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By Jessica Elliott Updated on October 18, 2021

Taking Criticism in Stride: Our Guide for Small Business Owners

It’s great to encourage staff and customers to communicate when there’s a problem. But receiving feedback isn’t always pleasant. Indeed, accepting criticism gracefully is a skill that doesn’t come naturally to everyone. 

Learn how to accept and receive constructive criticism as a small business owner. 

Handling Different Types of Criticism

As a business owner, criticism can come from every direction: Family, customers, employees, vendors and even strangers. 

The thing is, our always-connected lives leave us open to hearing opinions from everyone, all the time. Some feedback is valuable and leads to positive changes. Other comments or judgment is noise to filter out.

Moreover, self criticism or imposter syndrome can tank your confidence and hinder business growth if allowed to run rampant.

Accepting positive and negative criticism is part of doing business. In many cases, it can make your company, staff, products and yourself better.

Know What Makes You Tick

People have different tolerance levels for criticism, but it’s a skill you can work to become a successful entrepreneur

Avoid the negative impacts of criticism, such as feelings of defeat or uncertainty, by acknowledging your automatic response to feedback and improving it. 

Learn how to accept criticism gracefully by:

  • Practice self-reflection: If you responded poorly to criticism, take a moment to recognize why it bothered you. Then, visualize what you could do instead. 
  • Accept vulnerability: Successful entrepreneurs will make mistakes, but errors can lead to great opportunities. It’s OK to be imperfect, especially if you can learn from your blunders.
  • Shift your perspective: Before responding to feedback, put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If positions were switched, what response would you want to hear? 
  • Have an outlet: Create a safe space to let go of criticisms. This can be a 10-minute meditation session or a hard run on your treadmill or around the block.
  • Avoid a defensive mindset: Your first instinct may be to take a defensive stance, but this can block authentic listening and growth. Be open to suggestions instead of immediately defending your position.
  • Don’t take it personally: You aren’t your product or service. Improving your work-life balance starts by letting go of the idea that any criticism of your company is a personal attack.
  • Speak with a counselor: Negative self-criticism or taking disapproval to the heart can affect your mental health. A professional can help you work through feelings and find ways to improve your response.

A customer with a bullhorn voices feedback to a small business owner.

Deal With Feedback From Customers

Some customers leave reviews to let you know of a real problem. Others complain about things out of your control. Regardless of the actual issue, your initial response and timing matter. 

Knowing how to respond to criticism according to the platform and circumstance can help you navigate tricky situations. 

Address Online Reviews

Providing an empathetic and timely response to online reviews on review sites, such as Yelp and social media channels, is essential. 

According to a BrightLocal survey, “72% of U.S. consumers have written a review for a local business,” compared with 66% in 2019. Furthermore, “20% expect a response within a day.” 

Reply to all reviews by emphasizing with their complaint and addressing the main issue. You also can provide facts, clarify mistaken assumptions and spin a positive narrative. 

Respond to Difficult Situations

Criticism is a form of communication, but it isn’t always explicitly directed at you, your products or your business. Instead, people may act aggressively or leave a snarky comment because of their personal or emotional state. 

In many cases, there isn’t a reason to engage. Show empathy, repeat the main issue back to them, and resolve it. If they continue to blame you or complain, thank them for their feedback and let them know that you’ve done all you can do. Then walk away. 

Sometimes the Customer Isn’t Right

The bottom line is that you can’t please everyone, and you know more about your business (and the market) than the average person walking into your store. While it’s important to listen to your clients, it’s also okay to supply correct information to dispute their claims.

For instance, many business owners get pushback when they raise prices. Customers may criticize your price hike, tell you how the company down the street is lower and even inform you that you’ll lose customers. 

Don’t knock the competition or try to justify your prices. Either tell them thanks and goodbye or express your value proposition confidently.

Plus, always have an audit trail to back up your business activities. Track communications across all channels and use a customer relationship management (CRM) system so you can view the entire complaint and resolution timeline. 

