Responding Positively to Negative Feedback

How to mentally prepare yourself for negative reviews.

After all the hard work you put into developing an online course, from researching your course content through running it by beta testers, it’s understandable that you’d hope for nothing but rave reviews.

However, negative feedback is inevitable. You simply can’t satisfy everyone, and the very feature one person dislikes might be the one another person loves. Beyond that, you can’t control every variable of your course, and mistakes are bound to happen. When they do, you will have some unhappy customers, and not all of them will be polite.

The best advice I ever heard about responding to negative feedback was to prepare for it. Not defensively, but positively. It’s far too easy to fall into the habit of imagining your perfect comeback to a negative remark, but actually delivering that remark is unlikely to make you—or your angry customer—feel better about the interaction.

Instead, the next time you catch yourself worrying about hypothetical criticisms, also think about how you might respond to achieve the best-case outcome. Sounds simple? It’s a lot harder in practice. Here’s a few strategies to help you think through a positive response.

Does the comment have merit?

One trap many of us fall into when we first read a negative review is to become defensive. We want to justify ourselves and the good work we put into the course, and that can make it harder to empathize with the reviewer.

However, I’ve noticed that many people, when delivering negative feedback, simply want to know their concern was heard. They’re not looking to start a fight, they’re just disappointed. Even when someone is angry, you can usually defuse the situation by acknowledging the experience they had and offering to talk it through with them.

If they’ve left the review publicly, respond politely and offer to continue the conversation privately. If their response is unfair or nasty, it’s better to disengage. The last thing you want is to get into a comment war with a negative reviewer.

How can you make this better?

Negative feedback can often be a learning moment. Was a learner frustrated by a confusing aspect of your course? Maybe the addition of a diagram or an extra few paragraphs of explanation can help add clarity. Did they struggle with using your course? Maybe there’s a usability feature you can fix.

Taking a solutions-oriented approach is a way to turn a negative review into an almost collaborative engagement with the customer. It’s also the strategy most likely to retain that customer for the future. If they feel their feedback is taken seriously, they may stick around just to see what you do with it.

Don’t waste your energy.

Negative reviewers demand attention. Their unhappiness can feel like a black hole, sucking in all your energy as you try to make them happy. And if there is any way to save the relationship, then maybe you will see some return on that investment.

But it’s all too easy to become overly absorbed in unsatisfied customers to the neglect of your happy learners. The learners who took your course and enjoyed it are likely to come back for more. It seems strangely perverse to ignore those loyal patrons by chasing down lost causes.

If it’s hard to let go, remind yourself that not every learner is an ideal fit for your course. It may be they wanted something at a different knowledge level, or expected you to cover a certain topic that was beyond the scope of your course. Or maybe they’re just not comfortable with online learning and need the classroom experience.

You may have created an incredible online course, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be right for everyone. Know who your ideal student is, and if someone takes your course and finds it’s not the right fit, that doesn’t mean your course was a failure.

Thank those who leave positive feedback, too.

One of the frustrating things about running an online course is that very few people thank you when everything goes right. Your learners come into your course with expectations about it functioning smoothly and all the material being presented in an orderly, interesting fashion. You can do 99 things right, but you’ll hear about it the moment one thing goes wrong.

That’s why it’s so important, when someone leaves a positive feedback—in an email, in the comments section on your blog, or in a review elsewhere—that you thank that person and let them know that you saw and appreciated their comment. Doing so will help retain loyal customers, and they’re more likely to share your course enthusiastically with others if they feel they’ve established a connection with you.

Similarly, pay attention to ways positive feedback affirms what you’re doing right in your course. It can be overwhelming to focus only on what negative reviews tell you you’re doing wrong. But if you only listen to the negative feedback, you might end up changing something your satisfied learners like.

Quality feedback is hard to come by.

At the end of the day, thoughtful, actionable feedback is difficult to obtain. You can forestall a lot of negative feedback by building in ways to proactively solicit feedback during your course. When you go out of your way to ask learners about their experiences, you’re more likely to get the responses you’re looking for.

For every learner who takes time to leave a review, probably another half dozen leave without ever telling you why. Some portion of these learners will never be bothered to leave feedback, but others are only waiting for an opening to share their thoughts.

A proactive approach to learner feedback also helps balance the responses you receive. If you wait for feedback to come your way, you’ll only hear from the most motivated learners. And these are usually the unhappy ones, not to mention those with the strongest opinions.

By seeking feedback more generally, the strong voices aren’t allowed to dominate the conversation. You may even hear some words of much-needed encouragement.


Laura is a marketing specialist with experience presenting at WordPress events in Ann Arbor and Vienna. She speaks Russian and German and holds a double MA (Hons) in History and Russian Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

2 Responses

  1. Another useful post. Like the others it’s a quick read but yet still manages to pack in a number of clear and helpful tips. Yes, quality feedback is hard to come by. Sometimes any feedback is hard to come by.

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