong decision while upset, and you never want any sort of altercation or argument with a customer or employee. If a review has made you angry, take some time to recover. Then consider the situation calmly, review the policies and plans you have in place, and decide on a tentative course of action.

Reach out to the customer with a show of care and concern. Apologize if that is appropriate, make amends if possible. Indicate that the situation is being looked into and things are being changed so the same mistakes will not happen again. Ideally, you can reach a point of closure with one contact, leaving a happy customer who will author no more damaging posts, maybe revise the initial post, and possibly even return to your business.

If the customer or the situation calls for follow-up communication, keep it along the lines of “We have successfully resolved the situation and hope to earn the privilege of your trust again. If you have any other questions or concerns, please contact us at…”

Do not offer more than two public responses to any poster. Although there are customers with valid problems, there are also plenty of trolls and bullies who are simply looking for a public fight. Going to private communication mode should shake most of them off.

Regarding your employee, any complaint or conflict calls for at least making contact by email and indicating your availability to discuss the matter and answer questions. In all likelihood, the employee or employees in question will be aware of the situation before you make contact. Again, have a range of stock procedures and responses in position and be sure that employees are familiar with them. Use your judgment of the situation as a whole to guide you in taking action. Remember, you are trying to communicate fairness and balance in your approach to handling both customers’ and employees’ concerns.

Get to the Heart of the Matter

Continuing the de-escalation process, move from the “who” to the “what” of the situation. We will assume that your customer is making a valid point about their interaction with your employee and is not just a troll or other angry type. In the same vein, if hiring procedures are effective, your employees should be quality people who do their best. It would be rare to find the employee totally at fault.

After responding to the initial fire, you need to find out what the real problem is and correct it. Let’s look at a few common causes of friction between customer and employee.

Missing or unclear procedures. Today’s customers tend to expect instant gratification in most aspects of their lives. Interaction with your business and its customer service personnel is no exception to this rule. If a situation arises that is outside of an employee’s training and experience, they may not be readily able to satisfy the customer’s expectations. Look at this example from the Bellevue, WA Home Depot:

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This negative review resulted from a simple lack of procedural coverage and employee training. The situation could well have been foreseen and prevented, but is easy enough to correct with some clarification of procedures and appropriate training. This example also shows the value that negative reviews can offer as they  highlight situations that have not been accounted for in procedure design. A manager’s proper response is to take responsibility, apologize, and ensure the customer that the omissions in procedure and employee training are being corrected.

Error chains. Giving a customer the impression of insult after injury is a sure way to draw online outbursts of aggression and frustration. The error chain is another variety of procedural failure. It is up to the manager to break the chain before it results in an accumulation of negative review posts.

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In this case, an initial mishap has resulted in an unsatisfied customer. Instead of ensuring closure of some type when a problem first arises, the employee sets in motion what appears to be an endless daisy chain of unproductive interactions between the customer and the business.

Proper intervention and response to the customer at the first breakdown of service could have broken the error chain and brought closure to the situation. Also note that the problem in this example implies the potential for some type of criminal behavior. The attention of management is certainly called for at this point.

Here again, the emplacement of effective procedure and corresponding employee training is indicated. When multiple employees seem to be failing a customer, structural problems should be considered. Are you understaffed to handle busy periods? Are employees overworked or under-trained? Address the problems, and indicate that you are doing so while apologizing to the customer and doing what you can to make amends.

Unmet service expectations. When customers do not get the level of customer service they expect, you can expect frustration and conflict to arise.

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Assuming the paint department employee in question is reasonably dedicated and competent, this review points once again to potential failures in procedure and training. Structural problems may also be indicated. Is the department sufficiently staffed with well-trained personnel? Are facilities adequate to handle multiple orders at once? Are the employees overwhelmed during busy periods?

This final review is a good encapsulation of themes that run through all of these and most other negative online reviews involving customer/employee interactions. Customers have certain expectations that need to be met.

Expertise – Customers expect staff and sales team members to be expert and efficient at their work. Particularly at a business like Home Depot where many consumers are looking for technical solutions and advice in implementing them.

Attention – Customers want staff to focus exclusively on their situation and needs without distraction. Service and follow up work should be consistent and complete, ending only when the customer is satisfied.

Caring – Employees must be ready, willing, and able to take sincere interest in customers’ needs. As can be seen in these reviews, if a customer gets the impression of being run in circles, brushed off, or belittled, the online backlash can be fierce.

Customers and Employees Both Want the Same Things

If you set your operation up correctly, negative online reviews can be minimized and there will be no real need to choose between customers and employees.

Customers expect expertise, employees need it and enjoy having it. Being competent removes stress and makes an employee’s job far easier. As an owner or manager, you have the ability to administer the training and development that will empower your staff with expertise.

Employees want to feel that management is attentive to their needs and overall job satisfaction. If you run an operation that is too large to allow personal relationships and communication with your staff members, but not large enough to run a dedicated HR program, consider creating an employee representative or staff liaison designation. Then implement a plan to let employees know that management is willing to listen, be attentive to their needs, and supportive of their search for satisfaction and fulfillment in their work.

When you have the attention piece in place for your employees, it will be generally apparent that a caring workplace is being created. Extras like open and transparent lines of policy-making and communication, recognition and rewards for jobs well done, respect for the honest needs of parents and other caretakers, and the occasional company-wide social get-together will help you earn appreciation and best effort from your staff.

It’s Up to You

As a manager or owner, you must take responsibility for responding skillfully to the needs of both customers and employees.

Giving your employees what they need will position them to meet your customers’ needs more effectively. This will immediately reduce the occurrence of customer/employee conflict and ensuing negative online feedback.

When negative reviews do come in, apply the proper strategies to respond to the customer and remediate the root cause of the problem. Use the opportunity to identify and eliminate the glitches in your operational procedures one by one. This is the sure way to put an end to negative online reviews and build a stellar online reputation for customer service.

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