How Harnessing Negative Feedback Can Improve Your Business

/ real-life wins / 14 min read
Laura Wilson

Table of Contents

Whether it was a less than enthused employee review or a critique of your mashed potato recipe, we've all received negative feedback at some point.

Sometimes it's valid. Other times it makes you want to sit on your kitchen floor and cry into those apparently inadequate potatoes. Negative feedback is always hard to hear, especially when it's about your business.

But there's a silver lining. It's actually one of the most useful tools you can harness to make fast improvements to your business. In this article we'll show you why negative feedback, and how you respond to it, is crucial.

Why Negative Feedback is Valuable

There's no way around it; receiving negative feedback is about as welcome as the bill after a dentist appointment. But while hearing criticism may send a shudder down your spine, it's crucial not to dismiss it outright.

Why? Because criticism and negative feedback offer a learning opportunity. And the first step to fixing any problem—whether it's with your product, customer service or just a simple miscommunication—is identifying the cause.

That's what negative feedback is great for. It provides you a spark of inspiration and encourages you to look inwardly at your company and consider if there's a better way to do things.

While it might hurt your ego a bit, the reality is that negative feedback is often even more useful (and insightful) than positive feedback. It helps you analyse your existing processes, build better products and take your business to the next level.

There's a difference between negative feedback and bad feedback. Business owners shouldn't make the mistake of conflating the two and miss out on potentially valuable insights.
Bad Feedback Negative Feedback
Offers criticism without offering actionable steps or potential solutions. Is critical, but clearly provides an explanation for why they feel that way.
Example: "I don't like your website. It sucks." Example: "The design of your website makes it difficult to locate certain product categories. Can it be more clear?"

The Benefits of Negative Feedback

Let’s break down the key benefits negative feedback can have on your business.

1. It’s a way to find areas for improvement

When someone gives negative feedback it should instantly prompt you into action. For example, if someone says you're mispronouncing "espresso", you can consider what they've said and make a change based on that knowledge.

When a client, customer or even an employee criticises your business, it's a little bit harder to take on board. But the principle remains the same. Assess whether or not you believe the feedback is valid, and focus your efforts on making change.

2. It helps improve your customer and employee relationships

Proactive communication is the answer to just about every relationship—whether it's with your partner, your customers or your employees. Making people feel heard goes a long way to making them feel valued.

This doesn't mean listening (or reading) the feedback, saying "thanks" and moving on. That won't cut it. Actively listen to the criticism, investigate the potential pain point that's arisen, then decide whether something needs action or not.

Say a customer tweets a negative review about your product. This may seem like bad PR but it's not. By reflecting on their concerns and addressing what they've flagged, you can actually turn it into an opportunity to increase retention and improve your relationship.

💡 Pro tip: The same applies no matter the medium (e.g. social media or in-person) or whether feedback is from a client or employee. Showing that you genuinely care about their opinion leads to much stronger relationships.

3. It improves sales and marketing

Of course, you'll get the occasional outlier where Karen isn't happy about something you have absolutely zero control over, but 99% of the time you'll be able to identify trends from the negative feedback you receive.

What keeps popping up? Are customers consistently dissatisfied with a certain part of your product? Do they complain your pricing isn't competitive? Shipping isn't fast enough? Or that your website doesn't adequately explain your features?

It might make you cringe to hear all these negative things about your product, but it's a marketer's dream. This kind of feedback is essentially a form of market research—except your customers are going out of their way to tell you their pain points.

You can then reverse engineer what you've learnt to adjust your website, social media and any marketing campaigns to specifically address these problems.

💡 Pro tip: Worried about how negative reviews will affect sales? Don't be. According to Podium’s State of Online Reviews, 82% of consumers say the content of a review has convinced them to make a purchase—this factor beating out “star rating”, “total reviews” and “review recency”. In other words—how you respond to negative feedback is more important than said feedback.

4. It leads to a better product/service

There's a common way that startups are born: someone listens to people's problems, then they come up with a solution. Slack (emails are annoying), Typedream (building websites is frustrating) and Paperform (forms are ugly) are just three examples out of thousands of similar stories.

Taking on constructive criticism is a continuation of this idea. Learning what people want from your products or services can be a shortcut to making pivotal changes to your business and more closely aligning with your customers.

All you need to capture this feedback is a simple customer feedback survey. Take stock of what requests you get, as well as the volume, then share it with your team and decide what changes (if any) should be made.

That analysis process is crucial. "You can't always be creating, or adding features based on what people are requesting," says Diony McPherson, Paperform co-founder. "You'll end up with what we call 'a Frankenstein's monster'. It's going to be unclear as to what the product actually is."

Common Examples of Negative Feedback

Negative feedback comes in many different forms and it’s important to distinguish between them. There’s a big difference between a simple misunderstanding and a customer outright hating what you do.

