How to Leverage Negative Feedback to Improve Your Business

For most small businesses, negative feedback is a nightmare. Most of us survive by aiming to keep our customers as happy as possible, so when criticism comes along it’s easy to get thrown off track and end up on the defensive.

People giving reviews

However – and it’s a lesson I personally have found hard but absolutely invaluable to learn – negative feedback is often most useful. It can help you, as an individual and as a business, to grow and improve.

In this article, we’ll look at seven ways in which you can take manage and ultimately profit from negative feedback.

Let’s get cracking!

1. Don’t Take It Personally

The first and biggest lesson you have to take from any negative feedback – however, it’s phrased and however much it stings – is not to take it personally. This is far easier said than done of course, particularly if you’re a caring and committed business owner and proud of your work.

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Regardless of how invested you are, you have to be able to separate your own feelings from your professional life, or your response to criticism will be at best defensive and at worst damaging to your reputation. We’ve all seen those sorts of responses – sometimes they go viral on Facebook, which is rarely a good thing under such circumstances!

So, firstly, stay calm. Be polite. Don’t get angry with the customer. That way, with your mind un-fogged by emotion, you will find it much easier to work out whether the fault lies with you, or with the complainant. Don’t make any assumptions either way based on protecting your wounded ego. If you need to, just walk away, and only come back to address the criticism when it’s not hitting your emotional sweet spot.

2. Get to the Root of the Issue

The next stage, having done away with the emotional response, is to determine why the complaint has been made. Now you are at a stage where you can ask questions in a positive frame of mind that will help you to get to the bottom of the situation.

To do this, you have to be able to strip the emotion not only out of your response but out of the feedback (because the complainant’s emotions may also be running high).

What you need to look for in the angry response are the nuggets of information that tell you where you went wrong (if you did). For example, if someone wrote, “You did (some particular thing) wrong and completely ruined my presentation/present/weekend” then what you did wrong, in concrete terms, is that ‘particular thing’. The rest is emotion.

3. Understand the Motive

Let’s take the hypothetical example of a business that can receive a lot of negative feedback – a restaurant.

The basic feedback may be no more than a grumble that the food was no good. Your response has to elicit more feedback by taking the customer’s experience seriously while working out exactly why the complaint was made.

Your response has to stress that you are taking the situation seriously, by using key phrases like “I am sorry to hear” or “I’m deeply concerned that”, or “I completely understand your disappointment”. Be careful not to overuse common phrases as it’s possible to sound disingenuous. Use your own words and you’ll sound much more genuine.

Having taken steps to defuse the emotional side of the issue, you need to ask for more information. Not only does this indicate you’re taking the complaint seriously, it will give you the background you need to understand exactly what happened.

4. Make Amends

Having worked out what went wrong, you need to determine how to make it right. If for example, it transpires that the customer ordered something they simply didn’t like, a small bonus of some kind with a future order might be an acceptable solution.

If on the other hand, the customer had a genuine cause for grievance (such as waiting too long, or receiving the wrong product, or a faulty product) then you have to make amends as soon as possible and investigate why the error occurred.

This can take the form of a refund (full or partial, depending on the situation), a credit note, or a replacement product – leaving the customer to choose which option to take will empower them in a situation where they may have felt powerless.

The best responses are those that embrace customer/client dissatisfaction at the outset: “I absolutely understand why you feel the way you do. The product/service you received was unacceptable.” Simply agreeing that the customer hasn’t received a good enough service if you’re willing to do so, can make a massive difference.

You can map this approach onto most situations, and most professions: work out whether the complaint is genuine, a matter of taste, or a real issue, and react accordingly.

5. Remember – The Truth Hurts

It’s only natural that at this stage – if you’ve responded correctly, investigated and found your service or product to be wanting – that you’ll feel bad about it. It’s important to be able to take this in your stride.

Learning to defuse your own reaction to an initial criticism is hard enough, but having achieved that, being able to take on board that you really were at fault is even more difficult. But it’s an invaluable skill because being able to assess your own performance dispassionately is critical to your success.

Even outside the issue of complaints, being your own critic is important to your business. You need to be able to look at how you work, your financial situation, and how you provide your services objectively enough to see where you could improve. This is incredibly valuable for your business and will set you apart if you embrace it.

6. Aim For Change

At this point, you may be thinking, “This is all very well but by this stage, all I want to do is hide in a corner and stop pretending that I’m okay with this…”

It’s not easy, but what you need from a business point of view is to completely change that mindset. Welcome feedback – embrace it, good or bad! Whatever the message, it’s going to help you to improve your business. And that’s important.

Aim for change you can measure – rather than saying “I want to be better” or “I want to improve”, set specific, actionable goals that you can check off as you achieve them. That way, you’ll accomplish real change.

7. Learn From Your Experience

Your brush(es) with negative feedback may have been unpleasant, unfortunate and even traumatic but, assessed and approached correctly, they are all learning experiences.

Develop the ability to compartmentalise, learn what’s useful from what happened, then move on. Remember, the best companies have an intense focus on customer support, and learning to deal with feedback is fundamental to this. Here is an article from Hiveage, on what they have learned about customer support.


You have to be able to see negative feedback as an opportunity to develop and improve your products or services, rather than criticism of you personally. Learn from your mistakes, rather than being confined by them, and they will become part of your success rather than a hindrance to it.

To get to this stage, you need to:

  1. Not take it personally
  2. Get to the heart of the issue
  3. Understand the customer’s motives
  4. Make appropriate amends
  5. Learn to react dispassionately
  6. Embrace feedback
  7. Learn from the experience

What experiences have you had of coping successfully with negative feedback? Let us know in the comments section below!

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