4 Steps to Answering Tough Customer Questions Online (and Off)

August 3, 2016

Every day we are surrounded by people asking questions online – and not just softballs, but really tough questions about our organization’s social responsibility, environmental sustainability, and ethics. This summer, my husband and I took a trip to Nashville where we visited Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage and Jack Daniel’s Distillery, among other attractions. I knew some controversial questions would be raised, and to be honest, I was intrigued to see how the staff would respond.

To my surprise, tour guides at each location handled questions through open and honest dialogue, and utilized the following tools, which can also be used online through social media, to courteously and accurately respond, while progressing the conversation in a positive manner.

1. Prepare

Whether you are presenting at a board meeting or announcing a new product on social media, you should work through a list of anticipated questions and prepare responses for each. If you can address the questions online before they are even asked, you can help to build credibility with your followers.

Our tour guide at the Hermitage predicted questions about slavery on the plantation, and brought up the issue prior to tourist inquiries. By bringing up a topic on most of our minds, she diffused a few tough questions before they arose. Even if you aren’t comfortable bringing up hot issues on your brand’s social media platforms, you should still prepare a list and responses for negative questions or concerns your customers, members, or guests may bring up.

2. Acknowledge the Question

No matter how small or trivial the question, we still need to acknowledge our customers’ concerns. Often the inquiry is one many people have, not just the person asking. On our Jack Daniel’s visit, the tour guide shared with our group that the distillery uses each whiskey barrel once to age and perfect its taste. This led to many questions – Where do you source the trees used for the charcoal? Are the companies exercising environmental sustainability by replanting? What happens to the barrels after a single cycle?

After each question, our tour guide began his response with acknowledging phrases, such as, “That’s a very good question, I’m glad you asked,” or “I understand your concern.” By aligning yourself and your brand with the customer’s point of view, you begin to build trust and credibility.

3. Be Honest and Transparent

It’s always a good rule of thumb to provide honest feedback to customers. Not only does it enhance our reputation, it can also position your organization as a thought leader. Plus, with technology at our fingertips, it’s never been easier for clients, customers, and guests to fact-check our statements. Keep in mind, our actions lead the way we are able to communicate. As long as your company is doing the right thing, you have nothing to fear when answering questions through social media.

And in my example, Jack Daniel’s is doing the right thing – they source most trees locally and turn down suppliers who are cutting down trees to build parking lots. Each company Jack Daniel’s partners with is under contract to replant following harvest of existing trees. After being used for the aging of Jack Daniel’s whiskey, many barrels go to Scotland to be used in the production of Scotch whisky. These honest and transparent answers not only satisfied tourists like myself but will keep everyone coming back for more.

4. Be Genuine and Tell Your Story

Being authentic is an important part of communication, regardless of whether it’s in-person or online. This means using language that mirrors your brand’s voice, staying true to your business and only speaking on points where you are the expert. At both the Hermitage and the distillery, southern hospitality exuded from the tour guides and welcoming staff. It was all part of the experience. We heard y’alls, stories about Andrew Jackson’s frugality, and Jack Daniel’s forward-thinking intelligence to pay taxes on his whiskey in an attempt to survive prohibition.

You and your brand have a voice and a story to share. The great thing about social media is that in addition to answering a question through copy, you can utilize photos and video to show, rather than tell your story.

Answering tough questions can be difficult, and each industry has its own challenges. I encourage you to plan ahead, take time to acknowledge and answer each question honestly, and continue telling your brand’s story.

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is a strategist, speaker, educator, and author of Brand Now: How to Stand Out in a Crowded, Distracted World and Get Scrappy: Smarter Digital Marketing for Businesses Big and Small. He is the Chief Brand Strategist at Brand Driven Digital, an educator at the University of Iowa, and host of the On Brand podcast. More about Nick.