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Guest Comment: How to turn negative online feedback into a business advantage

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Consumers are generally only too happy to voice their opinions and the internet can be a double-edged sword that can help influence purchasing decisions or, on the flip side, also damage a retailer's reputation.

According to research from dotCommerce, many UK retailers are failing to include added-value content and features on their websites that can encourage repeat visits, high transaction values and ongoing brand loyalty. Perhaps it is fear of opening themselves up to public scrutiny and displaying negative as well as positive comments that leads just 10% of retailers to allow customers to submit comments or product reviews on their websites?

Some retailers are concerned that they will lose their perceived control over their reputation, but this is based on the incorrect assumption that companies can retain control. If a retailer provides poor service, in an increasingly online world the news will spread rapidly over the web without providing the opportunity for the supplier to give their side of the story.

Customer feedback tools can provide a controlled environment for customers to voice their dissatisfaction, allowing the opportunity to for the business to respond and show how problems are rectified quickly. Whichever feedback system is used, consumers need to check whether the comments are "moderated" (changed!) before publication, and whether comments are restricted to products only or allow free-form comment.

The internet has provided us with an unparalleled opportunity to be open and transparent in our dealings. By displaying direct customer feedback, of any type, publicly on its web site, a business shows that it is caring, reliable and credible. These five tips show how best to handle unfavourable comments from customers and how they can be used to an organisation's advantage:

Allow customers to openly comment and not just rate



Allowing customers to openly comment provides more valuable information than a positive or negative rating system. All too often online businesses will ask their customers 'what did you think of this product?' in order to gather customer feedback. By asking this question, the businesses are avoiding the much more important question 'What did you think about us?'

An open-ended question such as this is a better way of finding out what's on customers' minds. This is more effective than distributing a questionnaire concentrating on areas that are assumed to be important to customers. This can result in customers leaving positive comments to put any negative feedback in context.

Make quick and personal responses to unfavourable customer comments



Companies should take advantage of the instantaneous nature of the web and comment back to the unsatisfied customer. The old fashioned values of the traditional corner shop are a good template for online businesses to follow. In the shop, the person behind the counter talks to customers, and by doing so, makes them feel valued and keep coming back. This dialogue between customers and businesses is the most valuable benefit of feedback.

Fishtec, a leading mail order fishing supplies company, recently received feedback from an unhappy member of their loyalty club. The customer was dissatisfied with the service they had received and had made it known through public negative feedback. Fishtec quickly responded to apologise and address each point that the customer had raised, as well as offering a free product as a goodwill gesture and extending an invitation to discuss any problems further by telephone. As a result, the customer left another comment, stating that they were impressed that the company contacted them and how they dealt with their feedback.

Delaying a response to negative comments from customers can have dangerous consequences on the web. The increasing number of social networks gives customers countless channels to vent their frustration. United Airlines' reputation recently suffered when a musician, who accused the company of breaking his guitar during a flight and had received no satisfactory response, took revenge by creating a damaging song and video about his experience and posting it on YouTube.

The video has had almost 3.5 million views and over 16,500 comments. It has gained global media attention, with coverage on national news networks and websites. This public relations disaster for United Airlines could perhaps have been avoided had the company responded quickly to the initial complaint and posted it on their website for all to see that they took customer feedback seriously. Instead, consumers only have one side of the story and United Airlines have little ability to respond in any credible manner.

Learn more about your business and your customers' needs



Negative feedback is a quick and inexpensive way to compare customers' wants and needs against the products and service which a company is providing. Feedback provides a great opportunity to address any operational challenges within the business.

Clifford James, the home, garden and clothing retailer, realised through negative feedback that customers did not fully understand their returns policy. A few small changes to improve clarity improved customer satisfaction immediately. Also, by directly addressing any negative feedback Clifford James has reduced dissatisfaction in their customers by over 50%.

Sort out the problem and make this publicly known to ALL customers



Displaying the good and the bad can be a great opportunity to see where things are going well and also what needs improving. Customers will only bother to give feedback if they can see that the business will do something about it.

For smaller and specialist companies in particular this is a great way to establish a reputation as a company which cares about its customers and is willing to adapt to meet needs. If, for example, a customer finds a fault with a product, and is quickly sent a replacement, that customer is likely to leave further feedback that is more positive. New customers will be able to see that if anything should go wrong it will be rectified quickly and efficiently.

Use feedback to motivate your staff



Online feedback is also a good way to keep track of the service your employees provide. If this service generates less impressive feedback, use it to train staff and to make internal improvements. On the other hand, knowing that they are doing a good job is a great way of motivating employees, especially for an online business where face to face contact with customers might be minimal. When this feedback shines a good light on employees, make a point of showing them the comments.

In summary, if harnessed properly, customer feedback systems have the potential to effectively air company points of view and quickly counter negative perceptions. They afford retailers the opportunity to address a problem before it explodes and can leave other customers with a positive impression of your organisation before any damage is done.

• Bill Cawley is the founder of Feefo, the independent online customer feedback forum
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