I recently had an email conversation with an artist who had just been through battle on her blog. After years of extensive blogging, she received her first negative comment, an inflammatory comment about a post she had written with some derogatory words about her art thrown in for good measure. The level of vitriol in the comment was a bit dumbfounding, especially since it didn’t seem to be coming from a dissatisfied customer but rather from a random visitor to the site who wouldn’t seem to have any good reason to be so . . . blunt.
After the shock and pain wore off, they were replaced by outrage. The artist dashed off a heartfelt response, countering point by point each of the charges in the comment. And thus began an epic battle in the comments section of her blog, with fiery comments flying back and forth over several days. I’m not going to post the comments here – I don’t wish to draw any more attention to them – but I’m sure that many of you who blog, have a website with a guest book, or participate in social media can sympathize with this situation. There’s nothing more disheartening than a brutal criticism of you or your work.
I’ve been blogging for about five years now, and I’ve certainly run into my share of negativity online. Really, this kind of behavior can happen anywhere – on a blog, one a third-party website, via email, and even in person. There are people out there who have a chip on their shoulder and like nothing more than to stir up a fight.
In the online world, this kind of person is called a “troll,” and they pop up all over the web. Rarely do they add anything of value to a conversation; they are usually composing their comments with the sole intent of stirring up an argument.
So what should you do if a troll sets his sights on you? My advice, coming from experience, is to ignore them. Responding only feeds the fire. If you have control over the forum (if they’ve posted on your blog, for example) I recommend removing the post. Your website or blog is your personal and private property, not a public forum, and you should feel no obligation to give their comments an audience, especially when it comes at your expense. I go a step further and moderate comments before they are posted on the blog – allowing me to prevent any inflammatory comments from ever seeing the light of day.
Try not to dwell on anything said in the comments. It’s easy to let a negative post ruin your whole day. Don’t.
Trolling is a widespread problem on the internet – NPR had to change their entire commenting system to deal with the issue (read about that here).
But what if the comment or email comes from a real customer? It’s one thing to dismiss the rantings of a troll, but handling the negative feedback of an actual customer is another thing altogether. I’ve been fortunate to have very few unhappy customers over the years. I can count on one hand the number of times that I’ve had a customer unhappy with a purchase or with the service they received. On the rare occasion where I do have to respond to a dissatisfied customer, I try to keep the following in mind:
- My goal is to get the customer back to a happy state – I will go to extremes to make that happen (although there are limits).
- I don’t argue with customers (or anyone else for that matter). I believe that as soon as an argument has started, the battle is already lost. Let’s be honest, it’s pretty rare that someone will change their views because of a persuasive argument. I prefer to take the diplomatic approach and try and find a common ground.
- Ignore the harsh stuff. If a client has used foul language or leveled strong criticism against you or your art, don’t feel compelled to respond to those parts of the communication. By responding in a civil, professional manner, you’ll likely calm things down, or, at the very least, you’ll feel better about the whole ordeal.
- Provide a liberal return/refund policy. Because returns are so rare in the gallery, I’ve found I can afford to be very liberal about my return policy. On the occasion when it needs to be invoked, I’ve found I can smooth over almost any situation by being generous in the return policy (paying for the return shipping on a piece of art, for example, as well as refunding the purchase price). There may be a cost involved in being liberal in this way, but in the long run, it’s worth it.
- Move any negative comments from a public forum to a private one. If you have a customer post a complaint or criticism on your blog or other public venue, try to get in touch with the customer privately – via phone or email to resolve the issue. Even though you are going to try to smooth the situation over, there’s no point in broadcasting the interactions to your other customers.
What if you don’t have control over the forum where a negative comment is posted? Several years ago I watched two artists battle it out on an artists group’s website. Apparently the two artists had a long-running rivalry in real life that moved into the comments section of this website. One artist would post an image of a new painting, and the other would jump into the comments and write what was wrong with it. The first artist would respond, and they were off – thousands of words flying back and forth. In the few posts I read, I felt like I should have a bag of popcorn since the comments had become so absurd that they were almost entertaining.
This is an extreme example, but you may have run into a negative comment about your work in a public forum and been unsure how to respond.
I’ve had this experience with the two books I have written selling on Amazon.com. Though both have been largely well received, if you look in the reviews you’ll see a few comments that aren’t 5-star, and a few that are downright negative (if you’re curious you can read them on Amazon.com).
Since you can’t delete the comments in a forum you don’t control, you’re going to be even more tempted to respond. Again, I would urge caution. It’s even worse to feed the fire in a public forum.
Keep the following in mind:
- Try not to take it personally. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and for everyone that has a negative opinion of what you’re doing, a dozen will have a positive one.
- Try not to get emotional. It’s hard not to take it personally and even harder not to let your emotions take over. The problem is that your heart is far more likely to get you into trouble than your head is. If you feel compelled to respond, I recommend waiting a day or two so that you have time to calm down. This has the added benefit of allowing your tormentor to calm down as well.
- Let your fans respond. Often, if you wait, your friends and fans will take care of responding for you, and it looks a lot better to have a third party responding than replying yourself. You might even alert your friends or fans to the comment via email. If you do, ask them to step up for you but to keep it civil and avoid combat.
Dealing with online negativity is hard enough, but it’s even more challenging if the critique comes in person – say at a gallery opening or other public event. So what do you do if someone makes a derogatory comment to your face? Basically, all of the principles above apply – try not to get emotional or take it personally. Depending on the situation, I will try to laugh it off: “I’m sure glad not everyone agrees with that opinion!” or I will ask for further explanation: “I’m curious about your opinion – tell my why you say that?”
No matter what the situation – online or off, remember that your critics don’t define you. Being a glass-half-full kind of guy, I like to think that each critic is helping me thicken up my skin, and for that I should be grateful, I guess . . .
Have You Been the Subject of Criticism or Negativity?
Have you ever been the recipient of negative remarks or harsh criticism? How did you respond? What have you learned about dealing with negativity? Please share your experience and thoughts in the comments below.