Dealing with detractors is perhaps one of the biggest pain points for companies just starting and even well entrenched in social media marketing. “What if someone says something bad about our company?” is often asked by brand managers, executives and more when opening their websites or even Facebook pages to conversations and interactions with consumers.

There are many examples of companies engaging detractors that can illustrate why you don’t have to be quite as worried about the complainers and combatants as you think. But only through experience can you develop your own tested processes of handling the various types of detractors. Having advised a number of companies on how to deal with the negative online, plus having to dig myself out of a few incidents where my sense of humor has gotten the best of my sense of decorum, here are the six steps I take in dealing with detractors:

  • Acknowledge their right to complain
  • Apologize for their situation, or your mistake (if warranted)
  • Assert clarity in your policy or reasons (if warranted)
  • Assess what will help them feel better
  • Act accordingly
  • Abdicate (Sometimes a turd is a turd)

Forrester originally classified the different types of detractors as legitimate complainers, competitors, engaged critics, flamers and troublemakers. I like a bit less formal designation in my list. I think you deal with offended publics, disgruntled stakeholders, competition, trolls and turds. The difference in a troll and a turd is that a turd identifies him or herself with a name and/or email address. They’re accountable, but still being a pain in the ass, mostly likely just because they like being a pain in the ass.

Identifying which you’re dealing with will make using the system easier. But then again, you have to dive in and do it to really learn what works best for you.

Is how you handle detractors off-line different that how you would handle them on-line? Do you do something differently than what I’ve suggested? Add to the knowledge by adding a comment below.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog. He is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • markwilliamschaefer

    Timely and useful Jason. Thanks!

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      You're always welcome, Mark. Thanks for swinging by.

  • http://twitter.com/femelmed fran melmed

    hey jason, great article.

    the one point i'd add is to recognize where they are right, even if it's only a portion of their entire complaint.

    fran

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Well said, Fran. And a good point to remember.

  • http://twitter.com/joey_strawn Joey Strawn

    Great post. I think one thing that's hard for a lot of businesses starting out (at least one's I've talked to) is grasping the idea that sometimes the appropriate way to act is to simply not answer.

    When a detractor sinks their verbal fangs into a post you've written or an idea you've put forward, the initial reaction is to defend what you've done through reasoned points, but especially with trolls and turds, sometimes it's just best to keep your mouth shut because it's only a waste of time.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jason!

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      That's a great topic, Joey. It's hard to always know who is and isn't a
      turd/troll. But you're right. Sometimes, there's little to be done. I still
      would err on the side of at least attempting to bring the person back to the
      middle. Their reaction will show the community watching whether or not
      they're reasonable. That allows you to know they aren't worth responding to
      and shows the witnesses that you at least offered the olive branch. Fair?

  • http://www.communicationammo.com Sean Williams

    Jason – detractors can be valuable, but I agree there are times to cut one's losses and abdicate (love that word, btw.)

    As for on-line vs off-line — the main difference is the evidence of sharing their disgruntlement. An unhappy Best Buy customer may mutter his or her way out the door and tell 10 people how unhappy they are. But that same customer unhappy online may reach thousands with a permanent comment. Engaging in person is very important — engaging online is mission critical.
    Sean
    @commammo

  • http://flavours.me/40deuce 40deuce

    Great stuff Jason.
    I really like your first step the best. A lot of companies (and people) will just go on the defensive first, forgetting that the detractor has just as much right to speak his/her mind as anyone else on the web.
    After that, it is of course up to them on whether or not the comment requires any action. We actually did a post a few weeks ago about whether a person is really complaining or just venting via social media (http://blog.sysomos.com/2010/06/23/social-media… ), which is important to note because not every little thing is going to require a full mounted response, which I guess falls into your last two points of “act accordingly” or “abdicate”.
    Great post.

    Cheers,

    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

  • jeffespo

    One group that may fall into your turd category, but of a somewhat different variety is the irrational. Now I've described these to my team as the folks who cannot be satisfied. More times than not, they hide in a shroud of anonymity, but some do use their names, but even if you were Mother Theresa you can't get through. We tend to ignore these folks because 1.) it is not a good use of resources and 2.) it lends credibility to these folks and their rants.

