When You Wish Upon a Star, You Get the Pointy End (Part 2): The Dos and Don’ts of Responding to Negative Reviews
You are an author. You discover a new one-star reader review on Amazon for one of your books, and you read it, eager to find out why the reader was so dissatisfied with your novel. One thing’s for sure, it is scathing:
“Updating old stories is nothing new. It has a name: ‘fan fiction.’ Your book is no different than Fifty Shades of Gray—dumbed down fanfic for pathetic Twi-hards. Congrats, loser. Your book represents the lowest rung on the literary ladder with 300 pages of forgettable characters & bad dialogue. Should’ve known that e-book + self-pubbed = crap.”
Did you do it? Well, then you just made your first mistake and broke one of the cardinal rules of responding to negative reviews.
If you read part one of this blog post (“When You Wish Upon A Star, You Get the Pointy End: Why Authors Should ALWAYS Respond To Negative Reviews”), then perhaps you took the trouble of reading the comments that followed? No? Well then…
Assignment #2: Read every one of the (as of this writing) forty-nine comments, and all of the responses to those comments, including mine. (I promise I’m not trying to trick you this time). I’ll wait…
Almost three weeks have passed since part one of “When You Wish Upon a Star, You Get the Pointy End” sparked passionate—and often vitriolic—discussion everywhere from Twitter to Kindleboards to GoodReader, and all over the blogosphere.
As with any opinion piece, people are certainly welcome to disagree (I mean, that’s sort of the whole point). The initial comments left for Part One of my blog post were positive and respectful, even when the poster disagreed with my proposition—which they very often did. However, about three days after the initial post, the comments suddenly changed, with individuals not just disagreeing with my opinion, but writing long, ad hominem responses, using words such as “bully,” “diva,” “appalling human being” and, my personal favorite, “thin-skinned asshole.” (Honestly, I didn’t even mind the “thin-skinned” part so much, but I guess some part of my mind drew the line at “asshole.”)
And these were just the comments left on the blog site!
By and large, the comments left that contained foul language or ad hominem attacks were deleted by Digital Book World (DBW). On the afternoon of May 21st, the decision was made by DBW to disable the comment function on the post in order to give everyone time to take a deep, cleansing breath. I was given the option to delete other posts that I found objectionable, or that I felt didn’t contribute to the discussion as a whole, and although I wavered (I’m only human, after all), I ultimately declined.
I’d like to say that I declined because I was committed to the high road, or that I believed so strongly in freedom of speech that I was appalled at the very idea of deleting someone’s opinion. In reality, I wanted to use those comments to illustrate to authors what they can expect from negative reviews of their books. Gird your loins, as they say, because reader reviews can be nasty, brutish, and red of tooth and claw (to shamelessly paraphrase Hobbes and Tennyson).
In part one of “When You Wish…” I introduced the idea that readers are customers, and that reaching out to an unhappy reader is all part of providing good customer service for your product. Of course, your “product” is something you yourself created, and I can promise you that negative reviews will sting. You may become angry. You may cry. You may scream with rage. You might howl at God or the universe at the unfairness of it all.
And when I say “you,” I mean Author You. Of course, Business You will do none of those things. Business You recognizes that the reader is the customer. Business You is a dispassionate, steely-eyed pragmatist who only cares about providing excellent customer service.
Many readers commented on the blog and elsewhere that the simple action of a reader changing their review from, say, one star to three or five stars was not proof that they liked your book any better. To clarify:
1) You are not responding to negative reader reviews in order to get the reader to alter their review in any way.
2) You are responding to negative reader reviews in order to neutralize the negative feeling the customer has about Business You (often known as “the author”) and Your Product (better known as “your book”).
Why, you ask?
In Business Insider’s “Here’s What Happens When You Don’t Listen To Your Customers’ Complaints,” Ira Kalb notes that the research firm TARP Worldwide found that good customer service “…could be turned into a powerful marketing force to drive sales, repeat business [emphasis mine] and greater profits.”
In his poem “If,” Rudyard Kipling describes what one must do if one wants “the Earth and everything that’s in it.” For the purposes of this blog, think of it this way:
The Earth and Everything That’s In It = Repeat Business (Readers)
So, without further ado, here it is, the Rudyard Kipling Dos and Don’ts Approach to Responding to Reader Reviews, helpfully explained using excerpts from his poem “If.”
DO acknowledge the customer’s opinion.
“If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…”
Make the reader feel as a person whose opinions are worth hearing, even if—especially if—you don’t agree. Or as SocialSignal.com’s Alexandra Samuel suggests in “Responding to Online Cricicism”: “Don’t just say “thank you”—offer a little concrete acknowledgement of the input.”
A reader of the May 18th post asked: “Do you have any idea why the reviewers raised the number of stars after your response?” My answer was this: “…oftentimes customers (no matter how angry they are or what the perceived offense is) just want to know that someone is LISTENING to them. Some readers have posted in their reviews why they changed the rating or the content, and it’s typically along the lines of: ‘The author listened to me, validated my complaints, accepted my criticism, and now I feel differently about the experience/product.’ The fact that the product is a book and that the experience is reading the book doesn’t matter.”
