Handling Criticism: Decide Whether to Respond

On July 6, 2009, the folk duo Sons of Maxwell uploaded a video for a new country song to their YouTube channel. Most of their songs recorded before that date currently show views in the tens of thousands. A couple have over 100,000 views. This new video passed two and a half million views in its first week online and is sitting at thirteen and a half million views now. The song was a download hit on iTunes as well.

What was this amazing song? “United Breaks Guitars”.

The song was Dave Carroll expression of frustration with United Airlines. In 2008, the neck of Carroll’s guitar was broken when his guitar was thrown while being unloaded from a plane. Carroll had the guitar fixed (though he said the sound wasn’t the same) and asked United to pay for the repairs. He spent months talking to people in various parts of the company, only to have his claim denied because it wasn’t filed within 24 hours, even though Carroll had attempted to get help from United employees immediately after the incident.

Within 24 hours after the video was released, it had received 150,000 views, and United offered to pay the claim if Carroll would take the video down. He suggested they give the money to charity.

Carroll wasn’t the only person with complaints about United Airlines. As the video racked up millions of views, the comments section attached to it on YouTube accrued tens of thousands of comments. Many of those comments told the stories of other people’s annoying and sometimes miserable experiences flying United. Frustration and rage were given an outlet, and they flowed like few people could have predicted. The page became even more of an anti-United advertisement.

With substance and a business story behind it, the video did more than simply go viral. It made international news. United’s stock price dropped 10% in the week following the release of the video, a decrease of approximately $180 million in value. However, airline stock prices generally and United’s in particular were very unstable at the time. It’s impossible to say with any certainty what led to the decrease.

There was very little United could do at that point besides apologize, make the promised payment to a music charity, and watch their reputation take a solid hit. So profoundly did they learn their lesson about the importance of dealing with complaints that United asked for permission to use the song in their internal customer service training.

Carroll and Sons of Maxwell, on the other hand, came out of the experience quite well. In addition to the attention his received, he was asked to appear on talk and news programs. As a result, he gained a new career speaking on customer service to corporate clients. In 2012, he released a book, named after the song. The book tells his story, but it also makes the point that his video represented a tipping point in the balance of power between customers and the companies that wrong them.

Carroll may be overstating the point somewhat. After all, very few of us, even after “United Hates Guitars” came out, are going to say to customer service representatives, “If you don’t take my complaint seriously, then I’ll write a song about you and have the video go viral. I just need to come up with a rhyme for your name.” The reality is that almost none of us have the talent to make that happen. Even if we did, the flood of videos would guarantee that most of them were lost in the noise.

However, looking at the situation from the position of the person or organization being criticized, this incident did make one big difference. It eliminated the concept of the “little guy”. Once upon a time, in those cold, dark days before the internet, communication happened mostly through narrow channels. Television, radio, newspapers, magazines–these were how large numbers of people received their information at a time.

In order to spread information quickly, people needed access to one of those channels. However, being narrow, those channels were easily and carefully guarded. If someone wanted their story to appear on radio or television news or on a show like 60 Minutes that had a consumer protection theme, they had to find a way to get the attention of a producer or reporter. Newspapers were a little easier because they had more space, but not what we’d consider easy by today’s standards. Underground and indie presses had a low bar for access, but their audiences were very small.

Today, anyone can publish. The ability to put a story about dissatisfaction out is limited only by will. Literacy isn’t required. Nor is expensive equipment. Most phones with a camera can record a short video of someone describing their complaint.

Distribution is still a problem today, but now it’s a problem media entities share with individuals. Gone are the days when someone like Walter Cronkite says something and an entire nation hears it. Media outlets rely on social media to spread their products the same way any of the rest of us do, though they still have built-in audiences that give them a big leg up on independent producers.

It’s never been ethical to ignore someone’s complaints because they were “nobody”. Today it’s downright dangerous. Even if you look at the Twitter profile or Facebook page of the person who is criticizing you and you see that they have a small number of friends or followers, you can’t assume word won’t get out. It only takes one of those people to be Justin Bieber’s agent’s kid or Beyonce’s cousin to blow something up instantly. It only takes one of those people to be part of the overlapping networks of content creators, public intellectuals, or activists that push information out to a wide audience. It only has to strike a nerve to get passed from person to person until it goes viral.

