In an effort to juice my speaking and seminar business, I recently tried an experiment. I began asking people who attended my presentations to fill out an anonymous evaluation form. I published the responses as a public Google document and invited anyone who is considering hiring me to have a look.
The first 25 evaluations were almost unanimously positive, which was gratifying. But what really got me excited was the first negative evaluation, which came in just last week. "I was getting lost in the math," the person said, adding that he or she would be unlikely to recommend me as a speaker in the future.
Why was I thrilled to see this criticism? Because it helped validate the positive feedback of the others. The bad reinforces the good.
Negativity, and how to deal with it, continues to come up in nearly every interaction I have with marketers about social media. Having been schooled for decades to screen out any information that may be seen as critical, many marketers cringe at the idea that anything that isn't celebratory is a problem. In fact, the occasional critic can be your best friend.
A few years ago, a startup called Grand Central pioneered this idea with great success. The company, which was acquired by Google for $95 million just two years after its founding, built a product that enabled users to consolidate multiple phone numbers into one. Its technology is the basis for what is now called Google Voice.
Grand Central came up with a promotional idea that was elegant in its simplicity. Users could post public reviews of the service. All comments were aggregated on a single feedback page that anyone could see. Grand Central only edited out inappropriate language.
About 90 percent of these customer-generated reviews were positive, many glowingly so. But what made the experiment so successful was the other 10 percent. Grand Central's willingness to let its critics share equal ground with its fans enhanced the credibility of the whole exercise. The minority legitimized the majority.
Social media have helped break down the false aura of corporate invincibility that no one really believed in the first place. The fact is that even great companies have a few pissed-off customers. Denying that those critics exist looks disingenuous at best and can have unintended consequences that are far worse.
As Nestlé found out early this year, trying to censor your critics is futile. Social media is a giant whack-a-mole game, and when you slap down your detractors, they simply pop up somewhere else. Only now they're really angry.
Weekend golfers are familiar with a term called the "Mulligan." That's a free do-over your buddies occasionally give you when your tee shot goes straight into the woods. The Mulligan is an acknowledgment that every casual golfer is capable of hitting an atrocious shot now and then. We give Mulligans in the expectation that we'll get them in return.
Customers also give Mulligans, but only if the victimized companies demonstrate humility and courage. Accepting criticism gracefully actually makes you more endearing. It can also be good for business. Epson and L.L. Bean are just two of the growing number of companies that display customer ratings prominently on their product pages. Epson reported that revenue per visitor nearly doubled after the reviews were launched. And if customers truly hate a product, real-time feedback is the fastest way to discover a problem and fix it.
If your company has great products and happy customers, you should have no reservations about letting them share their opinions on your public Website. If you have lousy products and angry customers, your problems go much deeper than marketing. In that event, your best social media resource may be Monster.com.
— Paul Gillin is a writer, speaker, and online marketing consultant. He specializes in social media and the application of personal publishing to brand awareness and business marketing. His latest book is Social Marketing to the Business Customer (co-authored with Eric Schwartzman, January 2011).
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