In response to a similar question elsewhere in the comments, I wrote: “…staying at a hotel is an experience, the same way reading a novel is often an experience. [Having your complaint validated] doesn’t change the way you feel about the incident that sparked you to complain in the first place (angry, embarrassed, disappointed), but it can change the way you feel about the overall experience–which often extends beyond your hotel stay or the moment you close the book.”
DO be gracious.
“If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you/ But make allowance for their doubting too…”
Remember, a customer took 5-10 minutes of their day that they’ll never get back to post their review of your product. In 10 minutes, I could make popcorn and be on my sofa, ready to fire up an episode of Game of Thrones. I could be running a hot bath, or be halfway to the dog park with my two dumb-as-bark-beetles wiener dogs.
In “10 Ways to Win Back an Unhappy Customer,”AllBusiness.com observes: “Most people, especially disgruntled ones, can spot insincerity a mile away. That’s why it’s important to make sure that the sincerity in your voice and body language matches the sincerity of your words.”
Of course, your reader won’t be able to “see” your body language or “hear” your voice in your response, but be careful that your written “tone” can’t be interpreted as defensive, combative, condescending or patronizing in any way.
And guess what? You might be wrong. “You don’t know everything,” writes Olivia Hayes in her piece “How To Handle Negative Blog Comments” for IgniteSocialMedia.com, “and readers know that. Make sure you approach the situation with that in mind.”
DO wait until you’re level-headed and calm to respond.
“If you can wait and not be tired by waiting / Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies / Or being hated, don’t give way to hating…”
In in her piece “Moldy Tweets: Take a Deep Breath Before Responding to Negativity,” Meghan Keane describes an apartment management company whose knee-jerk response to a twittering tenant’s mold complaint was to (wait for it) sue the tenant! “We’re a sue first, ask questions later kind of an organization,” the company explained.
Well, of course, the story blew up all over the internet. Ms. Keane best summarizes the lesson here: “And there are two things that [customers] will now associate with the brand: Twitter and mold.”
Quick: When I say “Douglas Preston,” what’s the first thing that pops into your head? If you said “Wal-Mart mentality,” you get five stars.
DON’T engage in debate with the customer.
“And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise / If you can dream – and not make dreams your master / If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim…”
While there are exceptions, in general correcting any errors or inaccuracies in a reader’s review will only put them on the defensive, making your goal of neutralizing the situation that much harder. “When you get defensive, you raise the temperature even higher,” warns Ron Kaufman, writing for mfrTech.com in his article “10 Tips for Effectively Handling Customer Complaints.” He goes on:
“When a customer complains, they’re doing so because they feel wronged in some way. You don’t have to agree with what they’re saying. But you do have to agree to hear them out. That’s how you keep the conversation moving in a positive direction.”
DON’T ignore negative reviews.
“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same…”
The bad review (Disaster) you see is better than the twenty good ones (Triumph) you don’t, and the sooner you respond to—and hopefully neutralize—the negative review, the less likely it is that there’ll be an effect that Business Insider’s Ira Kalb calls the “word of mouth pyramid” (“Here’s What Happens When You Don’t Listen To Your Customers’ Complaints”). Citing research done by customer service research firm TARP Worldwide, Kalb notes: “96% [of unhappy customers]…tell 9 to 10 others within a week about their poor treatment.” Of course, you haven’t treated anyone poorly by writing a novel they didn’t enjoy, but you can be sure that if they feel that strongly about it, they will tell at least a few people, either in person or through social networking sites like Facebook.
Remember, your balanced response will not only reach the reader who posted the review, but all other readers and potential readers of your books. In Darren Rowse’s piece “Ignore It and It’ll Go Away?–Responding to Criticism Part 2,” he writes: “The person attacking you might not change their opinion but they have readers who might. Being attacked isn’t nice – but sometimes the way you respond is an opportunity in itself.”
DON’T take it personally.
“If you can…watch the things you gave your life to broken / And stoop and build ‘em up with wornout tools…”
Sure, a negative review feels personal, especially if it includes what could be characterized as personal attacks, but remember that the reader wouldn’t know you if they tripped over you on the sidewalk, so the only person who can make the situation personal is you. Responding with respect goes a long way towards gaining their trust and convincing them that you are not their adversary.
And remember that as an author, your name is no longer just the words on your driver’s license; it’s as much your brand as the Golden Arches or Coca-Cola. So not only is getting worked up over negative remarks “a waste of time & energy” according to Gala Darling of iCiNG.com (named by Fashionista Magazine as “one of the 10 most influential style bloggers in the world,” and by the New York Times as “a Web-tethered gadabout”). In her piece for ProBlogger.net (“How to Deal with Negative Comments On Your Blog”), she points out that if your name is your brand, “…[responding negatively] is about the most unprofessional thing you can do.”
DO make it right if you can, however you can.