Not everyone can make their complaints go big, but anyone could. You never know whether the person you’re dealing with is that person.

Does this mean you have to respond to every complaint or piece of criticism you see? No. It simply means that you have to base your decision on the criticism, not the person making it.

Some kinds of criticism amount to little more than ritual. They’re recognized as ways to express an emotional investment and little more. The classic example of this is Monday-morning quarterbacking. That odd phenomenon in which a sports team comes to stand in for an entire city or state, where audiences wear (or paint themselves with) team colors and tell rival members of the audience that “we” are going to kick “their” butts, creates as sense of ownership in a team. Telling the world what should have been done differently in an important play or game is an extension of that sense of ownership.

No one, however, thinks that a coach or quarterback has to respond to or even acknowledge that kind of criticism. In fact, answering Monday-morning quarterbacks would be considered bizarre behavior in most cases. The fans can complain, but no one expects the experts to respond unless there is some groundswell of criticism.

The same holds true for politics. With the antagonistic two-party system in the U.S., any political decision is expected to generate criticism. Criticism is a large part of how the two major parties differentiate themselves from each other. Democrats criticize almost any Republican decision. Republicans return the favor. Even the president’s State of the Union address carries the expectation of immediate rebuttal. This criticism is business as usual, and politicians aren’t expected (unless it’s a slow news day) to comment on every bit of it. When a particular critique gathers steam, it gets addressed, but until then, it can be safely left alone. The same goes for political divides beyond major political parties.

Matters of personal taste can, and probably should, also go without comment. If someone likes a competitor better than they like you, well, then they like your competitor better. Telling them they should like you better or running down your competition only serves to insult their tastes. Unless someone is making a comparison that is factually inaccurate–note that “This product from company X doesn’t have Y feature” is a factual statement, where “This product from company X doesn’t have a good Y feature” is a statement of opinion–you probably want to leave these situations alone. Take the criticism in, see whether there’s anything you can learn from it, but don’t respond.

The same goes for people whose criticism flies wide of your goals. These are the people who tell you that you should be providing what they want instead of what you’ve set out to provide. Sometimes these criticisms are useful. If you’re targeting a demographic, feedback on what will attract people from that demographic is invaluable. Sometimes these criticisms offer an opportunity to develop a new service or product to fill a niche. Often, however, people just want you to be something or someone you’re not. In that case, point them to a competitor who can offer what they’re looking for, politely thank them for their feedback, or leave the situation alone.

Over time, you’ll get to know your habitual complainers, if you haven’t already. You can also often spot a habitual complainer from their social media feeds. These are the people who complain about everything, regardless of how well you perform. How you can best deal with them depends largely on two things. Unfortunately, some habitual complainers have a lot of influence. This means people will be watching you to see how you treat them. Those onlookers won’t necessarily know how much grief you’ve already received from the habitual complainer. They’ll see each encounter as a first complaint, so you will need to as well.

Otherwise, take your cues from the complainant. Are they picky but appreciative when their complaints are addressed? Then you’ve got someone who turns every resolved problem into a good story about you. Are they simply someone who likes to complain (or to complain about you) or who never thinks anything is good enough? Then you want to pay enough attention to the criticism that you don’t miss anything important. You still want to fix anything you’ve actually done wrong, so you can’t tune them out completely, but you don’t need to spend your time and attention responding.

Occasionally, what you’re dealing with is not criticism but harassment. For a number of reasons, the border isn’t always well-defined. Harassment is a topic that deserves its own discussion, and it will get it a little later.

Outside of these situations, though, criticism is usually best addressed. This doesn’t mean every critique you receive should be treated as a crisis, but you probably want to put in some effort to make sure it doesn’t reach that point.

This piece is part of a much larger writing project on handling criticism in the age of social media. Feedback is particularly welcome on these pieces, as I hope to collect and revise all of these to create a resource on the topic. They are not in any particular order at the moment.

Handling Criticism: Decide Whether to Respond

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