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Cranky comments: four lessons on how to deal with them

With each Grommet launch, we open up a community discussion board with the Grommet's creator.  We recently had a very nasty comment that stopped me in my tracks.

It was posted by the self-described "An Angry American."  He or she said:

There are so many products in THIS country that need to be recycled, that I cannot understand why you would not want to give jobs to the unemployed here...This disgusts me....

I do not wish you well with this venture....

This barbed comment was in response to our story about a young company that is recycling food and rice bags in Cambodia into durable and interesting bags.

TORRAIN, Recycled bags from Cambodia

We tend to get one of these "Made in USA" fan objections anytime we talk about an international product.  I don't mind them--these are people expressing their values and they are normally respectfully delivered. (Here's a good example in the discussion about a very popular Grommet, GripStics.)  But this Torrain bags comment was so unbalanced that it made me think more deeply about how we manage our discussion board, and to share some examples and lessons learned.

When one of these "tough" comments comes in, the team at Daily Grommet often waits with bated breath for our colleague Katherine Klinger to respond.  Why?  Because she is so skillful and continually surprising. In the case of answering "Angry American,"  Katherine wrote:

Wouldn't it be wonderful if you used your passion to start a product line that employs Americans? We'd be the first to want to hear about it! You'd be especially interested in Grommet stories such as American MoJo or Blue Moon Bottles.

Given our 800+ Grommet partners and 20 product categories, we have a difficult remit when we initiate a discussion. We cover stories about ground-breaking innovations ranging from mushroom growing kits, to alternative funerals, to feminine hygiene.  That's practically asking for complexity, if not trouble.

The nature of any given website is going to be fairly predictive of its particular difficult dialogue.  If Daily Grommet only covered "sustainable/green" products, we would have activists in that space carefully watching us and contributing daily.  (And we do have a nice representation of those people everyday anyway.)

If we were a fashion site we would have people commenting more breezily about the Grommets, and probably just giving opinions rather than asking a lot of penetrating questions.

If we were a deal site, we would have community members monitoring pricing very carefully  This is exactly why you do not see open discussion boards on the deal sites (like Groupon, Fab.com, Gilt Groupe).  A CEO at one of the leading sites told me,

Yeah, we [deal sites] all pulled our discussion boards.  People just post complaints about the prices and share links about where to get things cheaper.  I'm amazed you guys [at Grommet] keep such a positive tone going every day.

I think we have such a positive tone because we are celebrating inspiring stories.  You might not groove on a given company or product, but it is hard to beat up on a Grommet creator for pursuing their passion. Yet the other reason for the tone of our discussion boards is skillful management by Katherine Klinger, who sets a high bar for all of us who contribute.

I asked Katherine how she approaches the more difficult cases.  She said,

I feel that we bring our commenters [Grommet creators] here as a special guest and as such try to stop conversations that are going down an unproductive road. We owe it to them to keep the conversation focused on their products and mission. If this were a discussion board with no special guest, I might instead explore what people think about some of these topics. When I write a reply, I try to not be defensive and I try not to give them any hooks to latch on to to come back with another similar post.

Katherine Klinger
Katherine Klinger, Wordsmith Extraordinaire--she could make the copy on a stop sign interesting!

I also asked Katherine which recent responses were particularly challenging for her or the team.  In the screen shot case below, we had a rare instance of a person on a vendetta against the Grommet creator. The screen shot is hard to read, but basically we deployed the VERY rare nuclear option of deleting a community comment.  We hesitate to do that and always indicate that we have done so.  Generally we welcome negative comments as they might reflect some general concerns, and it is great to have a chance for us and our partners to address them.  But when a person just attacks another person for some matter outside of Daily Grommet, we don't let it stand.  (It is our digital equivalent of "take it outside, kids.")

Katherine also cited the difficult tenor of the conversation around Spirit Hoods, which are playful faux fur hats.  This story brought out the wrath of a couple of animal rights activists.  Complicating matters,one of our very loyal Grommet fans came back at the animal rights person a bit too zealously.  It would have gotten ugly quickly, if Katherine did not tip in. Here is the strand.