“If you can make one heap of all your winnings / And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss; And lose, and start again at your beginnings / And never breathe a word about your loss…
Explain to the reader how they can get a refund from the online bookstore, or (if you’re independently-published) offer to refund their money yourself, or provide an e-book gift card. Gently propose several solutions, while continuing to validate their complaint, and let them choose one (or none). As Geoff Galat writes in his E-Consultancy piece “How to Extract Actionable Insight from Online Customer Feedback,” most customers “appreciate knowing their comments didn’t fall on deaf ears.”
DO “take it offline.”
“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew / To serve your turn long after they are gone…”
If you and the reader exchange more than one or two comments after their initial review, attempt to move it off the forum as quickly as possible. Several times, I have offered a reader my email address, and asked that they please contact me that way if they wished to continue a discussion. In her piece “How to Deal With Negative Comments,” Liz Strauss at SuccessfulBlog.com writes: “Take it offline. I’ve found that engaging in an e-mail conversation with someone who I’m butting heads with is very helpful in resolving the situation.”
Likewise, once you acknowledge and address the concerns of the original reader review—get off the site. Opinions are like—well, you know. Other individuals may chime in on the original reader’s post, but ideally the discussion will end once you’ve assuaged the reader. And if it doesn’t? Well, treat follow-up comments like a private discussion between two people on the other side of the door. Sure, you can put your ear to the keyhole to listen in, but after you’re done “listening,” you simply tip-toe away.
DO move on.
“And so hold on when there is nothing in you / Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!”
Please recognize that for every reader who didn’t enjoy your work, there are dozens, hundreds, even thousands out there who have. A reader’s opinion is always worth listening to, but there is a limit to the amount of time or energy you should spend on fixating on a negative review.
“Don’t wallow in other people’s negativity,” writes Therese Pope in her article “Book Marketing Tip #1: How To Handle Negative Online Criticism” with Zenful Communications. “I have seen this happen often with self-published authors. They become frustrated, throw in the marketing towel, and give up altogether. They take the criticism to heart and go into hiding.”
I myself have known authors who have fixated on one particular review for weeks. Not only is this unhealthy, it’s bad business. Even Business You recognizes that Author You is the one creating the product, and there is no value in allowing the heart and soul of Author You to become so completely crushed that you can’t create.
DON’T confuse humility with servility.
“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue / Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch…”
Groveling often triggers a contemptuous response—a far cry from the considerate and constructive exchange with the reader you’re hoping for. AllBusiness.com says it best in in the piece “10 Ways to Win Back an Unhappy Customer”: “It’s not necessary to open with an apology, mostly because you won’t know what you’re sorry for, and those mea culpas often come across as insincere anyway.” It takes a strong person to reach out to an unhappy reader, and by projecting unperturbed positivity without coming off as a kiss-ass will go a long way towards gaining their respect and encouraging a productive dialogue.
DON’T attempt to convince the customer that they actually liked your novel.
“If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you / If all men count with you, but none too much…”
Unless you’re writing children’s picture books or middle grade, your customer is very likely a grown-ass adult. They don’t need you to tell them to exercise 30 minutes a day, include more roughage in their diet, or like your book. They don’t care if it received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, or that everyone you know loved it. And they definitely don’t want to hear that (true story) a reader emailed you to say that when she found out she couldn’t get The Frog Prince on her new Nook, she returned it and drove three hours round-trip to the closest store that sold the Kindle.
Think of it a little like beer. I personally don’t care if some microbrew won a blue ribbon in a German beer-tasting contest. The only thing I care about is whether or not I like the taste of it. In other words: If you want someone to tell you what a literary genius you are 100% of the time, go ask your mother to read your novel. Don’t make Jaqueline Howett’s mistake of dismissing a reader with: “Sorry it wasn’t your cup of tea, but I think I will stick to my five star and four star reviews thanks.”
DON’T promise what you can’t deliver.
“If you can fill the unforgiving minute / With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run …”
In “9 Tips On Handling Customer Complaints,” BizInformer stresses: “In the eyes of the person complaining, you’ve already failed. Don’t add fuel to the fire by promising something you can’t deliver.”
So take the time to make sure what you’re promising is accurate. If you’re not familiar with the online store’s return policies, don’t assure the reader that their money will be refunded. What’s that Eminem lyric? “That’s what happens/When a tornado meets a volcano.” Doesn’t matter if you’re the tornado or the volcano here; this scenario will end badly if you promise something and it doesn’t materialize.
Speaking of things that I can’t deliver, I had originally intended to include “case studies”—in-depth descriptions of those original negative reviews—but this post got a little War & Peace, so I’m saving it for future posts, the first of which will be published on Monday, June 11th. Stay tuned–and thanks for reading, and for sharing your thoughts.
Read Part 1 of “When You Wish Upon A Star, You Get the Pointy End: Why Authors Should ALWAYS Respond to Negative Reader Reviews.”
Read Part 3 of “When You Wish Upon A Star, You Get the Pointy End: Author-Reader Case Study #1.”
Read Part 4 of “When You Wish Upon A Star, You Get the Pointy End: Author-Reader Case Study #2.”