To help identify what kind of feedback you've received (and what you should do with it), let's take a look at some common examples of negative feedback.

1. Misunderstanding
A simple misunderstanding isn't necessarily anyone's fault. Often it's a case of expectations being misaligned or breakdown in communication. If you find this happening often, consider whether you could make improvements to your communication and messaging.

2. One-off experience
Perhaps a member of your customer service team is having a bad day, or your website just so happened to crash when someone was in checking out. Bad one-off experiences happen—it's how you react to them that matters. Ensuring you have a clear customer service philosophy and a rock solid workplace culture goes a long way to cutting down on one-off negative feedback.

3. Feature requests
Sometimes customers would like your product to do something that it doesn't currently do. While this can seem negative, the good news is that you're connecting with someone interested in your product, who sees an opportunity for more. You don't have to take it on board, but it could inspire future development.

4. Mixed reviews
People will have positive things to say about your business, but they might temper that with some negative feedback. "We love X, but Y". This is just about the best feedback you can get, because you instantly know the reviewer—whether it be an external or internal party—is balanced. This will often pop up in employee reviews or exit interviews.

5. Unambiguously negative feedback
This is where there's no silver lining, no sunshine and no rainbows—someone just plain didn't like something about your business and they want to let you know about it. This happens. No one is immune to this type of feedback, though if you're doing your job well, most of the time this will come down to an individual poor experience.

6. Management/stakeholder feedback
Possibly the scariest kind of negative feedback you can receive, when a manager, business partner or internal stakeholder has negative feedback for you it's best to perk your ears up and listen. Here the pressure to respond immediately can be through the roof, however you should still take the time to think about what actions to take.

7. Employee feedback
Fostering a workplace culture that welcomes employee feedback is a crucial step to building a healthy company set up for growth. Of course, this means there will occasionally be negative feedback from employees. No one knows your company better than those who work within it, so be sure to listen intently and look for patterns in what you hear.

How to Respond to Negative Feedback

It's human nature not to like hearing negative feedback, but as a business owner it's up to you make lemonade out of those lemons and turn a negative into a constructive experience. But. . . how?  

Approach feedback openly

Look, there will be the occasional anarchist who just wants to see your G2 reviews burn. Unfortunately, that's par for the course. Don't let this fact jade you: most of the time when folks offer critical feedback, they do so with positive intentions.

It helps to think the best of people. Don't approach each instance with a chip on your shoulder. The vast majority of users who offer feedback do so because they've had a genuinely negative experience, or want to help improve a company they love.

Process what you've learnt

Whether you receive feedback face-to-face or via email, Twitter or a Slack message from a disgruntled employee, it can be tempting to give a quick-fire response based off your emotions in that specific moment.

If it's a product request or feedback that isn't too gut-wrenching, feel free to respond in real time. However, if it's more critical feedback, the chance is your first reaction will be to get defensive and say something based on emotion rather than reason.

Feeling anger, disappointment or frustration is normal. The crucial thing is that you don't force yourself to respond while feeling this way. Acknowledge those feelings, then give yourself time to consider the validity of the feedback so you can give a more measured response.

Appraise the validity of the feedback

Not all feedback comes equal. Sometimes it'll be about as reliable as a busted down old sports car, while other times you'll be handed a gem that provides real value to your business.

So how can you tell the two apart? This takes some finessing. It's largely up to you to sift through the negative feedback you receive and figure out which parts are worth addressing. Just remember that 'worth addressing' doesn't necessarily mean 'aligns with your preconceptions'.

There's a helpful framework outlined by photographer Sean Tucker in his video How to deal with Critics and Trolls Online. Sean outlines three sorts of criticism: artistic, constructive and armchair, and how you should think of them differently.

Now Sean is speaking specifically about the type of critics that creatives face, but it isn't a stretch to apply the same thinking to your business. We can adapt Sean's three categories so it looks something like this:

Expert Criticism: This type of criticism comes from professionals and experts in your industry. This could be an industry insider, an online media outlet, an individual reviewer with vast experience in the field or your employees. These people know what they're talking about and are deeply informed about your specific industry. They aren't criticising just to make you look bad, they're giving their proper, honest insight and are invested in your journey.
Armchair criticism: Keyboard warriors who toss around criticism like it's going out of fashion. They take to social media to malign your business or carelessly make negative comments over which you have little to no control. This criticism sounds like "I don't like this" or "this is bad", without giving any concrete reason. Take this with a hefty serving of salt.
Constructive criticism: Constructive criticism doesn't have to come from professionals—it can be from any person who genuinely cares about your business or you as a businessperson. While the content of the feedback may be negative (e.g. something to improve), it's always polite, respectful and full of useful information and suggestions.

