Entrepreneurship is hard. To run a successful business takes knowledge, skill, and money. It also takes a certain kind of personality to persist through the innumerable issues many entrepreneurs struggle with. Some business owners struggle with financial risks, competition, failures, and more failures. Some struggle with the responsibility of providing for one’s family and employee’s families.
There’s one more thing many business owners struggle with: hate.
No one was talking much about this, but as our business grew, I found I was unprepared to deal with the increasing amount of hate mail and negative interactions happening online that come from working in public.
I thought I was coping well, but in reality the stress was getting to me. Work wasn’t fun anymore, and the stress was bleeding into my personal life. I found myself more angry and quick tempered around my wife and kids.
I’m not alone. In conversations with other entrepreneurs, this topic of dealing with hate mail and negative communications often comes up. I notice some people are avoiding certain business models or business opportunities all together for fear of becoming a target of hate. Our community needed tools and support to deal with the hate that is a natural part of doing business with large numbers of people. Below I’ll share some of things I’ve put into practice to deal with hate and the stress it causes.
What are some things you do that can invite hate?
Getting hate? That’s a good indicator that you are working on something that people are passionate about. Because anything worth doing is going to upset someone.
At this time, there are over 50,000 70,000 websites running Paid Memberships Pro. The 80/20 rule we use to decide on features is only going to satisfy… wait for it… 80% of them. There will always be features that some users believe are the “most important” features. Even if we provide Add Ons or code gists to account for a certain feature, some will feel the feature should be included in the core plugin, or easier to find, or set to a different default.
You can’t help everyone.
When we were doing consulting work with about 30 clients per year, if a client needed our help with something, we could find a way to help them. We’d work a weekend, stay up late, call in a favor. Now with 50,000 users and 5,000 customers, we can’t possibly help everyone as much as they need. We get dozens of emails every day, and within those emails are plenty of people we have the ability to help but we just don’t have the time. We do the best within the services we offer and try to point them in the right direction to get help from our partners or others, but some of these people are going to get upset.
And some of these users, customers, and potential customers are going to be so upset that they’ll post negative reviews, email us mean things, or even threaten us with legal, financial, or physical harm.
What are some things you do that can prevent hate?
Before I cover a few tips about how to handle hate that comes your way, let me first share a few tips on how to avoid some of the hate.
- Offer a 100%, no questions, money-back guarantee.
- Process refunds quickly.
- Manage expectations in your copywriting.
Managing expectations is hard. There is a fine line between managing expectations and talking people out of buying your product. One thing you definitely can do is keep expectations in mind when processing a negative review or email. Could you have realistically prevented this hate mail without negatively impacting your other customers or revenue.
Dealing with Hate You Can’t Prevent
Here are some general steps I take whenever dealing with an emotionally charged email, review, or support request.
- Look for constructive criticism.
- Write a first draft. Delete it.
- Put yourself in hater shoes.
- Reply professionally.
Look for constructive criticism.
Even the most hateful of emails and reviews can be parsed for constructive criticism. The messenger may be a complete douchebag, but it’s still okay to learn from it. Maybe there is a bug to fix. Maybe you could update your documentation to make something more clear. Maybe you could update your sales copy to fix expectations.
Don’t feel like you have to take Mr. or Mrs. Hateful’s advice just because they are screaming. Be counscious whenever the “squeaky wheel” is getting the grease. Ideas you parse from negative feedback might be a good or bad. Process it like you would any other feedback.
Write a first draft. Delete it.
Open a blank notepad (that you can’t accidentally submit) to write your reply. The first draft should just be livid and dig into how much of a loser this person is for wasting your time… etc etc. Then delete it. Maybe others won’t need to unload like this, but I find it helps me a lot. It makes it much easier then to step back and address the message objectively.
Put yourself in hater shoes.
Your first response is going to be to lash back or get defensive. That’s why you delete your first draft. After that, take a moment to try to understand why the person is so upset. Some people are just rotten and evil, but maybe they are just having a really bad day. Until proven otherwise, give the user the benefit of the doubt.
One thing that opened my eyes a lot with regards to the hate mail we get is when I realized that we are selling more than just payment software. In a lot of ways we are selling a dream. People dream of using our software to make money, start a business, quit their day job, or to grow their associations in order to push forward their goals of social change. Heavy stuff. They spend hours or days trying to set up Paid Memberships Pro, run into problems, and then reach out to us… just to have to wait a few days for a response or be told they need to spend money they weren’t ready to spend. It is frustrating.