Learn How to Manage Expectations

Customer complaints are often the result of mismatched expectations. An unclear product description can lead to assumptions, whereas not providing shipment tracking information might cause consumers to blame you instead of the post office. 

If you get similar criticisms, review the cause. Is it stemming from unclear messaging on your website? Can you add a frequently asked questions (FAQ) page or strengthen your product listings to avoid negative experiences? 

Use feedback to prioritize tasks that improve the customer experience across all in-person and online channels. 

Listen to Professional Criticism

It’s one thing to get advice from consumers or employees, but disapproval from your peers, mentors, external stakeholders or co-owners can knock you down. These are people you trust and see as your equals. Criticism can feel like a personal attack. 

Accepting positive and negative criticism from people you respect is one of the best ways to grow. Handle professional criticism by: 

  • Listening to what’s being said without cutting into the conversation
  • Asking for clarification for anything you don’t understand
  • Taking a breath, then saying thank you
  • Requesting specific examples or methods of improvement 
  • Following up after you’ve reflected on the conversation

However, there’s a caveat: Some peers use criticism too much or in the wrong way. It’s good to get feedback from other professionals, but not at the expense of your mental health. 

If you find that certain people always have something negative to say and aren’t helping you improve, it’s OK to step back from these relationships. 

Accept Feedback From Employees

Dealing with feedback from employees can be difficult to get used to. But an inclusive company culture that shares constructive criticism at all levels improves business outcomes. 

Here are several things to do when talking with staff:

  • Immediately let employees know that you appreciate them coming to you
  • Move to a private area to continue the conversation
  • If it gets heated or it isn’t a good time, agree to talk again before the employee’s shift ends
  • Avoid jumping to conclusions about who is right or wrong
  • Don’t put down other managers, leaders, customers or employees
  • Schedule a follow-up meeting while talking to your team member
  • Document the conversation and results in your records

If the situation couldn’t be resolved during your discussion, take steps to find an agreeable solution or way of acknowledging that you listened to their suggestions.

A small business owner is surrounded by happy face and sad face emojis.

Take Criticism From Family or Friends With a Grain of Salt

Much like speaking with a mentor or respected peer, hearing negative comments or advice from family members and friends can go right to the heart. Your personal connections likely have something to say about your company, work habits or finances. 

Receiving feedback from friends and family isn’t easy. For instance: 

  • Your significant other may express concerns about a business risk or financial situation
  • A parent or other relation may question the viability of your business model
  • Your child may ask why you work so much or can’t be at a school function
  • A friend may offer advice based on something they learned in their business

Some concerns are valid and worth exploring. Acknowledge the advice and respond calmly and helpfully. 

Later, go over their thoughts in your head. Do they have a point? Is there something you can do to alleviate their concerns? Sometimes an outsider or non-business person can alert you to issues you didn’t even know existed. 

Other times, the divide between what they understand and what you’re doing in your business is too great. It’s best to listen, thank them and change the conversation. 

Practice What You Preach

In your workplace, corrective criticism can be a valuable tool. However, it’s give and take. If your employees feel that you criticize too much yet don’t value their opinion, they’ll disengage and eventually leave your company. 

According to Achievers’ “Engagement & Retention Report,” 42% of employees say companies solicit feedback regularly or all the time, with 15% stating “they never ask.” 

Giving feedback to employees is a way to set a good example and a great time to ask for suggestions. 

Constructive criticism is:

  • Actionable: Give employees clear steps and examples to guide their next steps. 
  • Concise: Avoid jargon and big words. Keep your feedback short and straightforward.
  • Immediate: If you notice something is wrong, say so before they complete the task.
  • Private: The entire crew doesn’t need to hear about a team member’s mistake.

Receiving Feedback: Examples to Live By

Learning how to give and receive constructive criticism is part of your growth as a human and a business owner. 

Look for feedback examples in your industry via social media and review sites. Then, take what you learn and implement it into your daily work life.

Jessica is a business-to-business content strategist and consultant with 24 years of experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry. She writes about technology, marketing and finance.
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