Is it possible to turn a critic into a raving fan? Should you ever feed a troll? Should you even engage for fear of starting a flame war? In my experience, the answers to all of these questions are yes, yes, and yes. You can always win by hugging customers very, very tightly. No, you don’t have to hug them to within an inch of their life and you can always acknowledge what they are saying, redirect them to useful resources, and take the high ground.
Listening to your critics unlocks problems your company hasn’t faced
Your most passionate critic has the possibility of being your most passionate supporter, and you should help them to get there. There’s no guarantee that you can turn a critic into a raving fan, but the critics are telling you things you need to hear about your product, your brand, and your company, so you should listen (even when you feel that they’re wrong).
The process of turning a critic into a raving fan takes three steps. First, you need to let them know that you’ve heard them. That doesn’t mean ranting back at them. It does mean thanking them for their contribution, and clarifying (by sharing the facts, not your opinion) any counter-factual statements they’ve made. If you can do this action quickly, all the better — time is on your side when someone is yelling at you, because they’ve often been secretly annoyed with you for a while and something happened that immediately brought their frustration to the surface.
Empathize and learn
Second, you need to find out what the critic feels you did wrong. This part is perhaps the most important: the ability to place yourself in the shoes of the critic, to understand and empathize with their frustration, and to truly get what’s going on for them and what caused them to be so annoyed that they shouted at you (publicly or privately). It’s also really important to understand the one thing you might be able to do to make things better for your customer, so it’s important to ask them how to fix the problem.
Third, you need to reach out to the critic and demonstrate your good will. There are lots of great ways to do this, from engaging in public conversation to sending t-shirts or other goodies, or sometimes even to send cookies. The key item here is to address the specific concern the critic raised. If you’re never going to fix that problem, politely agree to disagree and suggest an alternate product or service. If you screwed up and need to do something to fix it, tell the customer how you can make it better. And if there’s no fixing it, just apologize and share the steps you’re taking to ensure that it never happens again. And you’ll know whether you got this right if they also thank you for reaching out (bonus points if they do this publicly) and let you know that they are happy(ier) again.
Know when to walk away
Except when they don’t. Because part of of the task of turning a critic into a raving fan is that — even if you believe in the basic goodness of people and try like heck to improve whatever it is they asked you to fix — you might get it wrong, be misinterpreted, or run into a critic who simply will not be mollified by any of your efforts. And at that point the best thing you can do is hug the customer (as tightly as you can) and move on. Responding quickly and effectively while offering a solution and steps for future improvement is the best way to move forward.