Criticism, how do you deal with it?

Criticism, how do you deal with it?.  Imagine if you're a CEO and your biggest customer comes in and says “your product is shitty and I'm switching to XYZ.” How do you respond? How do you save the relationship (or, at least your reputation, if the relationship is gone too far already?)

Here's some tips that I'm working on — sort of a FAQ for my department at NEC, since occassionally we do get irate customers. Does anyone else have any others? Any personal stories?

1) Slow down. Don't respond right away. Your first instinct is probably a bad one (it's natural for us to have a “fight or flight” reaction). Don't react by fighting. Get into their shoes first and try to understand where they are coming from.

2) Ask some trusted advisors for advice (if you can — unfortunately often times the irate person is a customer on the phone and you have to think fast on your feet). Many times you'll be too close to the situation and you'll do something stupid. For instance, I sent this weblog today to several people I know and trust before I posted it.

3) Find out how this person thinks. Figure out what is their motivation for their anger. What do they really hope will happen by spraying anger all over you? (Ask nice, open questions like “how could I solve your problem?”)

4) Treat them as if it were the CEO of your company calling and yelling at you.

5) Take their side. “Yeah, this does suck, I'm going to be your advocate, and I'm going to take care of you every step of the way.”

6) Sift through the aggregate criticism. A mentor used to tell me “don't over-consider 'outliers'” — in other words, if only one person is criticising you out of 1000 — you shouldn't feel too bad. If it's 200 out of 1000, though, that tells you there's a problem. Along that same theme: don't ignore criticism from “little people” and don't overemphasize criticism from “vice presidents.”

7) Try to learn from the criticism. If it helps, delete all the personal attacks. I always try to really hear the person and find out what their goal is. If the criticism is coming in person, or over the phone (for instance, from an irate customer) I always listen very intently and ask lots of questions. I try to get all the facts, and never pushback. Pushing back on an irate person will just throw them into hysterics and you might lose any opportunity to learn from the experience and/or start a dialog with the person. I've saved many a customer just by taking their side — even after they've pissed off many of the other people they've dealt with.

8) Don't respond in email. Try to call the person, if you care about learning more about where the criticism is coming from. Only send happy news in email. Send bad news personally, or at minimum, via a phone call. Bad news is amplified when it's in text (plus it can be emailed around, or posted on weblogs with a note of “look at what this jerk from XYZ company just told me today.”)

9) If all else fails, send them to your competitors. I had one lady in the camera store one day who just wouldn't calm down and wouldn't let me get on her side. I finally said, hey, listen, here's the phone numbers and addresses of our competitors, please go and visit them (truth be told, I was also quite rude at this point and told her to “get the hell out of our store.”) Guess what, she came back three hours later and bought $3000 worth of stuff from us. I don't recommend you try that technique at home, though.

Anyway, do you have any other ways to respond to criticism or someone who's irate? What do you try to learn from such incidents when they arise?

More reading on the topic of mistakes and learning from criticism:

Bill Gates on Making and Learning from Mistakes.

Author Mania: How to Handle Criticism, by Elisha Charles

Entrepreneur.com: Five tips on how to handle criticism

[The Scobleizer Weblog]

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