Bill Gates once said, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”
It’s not easy to digest, is it? Think about a time when you were given negative feedback, someone complained about your work, or a project didn’t go as well as it should have.
It’s much easier – and you’ll often feel better – to simply dismiss negative feedback as someone else’s problem which is nothing to do with you. But this approach could be doing you more harm than good.
“Research shows people that are better at handling negative feedback tend to be more successful–and those that can’t are less so,” writes Fast Company’s Denis Wilson.
“Being able to accept feedback requires a modicum of critical self-awareness,” says Mark Murphy, founder of Leadership IQ and author of Hiring for Attitude. “If you are of the belief that you never make mistakes, you probably have a narcissistic personality disorder, and it’s going to be really hard to give you feedback. Somebody who has enough self-awareness to recognize they might need feedback, that’s the person that’s going to say ‘Even when I’m on my best game, there’s always something I could have done to be better.’”
Learning from complaints
Since I started teaching courses here at Health Writer Hub, I’ve only ever had one student complain to me. Sure, one out of hundreds is not too bad – but, still, I’d prefer it if that number were zero.
This particular customer was a doctor, and his reasons for complaining were that he wanted to learn about medical writing for doctors, regulatory writing and academic medical writing. He found my course didn’t address those needs, therefore he wasn’t satisfied.
Of course, upon receiving his complaint, I was instantly enraged. It doesn’t say I offer any of those things on the course page! How dare he complain when he didn’t read the page properly! It’s his fault, not mine! Etc etc.
My husband, a restaurant owner, deals with this type of thing semi-regularly. In hospitality, people like to complain – and, when they do, they don’t hold back.
So, over the years, he’s taught me a thing or two about managing difficult customers.
“Maybe this guy has a point,” he said. “You should listen to him. You should take this very seriously.”
Take this very seriously.
When I cooled down, I realised my husband was right.
Perhaps there was an assumption I taught those things.
Perhaps I did need to make the core inclusions – and exclusions – much clearer.
Sure, I could sit there, arms crossed, and get all defensive and grumpy about this complaint – or, I could learn from it.
I could apologise, listen, react – and put steps in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
And, that’s exactly what I ended up doing.
Like many things in life, a big part of dealing with complaints and negative feedback comes down to mindset. It’s all about our attitude, and how we choose to handle a situation.
Accepting we have the power to turn a negative into a positive can be a very poignant realisation.
Preventing negative feedback
Obviously, the best way to deal with complaints is to ensure they never happen in the first place.
That’s clearly easier said than done – but there are several very good strategies for preventing negative feedback which will help you reduce the risk of client and customer complaints.
These days, I’m fortunate to get virtually no negative feedback on my writing projects – but that’s not because I’m some kind of superstar health writer. I’m not – I’m just like any other writer.
Instead, I attribute a lack of complaints to the fact I’m extremely thorough in the pre-planning stages of every project.
Here’s what I do:
- Spend a lot of time pre-planning and gathering requirements – I need to know exactly what I’m doing, how I’m helping the client and what the project’s mandatory inclusions are
- Send samples of my work before we agree to go ahead – so my clients know my writing style, what I’m capable of, and what they’re in for
- Ensure all terms of working together are clearly defined – and have systems in place for delays, late payments and emergencies
- Refuse work that is too far outside of my comfort zone – I know my strengths and weaknesses, and if I don’t feel I can do a good job, I won’t take on a project
- Keep in touch during the project – recently, I was rewriting an entire website dedicated to radiation therapy. It was 60,000 words – which is pretty much an entire book! Do you think I wanted to send that to my client without showing at least a bit of it to them first? We agreed I would send them a few pages so they could see how I was progressing. And, they did have feedback, which I then applied to the rest of the book. The result? When I sent the first draft of the 60,000-page booklet, I only needed to spend about an hour tidying up some very minor points during the revision process.
- Document absolutely everything in writing – everything you agree to do should be documented via email – and, even if you chat on the phone, summarise the key points in writing so there’s no confusion later
- Spell everything out – leave no stone unturned when it comes to defining requirements, mandatory inclusions, costs, processes, your writing style, and deadlines
The benefit of doing all these things is not just preventing complaints. These processes also provide a smooth working relationship, ensure you’re delivering what the client or customer wants, and give you a good chance of securing ongoing work with the client.
If you do get a complaint or negative feedback
You can still do all those things I mentioned above and get complaints or negative feedback. Unfortunately, this is a part of running a business and even working in general. We can’t please everyone all the time.
Remember, if someone has taken the time to tell you they’re not happy, it shows they care – and all feedback should be treated seriously and graciously, with clear acknowledgement and a response.
Because if someone has something to say about your work, and they never tell you, you’ll never know there’s a problem – and this can be worse.
The other thing is, you’re not always in the wrong if someone criticises your writing. So how do you know if feedback is justified or not? Assuming everything is your fault can be just as damaging as assuming nothing is your fault.
Perhaps the answer lies in another of Wilson’s powerful quotes: “You need a degree of resiliency and the ability to filter the junk data from the good data in order to improve.”