Chapter 13 – Get a Thicker Skin

It seems that this sort of advice gets thrown around all the time.   Just when you have suffered another crushing defeat, some helpful soul chimes in with the sage advice that your real problem is that you just need to toughen up.  Of course this is not terribly comforting to hear, but sometimes it is the truth.  Sometimes our sensitivity works against us and holds us back.  The trick is to know when we are being too sensitive, when we are letting our fears make situations worse than they really are.  For those situations, we need a thicker skin.

Now, I am not going to be someone who tells you sensitivity is a bad thing.  Chances are your sensitivity was what made you a good entrepreneur in the first place.  You were sensitive to things that other people overlooked, thus you were able to design a solution.  And if you are a creative entrepreneur, you probably have a double-dose of sensitivity.  Being able to be sensitive to problems is a true gift, and it is definitely a trait I do not want to advocate trying to get rid of.  Your sensitivity makes you who you are, and your business would not be the same if you were just another robot.

However, there are acute times when that sensitivity can work against you.  Most of the time this manifests in bad press.  We work so incredibly hard to build a business that is based on excellence that operates without reproach.  We stretch for the brass ring with everything we do, so when we are confronted by a bad opinion of our business (especially a bad opinion where lots of other people can read about it), we can get crushed.  We can instantly overlook the hundreds of kudos and thank yous we have received from our delighted customers and focus like a laser beam on the musings of one Disgruntled-Gus.

We can let this one opinion of what we are doing ruin our whole day, month, or even year.  We take the criticism extremely personally, since we have invested so much of ourselves in our business.  After all, our business is ourselves, and any reflection on the business is a reflection on us, right?  No, actually not.

Bad press happens, it is a fact of life.  And although it is true that you can minimize bad press by doing a great job, you will get it sooner or later.  Especially these days where every Internet user is a potential public commentator of some sort, either in the product review section of your website, on blogs, forums, etc., it can be hard to escape nasty opinions.  If bad press has not happened to you, rest assured that it will.  And as such, the important thing to work towards is not to prevent it from ever happening.  No, the best thing you can do is prepare yourself to deal with it when it does.

So, what do you do when bad press happens?  The first step, which may seem obvious, is to engage the bad press head-on.  Oh sure, it can sound awfully nice to just hide under our desk, or leave for the day, but you can’t.  You have a brush fire you need to extinguish before it grows any bigger.

By engaging the story head-on you not only immediately turn down the volume of the story, you also take some of the control back.  Untempered bad-press on the Internet can be like horses without reigns.  People invariably love bad news, and there can be nothing more fun for some than to pile on a bad story.  This is how mobs are formed, and especially in the semi-anonymous world of the Internet, stories can very quickly be blown out of proportion through exaggeration, incorrect facts, and just plain old yarn-spinning.  People want to make themselves sound as important as possible, and often they will exaggerate the circumstances of a story to paint your business in the worst possible light.  Sensation sells, whether that amounts to replies in a forum post, comments on a blog article, or page views on a website.

People love a tragic tale, and it is your job to make sure the truth gets out there.  At first, you are often the only person on your side.  Positive commenters will usually sit by the sidelines until someone else has chimed in.  They do not want to be the first people to wade into the feeding frenzy because they don’t want to get bitten.

Now, when you do chime in with your side of the story, know you are walking into a very emotionally-charged atmosphere.  As such, it is critical that you stick to the facts, and not take any of this process personally.  This is just human nature playing out in front of you and your job is just to make sure the truth gets out there.  So, if the bad press occurs in a public forum (such as web forum, blog with comments, etc.), your job is to jump in and participate.  When you do, you will usually find that the situation calms way down.  For one thing, people are more apt to abuse your company if you are not around.  People will more easily beat down a company that is without representation.  An unopposed force feels more powerful and they will use that power against you.  By simply standing up and participating, though, you instantly inject at least a little civility into the discourse.

When you have chimed in, the priority is most likely going to be damage control.  Especially on the Internet, once something is written, it can live forever.  There is no use trying to un-do what has already been done.  Instead, it is your job to affect what happens from here on out.  You cannot stop the plane from having blown and engine, all you can do is try to make the softest landing possible.

Engage the viewers of the story with the truth.  If you made a mistake, fully fess up for it (and spell out how you are going to fix it).  Of course, it would have been better if you would have caught the mistake yourself, but it is too late for that now.  It doesn’t matter what you did to keep the mistake from happening in the first place, it has already happened.  People don’t want to hear excuses, or have any blame shoved back in their faces.  Stand up and take full, fair responsibility.

Use this public forum to show how great your customer service is, and how dedicated you are to doing the right thing.  In this circumstance, it is not uncommon to have these situations flip on their head.  In one minute you have a customer service crisis, in the next minute you have a huge customer service win because you were able to show just how good you are.  After all, it takes problems to show you are good at customer service anyway, so use this problem as an opportunity to prove just how good you are.  Often, these situations can either be a gift or a curse.  It is up to you to decide how history will judge it.

