Handling Customer Criticism

Customer criticism is a fact of life, but it’s hard to take it gracefully. Nevertheless, customer criticism is a vitally important gift to any organization trying to grow and improve. Handling customer criticism well is one of the most important things you can do to create an exceptional customer experience.

Love hurts

A customer shot me in the face last week.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When you embrace customer experience as a way of life, you become close to your customers. Their opinions become more meaningful, you and your team develop closer relationships with them, and your customers become people more than statistics.

So when they tell you that you’re not very good, it stings.

Being a speaker

A couple of years ago I became a speaker for Vistage, an organization that helps executives become better leaders, make better decisions, and drive better results.  My topic is “Getting the Customers You Do Not Have: The Power of Exceptional Customer Experience.”  I get three hours to present to a group of 10-20 CEOs and their direct reports, and during that time I try to make the point that CX is the future battleground for business and that effective CX can drive growth through the roof. In these presentations, I make my best effort to treat the audience as my customers.

Vistage wants its speakers to deliver great value in those three hours.  After each presentation, my audience evaluates me via Vistage’s online tool.  They evaluate me on a scale of 1-5 in three areas: content, presentation, and applicability. The first evaluates the quality of my content, the second evaluates how engaging I am as a presenter, and the third evaluates whether or not my topic is relevant to the evaluator’s business.

I did four presentations in 2015 and 2016, and I’ve done six presentations so far this year.  Through my first seven presentations, my scores were pretty respectable: averaging 4.6 on content and applicability, and a lower but still respectable 4.4 for presentation.  No group scored me lower than a 4.0 in any category.  I was feeling pretty good.

The first sting

Then came February.  I presented to a group on the west coast, and my scores were bad: 3.5, 3.0, and 3.5.  I felt like an Olympic gymnast who had run afoul of the wrong judge. It stung.

I took it hard, but I asked some other speakers whether this was unusual.  They encouraged me to listen to any feedback that was offered, but to otherwise chalk it up as one of those things and shrug it off.

OK, my feelings of unfair persecution have been validated.  Shrug it off and let’s go!

Try, try again!

I thought that perhaps I had stumbled over some of my words during the previous presentation (I tend to talk too fast and turn my sentences into word salad.)  So I thought I’d add some fun while addressing that issue.  I picked up six Nerf guns and handed them out at my presentations. I instructed the participants to shoot me if I garbled my words, or if I was unclear in my presentation.

So last week I had two presentations back-to-back for groups that I’ll call Group A and Group B. The Nerf guns seemed like a big hit, and both audiences used them enthusiastically. For Group A, I thought the audience and I were both a bit flat – not a great presentation, but reasonable.  For Group B, I thought we knocked it out of the park. I was expecting modest scores for the first group, and high scores for the second.

This looks small, but at five feet away it packs a vicious punch.

Survey says…

It was in Group A that an audience member shot me in the face, and even though it was Nerf it left a mark. Now that’s instantaneous feedback!

I checked my scores on Friday, and had a heart attack. Group A gave me a 3.0, 2.0, 3.0. Ack!  The only text feedback was “generally weak message.” Ouch.

Well, I knew I was flat with that group.  Let’s see how that other group thought I did…

Better, but still not great.  Group B gave me a 3.0, 4.0, 3.0, with no text feedback at all. Hmm.

Strike three!

One failure is an accident, two is a coincidence, and three is a conspiracy.  What could I be doing wrong? I’ve hypothesized all kinds of possible reasons that I did poorly in front of these three groups.  Perhaps my east coast personality doesn’t play well with their west coast sensibilities.  Perhaps my message is too profound, too visionary for this group of executives.  Maybe they hated my shirt, or they all burned the toast that morning. The numbers are suspiciously round, so maybe I only got one piece of feedback from each group and that person is the local curmudgeon.

The truth is, I don’t know. More importantly, guessing won’t help.

It’s very, very easy to take offense at negative feedback. I know, because that feedback literally ruined my evening and I’m still licking my emotional wounds. I managed to go through all five stages of grief in a single weekend.

  • Denial – “No way, those numbers can’t be right.  Most attendees must not have entered their feedback yet.”
  • Anger – “Stupid Vistage group members, they must not have appreciated my brilliance!”
  • Bargaining – “Maybe I can talk to the group chair and find out that there was something going on with that group that I didn’t know about.”
  • Depression – “Man, I totally suck as a speaker.  I should just give up and walk away.”
  • Acceptance – “The world didn’t end. The feedback is the feedback.  Perhaps I can ask the group’s members to spend some time giving me more details about what I did poorly.”

Only that final step gives me a path forward. I must learn from the feedback, and incorporate it into my future work.

Handling customer criticism

In an earlier article, I talked about running towards smoke.  Negative feedback is a specific kind of smoke, and you must run towards this smoke most of all, even if it gets in your eyes and makes you choke.

When you receive negative feedback, you must suppress the natural and emotional tendency to become defensive, angry, and depressed. It’s hard, but you must embrace the feedback and do your best to gather even more detail. If nothing else, customers like to be heard. More importantly, negative feedback is what gives you the tools you need to improve and excel.

Organizationally, you must train your customer-facing people to both deal with criticism gracefully and ensure that it filters up through the organization. Customer criticism can be the most valuable thing in the world, but it doesn’t do any good if your organization doesn’t learn from it.

Like an injection at the doctor’s office, criticism hurts, but it can help your organization grow and be healthy.



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