I also think about the “professional hagglers” who’ve been trained by bad customer service over the years to believe that loud threats are the best way to get someone’s attention. Sometimes “flipping the script” on these folks and treating them like human beings goes a long way to calming them down enough so you can help in the way you are willing to help.
No matter how irate the original message is, make sure that your reply is controlled and professional. With public posts in particular you will want to address the underlying concerns and issues behind the message. Even if it’s likely the poster has moved on (or you want to encourage them very much to move on), reply for the sake of anyone else who might stumble upon the post. Always reply to bad reviews or comments.The public will see a very irrational negative post, followed by your very rational reply. If your average reviews and publicity are generally positive, your replies will temper the occasional negative post.
Dealing with Stress
So now you might know how to pull useful feedback out of a hateful email. You’ve learned some tips for avoiding some of the hate mail. And you’ve learned a rough system for handling and replying to the hate mail. Even if you try your best to do this with robotic repetition, reading hateful words with your morning coffee is a bad way to start the day. You’re likely to get defensive and experience a nice little rush of adrenaline that could set you off balance for the rest of the day.
In addition to the typical stresses of running a business, as far as my mind and body are concerned I’ve been doing the equivalent of a hostage negotiation 2 to 3 times a week for the past few years. Here are some things I do to manage the stress:
- Use the Buddy System
- Engage Happy Customers
I’m not a prolific mediator, but even 5 minutes of calm mindfulness every other day or so (I use the calm.com app) gives me a kind of super power. When I started meditating regularly I became better able to slow down, to recognize my natural emotional reactions as just emotions that will pass, and to step outside of myself a little bit so I could process hate mail and negative comments without taking it personally.
Meditating has also helped me in my personal life. Regular meditation helps to curb your knee jerk reactions when managing unruly kids, and it helps in the same way with unruly users and customers.
I try not to read messages from our contact form while I’m getting my kids ready for school. I don’t check the WordPress.org reviews before a meeting or a coding session. In general, I make sure I’m mentally ready to deal with hate before I wade into the inbox or forum where hate lurks.
After dealing with support or another piece of stressful work, I try to have a buffer before I move onto anything else in life. I’ll take a walk, play a quick video game, or meditate for 5 minutes or so.
Use the Buddy System.
For a while, I had been shielding Kim from the worst of the communications coming into our business. As I started to struggle with things, I handed contact form duties off to her. She started to process the wide range of email coming in, from good-natured questions, to slightly annoying requests, to the full on hate mail. A week or so in, she looked at me with a horrified face like “you’ve been dealing with this all along?”
We have a larger support team now, and most of them bear the incoming hate at some level. The worst cases still get escalated to me, but since the smaller issues are handled by my team I’m in a better state when I work on the cases I do address.
Our team chat is now also a place we can use to vent, get stuff off our chest, and just generally laugh at how surreal customer support can be.
If you don’t have a team of your own, you can search for other business owners going through the same thing. The Supporting WordPress Products Facebook Group is a great example of a place where business owners come together to help each other through sharing advice and also just being there to listen.
Engage Happy Customers
Unhappy customers are going to be so much more likely to post something in public than customers that don’t run into issues. Every once in a while, and also as part of some of our automated reminders, we try to prompt happy customers to post a review or testimonial. We will often follow up to successfully closed tickets with a request to share an honest review of our plugin on the wordpress.org repository. And every once in a while, we make an ask to our mailing list for folks to write reviews and testimonials. We get a lot of positive feedback from these asks, and the positive reviews on wordpress.org help to diminish the 1 star reviews there. (For each 1 star review we get, we need 3 five star reviews to maintain a 4+ star rating.)
Besides getting some nice things written about us and helping with Internet points, reaching out to happy customers also reminds us why we’re doing this. It feels good to engage with people who are benefiting from our hard work.
The amount of hate you have to deal with day to day will scale with the size of your business, and you may not be ready for it.
There are some things you can do to avoid some of the hate, like 100% money-back guarantees and clear copywriting. However, you won’t be able to stop it all.
When hate comes in, look for constructive criticism, discard your first drafts, try to empathize, and reply professionally.
To help with the stress of dealing with this hate, meditate, isolate, use the buddy system, and engage with happy customers.
These kinds of posts are difficult for me, because I fear what our own unhappy customers will think of this. I’m ready for it. But I do hope that my experience here is useful to other businesses working to keep their customers as happy as possible while also staying sane and productive.