    In terms of dealing with those with a right to gripe, you need to make sure that you do everything you can do to help, but also accept the fact that your best might not be good enough. If the stakeholder is lost, accept it. No need to beat a dead horse.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Great additional thought, Jeff. Sometimes you can do all you can and still
      not make them happy. The important thing to consider, though, is the
      audience that is watching the public conversation. So long as you don't
      disappoint their expectations that you'll be polite, responsive, etc.,
      you're in good shape. Thanks for the comment.

  • http://twitter.com/Robert_Rose Robert Rose

    Jason… as always excellent…. I'd like to add one more to your list… What I've been calling the “Spamplimenter” These are commenters who agree with you – and sometimes even give you a great compliment – but you just *know* the link they're including with their name goes to some odd web site…. And, they're getting better and better at the Spampliments.

  • http://www.3hatscommunications.com davinabrewer

    Robert, love the “Spamlimenter” term, but hate having to block them everyday from my blog.

    Jason, Before anything I think you need to take a step back, not over react or respond too quickly, too emotionally. Like Sheldon mentioned, the first reaction is often to go on the defensive, perhaps mount a counteroffensive which serves no one's interest. Look at the nature of the detraction and then decide how to proceed. Is it a flamer, a troll, someone just trying to rile trouble? Or a turd but with a legitimate argument? Everyone will have their own opinions, and right to voice it, but there is a line.

    There's no way to bring everyone “back to the middle” no matter how well you argue your point. Think it reflects well on the brand if you tried responsibly, respectfully to act accordingly and address the detraction, perhaps clarify misconceptions. But other times, ITA with you, Jeff and Joey that there are times it's best to walk around, or abdicate and let it go. FWIW.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Well said. I guess I just assume people know that emotions have no place in
      dealing with sticky situations. A clear, even, logical mindset is the only
      way you can be reasonable and rational. Good thoughts.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Shawn-Morton/500320191 Shawn Morton

    Something that took us a bit of time to learn is that it is OK to ignore some detractors. Before we even get to step one in your list, we look at the comment, the context and the particular user and determine what outcome we're likely to get from our response.

    We also consider how a response will be viewed by others who will see the exchange. Because this all takes place in public, we always think about who might see this later (i.e. in Google search results). Often we will still reach out, even if we don't think we can affect the outcome, in order to demonstrate to others that we're listening and taking action.

    We also look at the user's intent to communicate with us (did they direct their tweet to us or simply reference our name).

    Even with a cross-functional team from PR, marketing and customer relations, we still find a ton of gray area when it comes to which comments we respond to and which ones we leave alone.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Awesome to hear it from a big-brand do-er. Thanks for the context, Smorty.
      Appreciate you stopping by.

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  • http://www.theprdoc.com JimBowman

    I like your 6-step process, Jason, but even more your nomenclature. Corporate types who fear the social media lens should be made aware that neither the types of respondents nor the ways of dealing with them are new, just more visible and more immediate.

    Such exchanges used to be conducted in print with letters to the editor and corporate managers, gadflies at shareholder meetings and phone calls to anyone who would listen. Companies that didn’t respond effectively in those ways would find themselves in the same mess online, but reaching a bigger audience faster.

    That, of course, is the reason to have an effective online communication strategy. Done right, complaints provide opportunities to boost corporate image, providing those in charge aren’t control freaks and can admit mistakes. Not every comment merits a response, and you always have the option to go offline if that seems best.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Well said, Jim. Thanks for the comment.

  • rachelakay

    Great post with a really valuable approach for companies. I'd like to take your question a step further – are brands forced to into handling detractors off-line differently than they handle them on-line, and the answer is absolutely. It's good and it's bad – brands are held accountable for customer service and the consumer has more power, but unfortunately brands are also under the gun to prioritize detractors who can cause a ruckus online. I have sympathy, particularly working in consumer products PR. I know one person in particular who skips traditional customer service channels altogether, taking any grievances or questions on-line. Typically the two outlets are run by different departments (customer service and PR), so it's hard to expect the same reaction from both.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Great additional thoughts Rachel. It would be awesome if we could treat all comers the same way, but humans are humans and the squeaky wheel does, in fact, get the grease.

  • Noelfisher

    I like how you point out that, while you must respond to all detractors in a similar fashion, you also need to know whose negative comments you need to worry about and who will just be seen as the troll they are.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks for saying so.

