The good side of relationship trouble online

July 14, 2011
Posted by: Jenna Woodul

Everyone talks about the importance of relationships with fans and customers, and there’s no doubt that it’s important to be ready for big trouble — bad trouble. But as in any relationship, not every kind of trouble can be termed a crisis. Things come up that cause smaller trouble — good troubleif you like, because it comes from misunderstanding, misinformation, hurt feelings, or dissatisfaction born from an investment in the relationship. Because people feel strongly loyal to your customer venue, product, or brand, they also have a proprietary sense about it. They start to complain, but mainly because they value the product, respect the brand, or love the venue you’ve provided for interaction with your company and other people. You make a change (even a very small one), they don’t like it, and suddenly you have a community uprising on your hands. Sometimes it can be quite a stir, and very surprising to new community managers. With experience and understanding of its roots, however, they can learn to love it.

Online is like offline

At the beginning of a new brand online effort, the first people to arrive are often quite positive about everything. They’d never get involved if they didn’t like or admire the brand, and everything about the online gathering may start out in a congenial, happy-to-get-to-know-you tone. As people get used to the culture, they’ll tune in regularly to see what’s going on, or they’ll jump right into the party and take a role. The more deeply they get involved, the more they’ll have their own opinions about what you should do (whether with community guidelines, moderation, or even company policy or product). It’s just about guaranteed that at some point, conflict will arise; something you do will tick off the community or a good slice of it. Some change in policy or product or interface. Take a deep breath; this is quite normal and should be expected. As in any relationship, dealing with good trouble involves sitting down for a talk, listening, attempting to discover the root of dissatisfaction, exploring whether any compromise or solution exists, and having lots of patience. We’re not talking the kind of trouble here that typically leads to a break-up or divorce. Rather, this is the kind where people take the time to make you aware of what’s wrong, but from a point of dissatisfaction or disappointment as opposed to full-blown anger, outrage, or attack. They need to tell you how you’re making them feel, and you need to listen. One of the biggest challenges in maintaining a successful online conversation is dealing with this emotion and disagreement on the part of your membership, as well as handling disruptive and unpleasant posts.

How to handle good trouble online

From the beginning of the relationship, it’s important to be prepared for good trouble, setting the stage for dealing with conflict before it arises (because it will). It may help to keep these things in mind:

  • Compare your relationship with customers to personal relationships. If friends have a problem with you, you listen, respond directly, explain if appropriate, and try to come to resolution, even if you can’t really change what they don’t like. Sometimes you agree to disagree.
  • Keep all interactions about the issue couched in a respectful tone, and try to cede points when you can, admitting you’re wrong if you are. If you’re not, and no change or back-tracking is in order, repeat what people are saying to you, so it’s clear you understand the point, even if it’s not something you can change.
  • If it makes sense for your brand culture, use humor or self-deprecation to defuse a situation.
  • Address issues directly; don’t try to side-step the issue.

Sometimes things will escalate into a full-blown crisis. Often, however, recognition, appreciation, and straightforward handling of a minor community uprising can develop trust. Then, how you’ve dealt with good trouble will serve you well when bad trouble arises; you’ll benefit from the support of brand defenders whose confidence you will have earned in less dire situations.
This post is part of a social media marketing series on “Building Relationships” from LiveWorld.