How does your business respond to negative feedback?
A recent Fast Company article talked about what a mess BP has made of it's business brand through its handling of the Gulf oil disaster. The CEO of the company seems to have a knack of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and, as one publicity expert said earlier today "The best thing BP can do is keep the CEO as far away from any microphone, television cameras and reporters as it possible can. The man is a walking PR disaster!" His responses to the press and media have done as much to damage the public's view of his company as their handling of the disaster.
Just today the CEO of BP apologized for his comment yesterday that he just wants this to be over so he can return to his old life. The backlash for that comment has been huge, especially from the relatives of those who lost their lives on the oil rig. BPs stock price is down about 33% as of this writing and the people are saying BP stands for Bad Press.
That brings up the subject of how your company handles negative feedback, whether its a complaining customer, a bad piece in the local paper, a complaint to the BBB or a negative online review. The words you and your team use to respond to negative situations is critical to your clients and your staff's perceptions of you.
It’s an old marketing adage that every customer criticism represents an opportunity to exceed expectations and gain loyalty. It follows that the words you use to respond to clients or colleagues who question your work can cement their perceptions of your professionalism, or fatally undermine your relationship. Think of BP’s proposed “Top Kill” solution to its environmentally, economically, commercially, and politically fatal oil spill, and you’ll get what I mean.
“Top Kill”-style bumbles can happen in the workplace, too.
Good Language, Bad Language
There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging the truth, admitting your mistakes, and taking responsibility for errors or oversights you’ve made. The first rule of accepting negative feedback is, obviously, to accept it — preferably with good grace and humility. But in doing that, there are certain types of language you should avoid, for the sake of your personal or professional brand, as well as your contact’s confidence.
Never use language that suggests you’re anything but a serious professional who takes pride in their work. Whether or not your client or colleague thinks you’re an idiot for making whatever mistake you’ve made is irrelevant. You shouldn’t insult yourself, or anyone else, in acknowledging responsibility for an issue.
Everyone makes mistakes — including your colleagues — so don’t allow yourself to be overcome with guilt. You’re not an idiot; neither is that third party who let you down, and who you now want to blame for the problem. Substitute “I’m such a moron” or “Pete at the print shop is a total hack” with, “I’m sorry, I followed our standard procedure for checking the proofs, and even had a couple of other people look over it, but obviously we missed this error. It’s my mistake.”
Gasping, exclaiming, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I didn’t see that!” and moaning “Oh no,” are all evidence of panic, and no client wants to think you can’t handle the everyday ups and downs of work life. In fact, they don’t want to get the impression that there’s anything you can’t handle.
So avoid the language of panic. Even if your heart’s racing and your palms are sweaty with horror upon receiving the negative feedback, don’t panic. Just take a breath, apologize calmly, acknowledge the problem, and pledge to investigate.
If a colleague or client raises an issue with you, you can assume it’s a serious problem for them. So, use appropriately serious language in your response.
BP apparently weren’t thinking of this point when they called a possible solution for the Gulf spill the “Junk Shot.” In talking about a multinational, apparently uncontrollable environmental disaster that’s impacting an ocean ecosystem, countless species, thousands of miles of coastline, and millions of human lives, you’d think they’d be able to come up with a solution that sounded a little less like circus entertainment.
Remember this the next time someone provides negative feedback on your performance. Giving negative feedback is never pleasant. Your contact is doing it because it’s a serious issue for them. So forget telling your contact “I’ll check it out when I get a sec.” Tell them you’re reviewing it now. If the problem is very serious, consider using more pointed terms, like “investigating” or “inquiring”. Always try to provide a timeframe in which you’ll have an explanation or researched response to their concerns, too.
Overly Personal Language
Usually, it’s not appropriate to provide details of your personal troubles as excuses or explanations of poor performance. Even saying something as generic as, “I’ve been having some personal problems” only serves to make your client or colleague feel bad for raising the issue. That’s the best outcome. At worst, it can make your more hardline contacts question your professionalism: “So your dog died. Whatever. Can we just focus on the issue here?”
In most cases, your client or colleague doesn’t need to know the background against which you underperformed. They’re more likely to want to know the mechanics of what went wrong, and/or how you’ll improve matters. Keep your language on the job and the problem at hand. That said, don’t take personal responsibility for things that aren’t actually your fault. There’s a difference between owning a problem and taking undue responsibility for it. Be honest about your role in the problem, and what you’ll do to resolve it, but also be honest about any aspects of the problem that were — or are — beyond your control. This is as much about expectation management as it is about protecting your reputation.
Take Care With Tense
In presenting your explanation, or other information, to complaining contacts, try to use the past tense to explain the issue: “We were using a process that didn’t anticipate…” rather than, “The process we use doesn’t anticipate…”
Use present and future tense — and spend more time — to focus on your process for resolving the issue and how it’ll provide a good outcome. “I’m undertaking training course that addresses these topics, and those skills will help me perform better in this area,” for example.
The language you choose can boost or undermine your personal or professional brand. What tips can you give to help those fielding negative feedback at work today?
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- A crash course in PR from the folks at @BPGlobalPR | @BPGlobalPR (guardian.co.uk)
- Nancy Snow: Google This! BP Sucks, Just Not Enough Oil (huffingtonpost.com)