To try to summarize, here's what works at Grommet in creating a productive discussion board:

  • Think "sideways" when a tough comment comes in. Katherine is the master at looking at things differently, rather than frontally.  When we have a difficult email to write, we often consult her.  For instance, we like to check directly with a customer if we see an unusual order come in (like one for 20 pair of work overalls).  Katherine advised, "Don't send an email asking if the order is a mistake.  Just thank the person for the order, while clearly calling out the order contents.  If it is a mistake they will be the first to tell us."  (The 20 pair of work overalls were ordered by a drama teacher--they were costumes for a student play.)
  • If you are CEO or a senior leader in your company, pay close attention to the discussion board. I personally read every comment every day.  I answer many.  These comments are not "optional" to me.  They tell me what people are thinking and feeling, and I can also help set a tone in how we respond by taking on some of the dialogue myself.  I make it clear that it is worth my time to do this, and it is highly valuable work for anyone in the company.
  • Know the difference between an ordinary negative comment and one that is going to lead to a death spiral. Ordinary comments generally represent a criticism based on a different point of view, or a bad experience with the product or service.  NEVER delete those.  But comments that get personal, or are just an extended rant, need to be reigned in.  Make sure your posting guidelines are clear about that, as you do not want to create unique policy on the fly.
  • Understand the value of negative comments. Studies have shown that negative comments mixed in with positive ones actually increase the purchase rate for products.  Why?  People trust what is on the discussion board better, as being unedited and true.  This trust can be extended to any kind of discussion board that lets negative comments stand.  And in the case of product reviews and comments, people may not be concerned with the negative aspects that are raised, in regards to their own use of the product.  They understand that no product is perfect for absolutely everyone.

The biggest piece of advice about discussion boards I could give is:  hire a Katherine!  When I read the comments at some of my favorite e-commerce sites I often see robotic responses to customer complaints.  These replies look like someone pressed the "send that canned [fill-in-the-blank] response" button.  It's admittedly a very labor-intensive effort to manage a discussion board (and not everyone at Daily Grommet itself agrees with our emphasis on this!), but I would not initiate one if you are not prepared to follow through with it in a real and human way.

Comments

  • Emily Says:

    Daily Grommet has never claimed to showcase ONLY American made, sustainable/eco-friendly, or any other specific scope of product. The one ONLY that fits is ONLY items you have tried and liked and thought your followers might want to know about. And that is exactly what I expect from and appreciate about Daily Grommet. If a Grommet I'm interested in comes in my daily e-mail then I look further into it at your site - maybe add it to My Favorites, or make a purchase. If a Grommet comes in that doesn't fit my tastes, needs, beliefs, or whatever, then I delete the e-mail. You folks mix it up quite well, there is always something interesting to know exists in the marketplace even if it may not be something I'd purchase. I have always been entirely satisfied with items I have bought (LOVE the Zakano socks most of all!!!). I've had questions about items which Grommet has always answered promptly and professionally. I trust your opinions and the information you provide. I can't see you guys being around and growing as you are if you were BS'ing everyone just to make initial sales. I feel you genuinely want to offer things to your public that you found interesting and of value, but no one can please everyone, everytime. You make no claims that you do not follow through on and anyone expecting differently or trying to impart an agenda in the claims you do make I am glad to know is monitored, and dealt with promptly, intelligently, and professionally, so the rest of us can continue to enjoy the Daily Grommet in the spirit in which it was intended, as a public marketplace for stuff you've tried and liked and thought we might want to know about. Keep up the great work.

  • julespieri Says:

    Wow Emily. Are you sure you aren't my mother writing this comment. (Kidding) I really appreciate the time you took to share your Grommet experiences and your perspectives on what exactly you have come to expect from us. You nailed it. We do appreciate having wide range and latitude to explore lots of types of products and they become Grommets for vastly different reasons. It would be both boring and unrealistic to expect every Grommet to fit narrow criteria. Thanks for letting us know you are paying attention and getting what you'd expect from us. >Jules

  • Emily Says:

    No, I am not a mom, but if your mom would agree with what I had to say then she's obviously an intelligent and charming person and you should always listen to her! :-) Seriously, don't let others' negativity ever change you or Grommet. I learned about you from Ch. 5 out of Boston on Chronicle years back. I've always enjoyed what you put out for us to learn about and never took the time to tell you so. When I read your blog post and realized how important Katherine is to Grommet being the way I like it, I wanted to make sure you both knew you and your efforts are both greatly appreciated. I was compelled to defend you! Again, keep up the great work.

  • Jules Pieri, CEO Daily Grommet Says:

    Awwwww....you made my day twice now Emily! I will be sure Katherine sees this too. And thanks for telling me how you found us on Chronicle. Clearly, thoughtful people watch that show.

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