Q: “Dear Indie Business: A person is posting awful and untrue reviews about my product line, customer service and me personally. In the past, this person has asked, on forums and from me personally, for help setting up her own business, and I have tried to be helpful. It seems the business did not work out, and now, the person is positing mean-spirited, negative responses to blog posts about her horrible experience with my company and products, and is trying to elicit similar comments from others. What are your suggestions for handling this situation?”
– Name withheld*, West coast United States
dM’s Answer: “I am so sorry you are experiencing this. First, let me tell my readers that the exact question you asked was not, ‘How do I handle the trolls?’ You put it much more delicately than that. But I am going to call a troll a troll, and tell you that, from my perspective, the person you are dealing with is fairly classified as a troll. I answer your question below, but first, here’s my definition of a troll.
What is a troll?
A troll is a person who contributes inflammatory and/or off-topic posts to an online forum or community in order to cause trouble, disruption, emotional distress, or humiliation, and to otherwise prove that she needs to get a life. Trolls are an unfortunate reality when it comes to doing business online, especially in your situation where you have tried to be helpful and the person is paying you back by intentionally tearing down your hard work.
There are times when a person with a legitimate issue behaves like a troll. You must keep a keen eye out for these situations. Not everyone is skillful when it comes to lodging legitimate complaints, and those must be handled differently than illegitimate trolls.
First, is there a legitimate issue?
The first thing you have to do is confirm that the person does not have a legitimate issue that you need to address. If she does, use your normal customer service processes to handle the situation. In the public arena, post replies to the person apologizing for the error, expressing appreciation for the opportunity to fix the issue, and contact them immediately offline with a resolution.
Remember that some people with legitimate issues are never satisfied. After people’s emotions become involved, they sometimes can’t view a situation from a logical standpoint because their feelings are hurt or whatever. Those people need to be handled with kid gloves since they do have a legitimate issue. I do not classify those people as trolls.
The situation you describe here does not seem legitimate, and this person seems intent on bullying and disrespecting you, and for these types of situations, a different approach is required.
Shut down the troll
If you own and control the forum, or if the third party forum allows it, terminate the conversation by posting what you consider to be the final word on the matter, and make that clear to her and to others reading your posts. Be polite and be sure to mention all the things you have done to be helpful and considerate. After you that, use the forum controls to terminate the conversation and ban the troll, if you have those options. If not, you’ll just have to let your last word be your last word and move on.
As you put your last word out there, remember that the Internet never forgets. Be sure to keep your company track record clean. Don’t curse or return disrespect for disrespect because that creates an unwanted track record of nastiness for your business. Be kind and respectful, yet forceful and clear: you are ending the conversation.
The troll may pop up somewhere else, because that’s what some trolls do, but you have to cross that bridge if and when you get to it. If she is hell bent on destroying your business, you have no obligation to make it easy for her to do that. Once you terminate the conversation, go back and read the thread to make sure you don’t need to edit or clarify anything for the benefit of other site visitors. Then, let it go.
If the troll takes the conversation elsewhere, you have to choose between trying to shut it down there or putting your nose to the grindstone and pushing your business forward despite the troll. Most trolls end up running out of troll energy after a while so it may just end on its own. But others have an ax to grind and they can go on for weeks or even months. In such cases, you may consider contacting an attorney to stop the madness. This is the last resort because you can spend tons of money on attorneys fees and still not get a good result.
Don’t sacrifice your future for your past
My final word here is, as hard as it may be, you have to just let many of these situations go. I have been in business for 12 years and if I chased every single issue beyond what is reasonable, I would not have time to lead my business into the future. I would imagine the same applies for you.
All legitimate issues need to be addressed of course. But trolls are uncontrollable, and the more you try to control them, the more upset and frustrated *you* become. Meanwhile, your business suffers because you are wearing yourself out fighting battles you cannot win.
Don’t try to fix the past so much that you neglect laying the groundwork for the future.
PS – What would Time Ferriss say?
Tim Ferriss is the author of The 4-Hour Work Week. On page 73 of the latest edition of the book, Tim shares a story of how he dealt with a troll:
Dear [insert troll name], I’m sorry to hear that. You know, I’ve been taking your insults for a while now, and it’s unfortunate that it seems we wont’ be able to do business anymore. I’d recommend you take a good look at where this unhappiness and anger is actually coming from. In any case, I wish you well. If you would like to order product, we’ll be happy to supply it, but only if you can conduct yourself without profanity or unnecessary insults. You have our fax number. All the best and have a nice day.
These exact words may not be appropriate in your case, but you get the drift.
This happens to all of us. We have to know where to draw the line. Then draw it and move on.
– Donna Maria”
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*From time to time, I withhold names so as to to make it harder for the trolls to misbehave