Grace under fire isn’t always easy – but it’s essential in today’s social world

[Image courtesy of Celestine Chua at Flickr Creative Commons]

I recently used a well-known holiday accommodation site for the first time. It has properties all around the world, from a simple spare bedroom in somebody’s home to an entire apartment or house. And of course in the age of Holiday 2.0, guests rate the properties, and the owners… well they don’t go as far as giving stars out of five for the guests, but they can leave feedback about their overall impression. And they have the right to respond to negative criticism. Several things struck me. First, negative reviews outweigh positive ones. This is a well-known phenomenon, and I’ve touched on it here before. In fact a study showed some years back that one negative review carries the weight of 10 positive reviews. Why? Because it’s perceived as honest and realistic, in a world where review inflation is rampant. And where fear of reprisal encourages people to reach for the stars – all five of them. And so it was with the search for my dream holiday apartment. 10 perfect reviews were outweighed by a single less-than-perfect one. ‘Watch out for the noise in summer’ influenced my decision, even in the depths of winter.

The good, the bad and the ugly

But what really struck me were the owners’ varying approaches to reviews. There were two properties in particular that attracted my attention. The owner of the first responded to virtually all reviews, thanking those guests who were positive, and appeasing those who were negative. Her language was measured, calm and can-do. She came across as a warm, friendly, reasonable person who would sort problems out quickly and efficiently. And even when a reviewer left an ill-tempered, nasty review, she responded with grace and aplomb. She was a shining example of how to handle criticism, and how to take the rough with the smooth. The second owner was completely the opposite. She didn’t bother responding to positive comments, but zeroed in on the negative ones with deadly accuracy. She responded to negativity with negativity, and adopted a snide, self-righteous and pompous tone. The thing is, the negative criticism was no worse than for the first owner. It was the way she reacted that really set her apart. Instead of trying to defuse the situation, she simply made it worse, drawing attention to the defects of the property – and herself. So in this 24-hour, always-on social world, how should you deal with criticism? Here are my top 5 tips:
  1. React quickly and positively. Don’t just let a criticism sit there. Get in fast, control the conversation and manage the message. Criticism always hurts, especially if you think you’re doing a really good job, but that shouldn’t stop you moving forward and focusing on solutions.
  2. Never denigrate the criticiser. A negative response is worse than none at all. Maintain the moral high ground, and never respond in kind to somebody who’s negative. Instead, why not ask for suggestions for improvement and engage the criticiser?
  3. Mind your language. Keep it positive, upbeat and friendly. Remember the first rule of copywriting: write as you talk. So don’t go all stiff and formal, if that’s not how you speak in person. Instead, adopt a conversational tone that clearly shows you’re a reasonable person who’s easy to deal with.
  4. Don’t take it personally – even if it’s personal. Remember that all opinions are subjective – including yours. And in our virtual world, people say things online that they’d never say to your face. They can be extreme because they don’t have to feel any embarrassment or emotion. So take the same approach, distance yourself from the criticism, and think about how to turn the situation around.
  5. Remember the audience. In the digital world, the line between private and public is blurred. You’re not talking directly to the client any more. You’re potentially talking to the world – and the competition is watching too. So weigh every word before you respond, and remember that each one affects your company image and your brand.
I’ve now completed the feedback for my weekend stay. Apparently neither the owner nor guest can see feedback until they’ve both submitted it. That way, neither one has the advantage of knowing what’s been said about them, making the whole process more honest and transparent. I rated the property very highly, and the owner too. I haven’t yet checked back to see if he’s rated me.  I’m sure I’m a model guest, but then as I said, all opinions are subjective. Perhaps I’ll give it another day. Or two.