How To Engage Detractors In Online Conversations

by Jason Falls |
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Yesterday I had the pleasure of hosting a Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) teleseminar called, “The Art of Listening,” where I (hopefully) helped participants learn a little about the free and paid monitoring services out there for finding conversations about brands, businesses, products, services and other topics. The presentation was geared toward the public relations professional not familiar with what many of us in the online space consider to be basic tools of the trade. You’d be surprised how many folks out there don’t know about Google Alerts.

The Art of Listening
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: social media)

As I was preparing for the session, I started running through a list of potential questions that might come up. One of them was, “How do I engage someone being very negative about my brand and not put it at further risk?” Not having actually pontificated a specific answer to that — I just do it like it’s part of a natural, social interaction or conversation, a recommendation I had for the participants — I jotted down a few steps to take. Not having time to go over them on the call, I thought I would offer them here.

How To Engage Detractors

1. Acknowledge the other person’s position

Nothing makes mad people more mad than the feeling they aren’t believed, recognized or acknowledged. If you’re upset about waiting in line at Wendy’s and the clerk behind the counter is running at about 1/4 speed, nonchalant-ing every interaction and lazily asks if she can take your order, it makes you more upset at the poor service, right? But if you wait in line all that time and the clerk politely and meaningfully apologizes for the delay and gives you impeccable service otherwise, you’re not as mad. By starting off with, “I’m sorry you had a bad experience,” or “Wow, that’s unusual, tell me what happened,” you’re validating their concerns and making them feel respected.

2. Investigate the cause of the conflict

Much like the title of yesterday’s teleseminar, there is an art to listening. If you do it well … heck if you even do it half way … the speaker feels respected, validated and important to you. Plus, by asking questions and being inquisitive as to the root of the problem, you come across as someone genuinely interested in helping. That automatically takes you out of the defensive and puts you in a positive light with the detractor. Plus, even a few cursory questions can often lead to telling answers. “Wait, you said the salesman said the Mazda was the Consumer Reports worst rated car? Well, the salesman actually works for the car dealer who was probably trying to push overstocks of other models out the door. I work for Mazda. Let me get you the right information.” In my experience, three questions in and you know why the person is mad. Making them happy is 10 times easier when you do.

3. Take responsibility for the solution

Notice I didn’t say take responsibility for the problem, but the solution. “I am going to find the answer to your question.” “I am going to find someone who can fix this for you.” Those might be the most powerful words you ever use with a customer. You’re telling them they are important to you and your company. They matter. Sometimes that’s all they want.

4. Encourage continued feedback

Let’s be honest, sometimes the customer doesn’t get their way. But if they feel respected, validated and that they matter, plus they have a person to turn to for future problems (not to mention they know you’re listening and watching online conversations) you’ve probably won a brand fan for life. They may not sing your praises at every corner, but they’re always going to talk about how the PR person from X company even called them to help fix something. That’s valuable. On my old personal blog, I once wrote something critical of Dell computers. It wasn’t Dell Hell or anything, but it was critical. John Pope responded to the post and since then I’ve always given Dell the benefit of the doubt. Of course, meeting folks like Lionel Menchaca and Richard Binhammer and seeing how innovative and tide-turning Dell has become, I love them. We wear them out as a case study because it freakin’ works.

Looking at that list, it might seem rather open-ended. It’s supposed to be. Perhaps the detractor’s situation gets solved and they are happy. Say, “I’m glad we fixed it. Please let me know if I can ever do anything else for you.” But leave the door open for No. 4. If it doesn’t get fixed, say, “I’m sorry we weren’t able to help you. Is there anything else I can do to make the situation better? Please let me know. You know how to get hold of me.”

The only potential drawback in following these steps is that you might actually have to engage a customer from time-to-time. If that scares you, find another line of work. By acknowledging, investigating, taking responsibility and encouraging, all with the aim of serving the customer and, thus, the company, I’d be willing to bet that 95 percent of the time, you’ll win them over. The other five percent? You weren’t going to win those over in the first place.

This is one man’s opinion. Please, share your thoughts on how to engage detractors and win them over. The comments are yours.

NOTE: Part of the preparation for this post involved a Tweet I sent out asking for conflict management resources. Special thanks to Doc Kane of Roscommon for an interesting company slide presentation and to Sandi McKenna for an interesting post from Elizabeth Tull on the topics.


About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls 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 Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).