However, sometimes there is not much you can do.  Although these circumstances are rare (most people are quite reasonable once they don’t feel threatened), they do happen.  Again, especially with the semi-anonymous nature of the Internet, the public shame factor has been removed from people who act like jerks.  And, these people are out there.  You have probably already seen them if you are successful.  There seems to be something in these people that hates to see people win, and who love nothing more than taking a winner down.  If this is the case for you, and you are truly in a no-win situation, the best thing to do is walk away.  If all the other party wants is a fight, the only way you can deny them that is to not participate.  No good can come from engaging the curmudgeon that just wants to see your reputation burn, so stay away.  In the parlance of the Internet, with this sort of person, don’t feed the troll.

When the smoke clears from this situation, it is important to realize a couple of truths.  First, if you were scared of this sort of thing happening, realize that it is not that big of a deal.  In the whole scheme of challenges you will deal with, these are actually pretty easy.  The key is that you just have to act, immediately, and do something about it.  Not everyone is going to love you.  It is a fact, and the sooner you accept it, the better.  Also, know that the person was not attacking you.  They were attacking their experience and their idea of you and/or your business.   By not taking the attack personally, you can actually deal with it, usually to a positive end.  Know that you didn’t disappear because one person didn’t like you or your company and know that you are well-equipped to deal with this type of situation when it happens again.  Rejection is a part of any business, and the sooner you can become comfortable with it, the sooner you will have a much easier ride.

To end this chapter, a personal story.  My business was just about to celebrate its second anniversary, and things were going well.  I was averaging 20% growth per quarter, cash was good, and I was growing my legion of delighted customers.  Things were going so well that I decided to treat myself and my family to a vacation.  It would have been the first one in about four years, so I was excited.  I prepared everything in the business for my absence, and when the first day of my vacation came, I grabbed my laptop and left town.

We arrived late that night at the hotel and since we were all tired from the trip, we went to bed early.  We were excited for the next day, which included some sightseeing and family attractions.  Little did I know, though, that my plans were about to be changed.

The next morning I woke up, fired up the laptop, and settled in to check how things were doing.  One of my stops around the web was at a consumer enthusiasts’ forum customers in my target market tended to frequent.  Since I was en enthusiast myself, I took great responsibility in keeping up with the times and tastes of other enthusiasts.  I started to scroll the page of forum posts and about five down from the top I spotted my company’s name.  After my company’s name I spotted a word that make me sink down about six inches in my chair, that word, in all caps, was SCAM.

I launched into the thread and read through about 10 paragraphs of what a customer had written about my products.  This person, being some sort of a scientist, has torn apart my product and priced out each and every component.  Not only that, the person had found places on the internet where you could buy each component.  I was horrified.  Not only had my product’s “secret formula” been laid bare for all to see, but since the component cost only added up to about 1/3 what my product’s price was, my company was immediately ruled to be a gang of scheisters.

I was mortified.  Instantly any plans of leaving the hotel room that day were gone.  I had a PR nightmare on my hands, and I had no idea what to do about it.  I mean, I could not debate this guy.  He was obviously really sharp, and all of his facts were correct.  I don’t know how he found suppliers willing to sell the components to the public, but he did.  It was an impressive piece of investigative journalism, and I felt like I was doomed.  The cat was out of the bag.  I had been exposed as a profiteer of people’s ignorance.  I was a charlatan, already having been tried and found guilty in the court of public opinion.

But I knew I had to confront this.  Already replies were piling up of people chiming in too, and I knew I had to do something.  So, I plugged my nose and jumped in with both feet.  I stated the facts, and did not deny what this person had said.  However, I did explain how each one of these products took nearly an hour of assembly time.  That assembly time was done by an extremely-skilled member of my staff whose paycheck came out of the purchase price of the product.  I also explained that I had to maintain a facility, inventory, insurance, taxes, utilities, customer service staff, sales staff, and on and on.  Sure, to the uninitiated eyes 1/3 of the product cost sound like a ton of profit, but I had a whole business and the livelihood of my employees to support.  Not only that, I also mentioned that the most famous mass-market competitor of ours maintained a product cost to price ratio of 1/10.  That is, for a $100 product you are really looking at $10 worth of parts.  I also mentioned how we were the only company of our size to still be doing our assembly work in the USA.  All of our larger competition had already moved their assembly to either China or Mexico long ago.

I painted a clear picture of the type of operation I really ran, and it turned out that I had a lot more supporters than I thought I did.  Immediately after I contributed to the conversation, lots of customers and people who have seen our products chimed in with rave reviews.  I know deep down that I was honest and I cared about delivering a great value to people, but the panic of being accused of the otherwise temporarily blinded me to this.  In the end, though, through my explanation, I was able to spread the word about my company.  We gained far more customers through that forum thread than we lost.  We were put on the spot and we hit a home run.  Now, I am not saying that I wanted to relive that terror anytime soon, but I was stronger for having lived through it, which just made me better prepared to deal with it the next time.