June 4, 2021

How to Take Your Start-Up Seriously but Not Personally

The key is to use customer complaints as fuel for growth

Going into business, we’re often told to develop a thick skin. It’s the only way to take in criticism and learn from it. Yet, many successful founders find it difficult to separate emotion from their brand because it is such a personal extension of themselves. Their business is like a child, and no one wants to hear anything negative about their children.

When I was building my cupcake bakery, everyday criticism felt devastating. It was enough to throw me into a tailspin several times a day because I cared so deeply about my product. It wasn’t long before my business partner, who also is my husband, banished me to the back of the bakery, gently informing me that I was not “front-of-house material.”

Eventually, however, I came to understand that when customers share their time, thoughts and energy with you directly, they aren’t always venting–they are giving you a chance to make it right. The alternative is to share their thoughts indirectly by taking their business elsewhere. As a business owner, you need to hear it all–the good, the bad and the ugly–and trust me, you will. There is no escaping it these days, what with Yelp reviews, bloggers, influencers, etc.

The way to avoid taking criticism personally is to reframe it as fuel for growth. It isn’t always easy, but here are some suggestions.

Control the Conversation

People want to be seen and heard, so create a designated channel through which your customers can advocate for themselves. If you don’t, they will find their own way–and you may not like it. Invite people to tell you what they think and make it easy for them to do so, whether it’s by having a manager on the restaurant floor who is easy to distinguish from the servers, or even an automated email account that acknowledges receipt of a complaint and gives an expected timeframe for a response.

Inviting customer feedback in designated channels helps you take the criticism seriously without feeling hurt, because it has been solicited on your terms. Controlling the conversation also allows you to correct mistakes and address complaints swiftly and effectively.

Keep feedback in perspective.

It isn’t possible to please every customer. Clients bring their own assumptions and expectations to the table, and they may be different from the specific experience you are offering.

With that in mind, look for trends when sifting through customer feedback, rather than stewing over individual complaints. Isolated incidents might not accurately reflect a problem with your product or service, and they shouldn’t make you question your vision. However, if three people give the same critical feedback in a short amount of time, it’s worth investigating and addressing the situation.

When my husband and I first launched a pizza restaurant, we were surprised to find a slew of Yelp reviews complaining about the price point. One or two reviews could have been written off as flukes, but there were enough to catch our attention and reveal that we weren’t doing a great job convincing customers that our pizza was different enough to warrant the price.

Re-evaluate your role

OK, so maybe you can’t help but take criticism personally. As the business founder and/or CEO, the buck always stops with you, but if you’re getting distracted and overwhelmed by everyday criticism, you might want to identify someone else to be the front face for these issues. That way you can stay engaged without feeling threatened or under attack.

The best candidates for this role are team members who are able to address customer complaints with empathy but not emotion. Not being the founder allows them more objectivity, while giving you peace of mind that problems are being handled with care

Negative feedback may sting but it is an opportunity to improve. You should always be fine-tuning your product or service–even if your business has reached maturity–and criticism is a key tool to help you do that.