  • http://twitter.com/allenmireles Allen Mireles

    Hi Jason,

    This is a timely post for me. I made a presentation to a mid-size firm last week (whose industry is slow to embrace social media) and this question was asked several times and in different ways. Having a formulaic method makes sense and helps build confidence in the process. I wonder also about addressing the detractors within the company? We had several skeptics who were quite vocal last week and I used similar steps to respond (although w/out the numbered and organized approach).

    Tanks again (an always, Rockstar!)

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Detractors within the company should be told to sit down and be quiet. HA! (Kidding of course.) I would deal with them the way I deal with anyone, in or out. Follow the six steps.

  • http://twitter.com/yourfuneralguy yourfuneralguy

    There is a place for legitimate protest in social media, that is not complaining. When organizations hang on to behavior that hurts others, or questionable individuals who are under suspicion of criminal behavior, it is time to protest. This is not complaining or engaging in personal attack. It may appear to be complaint, it is legitimate protest.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Absolutely right. I think my designation of “offended publics and disgruntled stakeholders” may bleed a bit negative. Offended could mean confused by a pricing issue; disgruntled could be dissatisfied about the attitude of the clerk which was out of line. Paint those adjectives in broad terms and your legitimate protests fit right in.

  • http://twitter.com/benjphoto carlos benjamin

    “where my sense of humor has gotten the best of my sense of decorum”

    Description of my life!

  • http://twitter.com/benjphoto carlos benjamin

    Here's a pretty good article on how the US Air Force handles detractors online – including a chart:

    http://ow.ly/28oQ6

  • http://randallhelms.com Randall Helms

    Is how you handle detractors off-line different that how you would handle them on-line? Do you do something differently than what I’ve suggested?

    hi Jason,

    It's probably a temptation that is best avoided! One of the problems with dealing with disembodied pixels is that it is easy to forget that there is a person on the other side, and therefore it is easier to be less polite than you would be face to face (which is of course why so many people behave online in ways that they never would in meatspace). Even habitual moaners still have to be treated politely by online customer service and gently encouraged to go away, just as they would be if they were on the phone (and anyone who has ever done any customer service work knows how essential it is to be polite even to those who really don't deserve it!)

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Good thoughts, Randall. Thanks for adding them!

  • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

    Good thoughts, Randall. Thanks for adding them!

  • http://randallhelms.com Randall Helms

    Is how you handle detractors off-line different that how you would handle them on-line? Do you do something differently than what I’ve suggested?

    hi Jason,

    It's probably a temptation that is best avoided! One of the problems with dealing with disembodied pixels is that it is easy to forget that there is a person on the other side, and therefore it is easier to be less polite than you would be face to face (which is of course why so many people behave online in ways that they never would in meatspace). Even habitual moaners still have to be treated politely by online customer service and gently encouraged to go away, just as they would be if they were on the phone (and anyone who has ever done any customer service work knows how essential it is to be polite even to those who really don't deserve it!)

  • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

    Good thoughts, Randall. Thanks for adding them!

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  • http://www.estudentaid.com/ Student aid

    I wonder also about addressing the detractors within the company? We had several skeptics who were quite vocal last week. Even habitual moaners still have to be treated politely by online customer service and gently encouraged to go away, just as they would be if they were on the phone (and anyone who has ever done. I think my designation of offended publics and disgruntled stakeholders may bleed a bit negative. Offended could mean confused by a pricing issue.

  • http://randymurrayonline.com/ Randy Murray

    These are some great points.

    Social media, especially twitter, is a great equalizer. It use to be that a stakeholder with a legitimate complaint would have no recourse other than grumbling to a small group of friends. No that complaint is written against the sky. This should be incentive for companies to reform their dealings with customers and vendors and some companies are learning hard lessons about this (Toyota, BP).

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  • http://www.farmerseo.com Greg Uhrlen

    Hi Jason,

    Engaging detractors in a professional light often times will expose their true issues at hand for others to see. In the past, I owned a small out-of-print music sales business. We had a customer who was looking at a catalog of ours, read the wrong description and thought it applied to the item above. She purchased the item and the day it arrived, the flaming started. We engaged her professionally, offered her a refund (including all postage) but she was not satisfied. She complained about us on 4 different music selling sites with the tail getting taller by the day. We kept answering her in a calm, professional manner and eventually she was banned from each of these websites for flaming. We even received compliments from non-customers on the way we handled her rants. Since it was a small business, we had to handle this situation aggressively. Otherwise, if we would have let her rant, it would have damaged our reputation in a niche music selling field.

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