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Sep 20

Listening and Really Hearing Negative Feedback

Posted by: Steve Marr

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I was trying out a steak restaurant and the food was not properly cooked. The hostess asked how everything was and I said that the steak was overdone. Her response was, “We do plenty of steaks, we do a great job, and we know how to do them right.” I pointed out that I ordered the meat medium rare and there was very little pink. She said “sorry” and walked away. About a year later the place closed due to a lack of business.


We may receive negative feedback every day. The key issue is to understand what feedback is valid and then to learn from that feedback. King Solomon wrote, “If you listen to constructive criticism, you will be at home among the wise. If you reject criticism, you only harm yourself; but if you listen to correction, you grow in understanding” (Proverbs 15:31-32 NLT).  The key is to understand, validate, and then act on feedback that is on target.  

First, we need to listen, even if our customers are less then tactful. By demonstrating that we are listening, we begin to gain the customers’ trust and respect. When the customers state what is wrong, we need to stay in the listening mode, avoiding the temptation to immediately start arguing or being defensive.

Second, validate what is said by asking what is specifically wrong or what could be improved. Use phrases like, “I see what you mean,” “How could our service have been improved?” or “What specifically about our product disappointed you?”

Using clarifying phrases begins to unravel the key issues and separate the valid and on target complaints from the overly picky statements that some make. In my steak dinner example, I showed the hostess my “medium rare” steak that was cooked throughout. She was so busy defending the establishment that she didn’t even look at my meat.       

Third, determine what part of the feedback is true. Keep in mind that the facts are an objective determination of truth, not just how we feel. We may want to feel that we always deliver on time with great quality, but none of us usually hits the bull’s-eye every time, every day. When the customers are right, we need to agree and work toward making the situation right for the customer.

Fourth, ask yourself if you have heard this complaint before? When we hear the same thing several times, the feedback is generally accurate, even if we don’t immediately see the problem. For example, Connor owned a wholesale medical supply company and several customers complained about being billed late. They wanted to receive invoices promptly so they could keep accounts current and validate the resale margins. From Connor’s perspective, the billing was no big deal. After all, why should customers care if he took three or four weeks to send out invoices? In reality, some customers did care, and he lost business by refusing to respond to that negative feedback.

Fifth, ask yourself, “What can I change in response to the feedback?” Nancy owned an ice cream shop in a resort area. Business was seasonal and pretty good, but several customers mentioned that the place looked a bit shabby and unkempt. Nancy liked the “rustic look,” but after more people made small comments, she invested in some paint and removed some of the clutter, making the store look neater and cleaner. As a result, the lines became a bit longer, and sales increased 20% as customers became more confident of the cleanliness.

Most customers don’t complain … they just take their business elsewhere. In Nancy’s instance, some potential customers would take a look at the “rustic look,” which translated to them as sloppy, unkempt, and dirty, and would just walk on by. After the changes, these “lookers” became customers.    

King Solomon wrote, “Listen to advice and accept instruction and in the end you will be wise” (Proverbs 19:20 NIV). As we adopt the habit of listening to, clarifying, and validating negative feedback, we can turn those negatives into future improvements.

Steve Marr, Your Christian Business Coach

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