Respond thoughtfully

When you’ve processed your feelings and defined whether the feedback is valid or not, it’s time to respond. First thing's first: discard trolls. If someone has taken to social media with the intention to bad mouth you, it's best to ignore it.

What about negative feedback that's just plain wrong? Maybe an employee thinks you should change the visuals on  your landing page? Or a customer thinks there is a fault in your product when in reality they just can't use it properly?  

When feedback is not valid it can be tempting to tell the person who gave it to you that they're wrong and explain in minute detail exactly why that is. However, this is rarely the best solution, unless you're explaining to an employee why a proposed change isn't quite the right move.

If the feedback is valid, consider how you can address the issue and strive to repair the relationship. This is a basic framework to use:

  1. Thank the person for their feedback
  2. Apologise for their negative experience
  3. Provide an explanation (if necessary)
  4. Assure them you have (or will) take the time to assess the situation
  5. Identify charges you will make or provide an existing fix  to resolve the issue
  6. Compensate if necessary (e.g. a refund for a faulty product)
  7. Encourage further communication to ensure the problem is resolved

In most instances its preferable for this to occur in private, though that's not always possible if an interaction happens on social media. Don't be afraid of responding in public—this can actually generate positive brand perception from users who see you are active and open to criticism.

Where to Collect Negative Feedback

You can't just wait for the feedback gods to rain criticism upon you. On the contrary, you should seek out constructive feedback wherever you can. By doing so you ensure that you're always open to improvements and not resting on what may be working for your business right now.

"There's an extent to which we simply can't know what people are thinking unless they tell us," says Kevin Williamson, Managing Editor at theCLIKK, an award-winning marketing newsletter with more than 30,000 subscribers.

"If there's any sort of problem, we'd ultimately rather know about it. We're trying to serve this group of people [customers] well.” The lesson here is that while asking for feedback may be scary, it's of benefit to your business and your customers.

Here are the best ways to collect insightful negative feedback:

  • Third-party review sites: Sites that collect and curate reviews from customers. These reviews are often trustworthy as they're written by people who have used your product or service and taken the time to write a detailed review that has to meet certain criteria.
  • Social media: Social media can be a jungle of negativity, but there is also valid criticism to be found there too. Because everything on social is open for the world to see it's important to respond carefully and in a timely matter. While unsolicited reviews may be social media's bread and butter, you can use a tool like Paperform to share surveys directly with your audience.  
  • Online forums/search: If you want to get ahead of the game you can look at what kind of queries folks are searching for online. By seeing what people broadly complain about when it comes to your industry, you can avoid those pitfalls. Look for pain points through Google search data, as well as sites like Reddit and Quora.
  • Surveys: Want to easily collect your customers opinions and feedback to validate business decisions or come up with new growth strategies? Customer satisfaction surveys, or really any type of survey, is the way to go. They offer the easiest way to collect valuable, constructive criticism from customers or employees on the exact topic you want to cover.  

💡 Pro tip: Don't have the time or inclination to keep your finger to the pulse of the internet? Use a monitoring tool like Mention or Brand24 to get notified when someone mentions your business online.

Start Collecting Feedback With Paperform

With Paperform collecting any type of feedback is a breeze. Just choose from more than 30+ feedback survey templates or start from scratch—with our free-text editor it's easy to design surveys that look beautiful and reflect your brand, no design skills necessary.  

From instructor evaluation forms and product feedback surveys to NPS surveys and website design questionnaires, Paperform has any need covered. Choose from 25+ questions and add images, embed videos or even insert your favourite GIF. Build a solution that's uniquely yours.

Once all that valuable feedback is collected you can easily analyse your results or use our 3,000+ Direct and Zapier integrations to share the data with your favourite apps like Google Sheets, Slack and Mailchimp.

Whatever you need out of your survey builder, you’ll find it in Paperform. But don’t take our word for it—sign up for a 14-day free trial, with no credit card required.

🙋‍♀️ Negative Feedback FAQs

What is the purpose of negative feedback?
Another word for negative feedback is criticism. For the most part it's well intentioned and aimed at suggesting areas of improvement for your business, product or service. Though, sometimes, it can be a way for angry customers to vent.

Why is negative feedback important?
While negative feedback can be difficult to hear, it prompts you to analyse your performance and consider important areas you can improve on.

How do you politely give negative feedback?
Be specific, empathetic and constructive. Time it well, emphasise that it’s your perception and give them the opportunity to leave and consider it before they respond.

Can you remove negative feedback from social media and review sites?
As a business, you can’t selectively remove reviews. However, your customers can often remove and revise them, so responding to them positively is absolutely in your best interest.


About the author
Laura Wilson
Laura is a Content Writer at Paperform. She writes from rural Australia with pets who really want to attend virtual meetings. She dreams of writing as fearlessly as the Fast and Furious writers do.

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