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Canned Responses: A New Media Case Study for Brands

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I’ve heard it said that no response is the worst response a business can have when it comes to brand negativity. I’m not 100% sure that’s true. It depends on your industry of course, but personally, I’m finding it more and more offensive to read a canned response. Certainly, you want to let people know that you’re listening, but if your responses are plastic, you might be better off not responding at all.

To illustrate what I mean, I’d like to present a bit of a case study based on some experiences I’ve been having lately. Right now, I’m actively apartment hunting, moving from my rural area of Pennsylvania to the Washington, D.C. metro, and since it’s a four-hour drive, I’ve been doing a lot of online browsing. That way, when I’m in town, I have a much shorter list of places to see in person.

As you may know, if you’ve ever apartment hunted, when it comes to managed complexes or towers, the pictures aren’t always a good indication of what you’ll get in real life. In fact, many places have a few “show” units set up permanently with higher-quality appliances, flooring, etc. than is found in the rest of their units. They use these show units for photographs on their websites and to show prospective renters on their tours. So, to get a clearer picture, I’ve also been perusing review websites, such as ApartmentRatings.com, where people who have actually lived in these complexes can rate their experiences and write reviews. Of course, you have to take what you see with a grain of salt since 1) people who have had an extremely negative experience are always more vocal and 2) nothing stops apartment complexes from going online and posting fake reviews to boost their scores. Those are issues to talk about another day, however.

The fact of the matter is that most of the bad reviews go unanswered. There’s space on ApartmentRatings.com to leave a response, but I’d guess that over 90% either have no response or responses from other tenants asking questions or saying, “Me too!” It’s uncommon for a property manager to respond.

I haven’t found myself getting mad at this. My gut reaction isn’t, “Wow. Not only did this tenant have a major problem, but they don’t care at all! What a horrible place this must be.”

No, my reactive is to shrug and assume that they have no idea what is being said about them…or at most, they see the poor reviews but don’t have staff members dedicated to responding. If there’s no response, I don’t really find it offensive.

But I’ve been seeing a lot of canned responses – responses that are clearly copied and pasted and are unhelpful at best. The management is acknowledging the problem, but they are making matters worse.

To illustrated, this is one of the responses I saw. It was posted to a 1/5 star rating entitled “We still call it Amityville” that talked about a mix-up with the move-in date, unresponsive maintenance staff, and other problems. Here’s a screenshot of the ensuing conversation (if you can call it that):

In my browsing, I saw that same response, word for word, on a number of other posts. “Anonymous” is absolutely right – no response would have been better. This kind of canned response actually offends me as someone looking at potential apartments. I can just imagine how offended it would be to the actual review writer.

First of all, the name is clinically corporate. No one is talking to you – the response comes from “CommunityManagementTeam.” Not “Jane, Community Manager” or “Joe, Customer Relations” or anything like that. A nameless, faceless corporation. Not exactly the kind of image any property management company should want.

Second, the review starts off in a very “me, me, me” type of way. Of course your company doesn’t want bad reviews. This isn’t about you. If you get a bad review, the very first thing you should say is “I’m sorry.” End of story. Even if the customer is wrong, they still had a negative experience, and you should feel sorry in the role your company played in that.

Third, let’s talk about the actual “apology.” Word for word, they say: “We’re sorry you feel that your experience was less than satisfactory.” Not, “We’re sorry you have a less than satisfactory experience.” No, this company has the balls to say, “We’re sorry you feel the way you do” as though the customer is wrong. It’s like if you call someone a mean name and then your apology is, “I’m sorry your feelings were hurt” – i.e., you aren’t sorry for saying it, you’re sorry that the person is so sensitive or found out you said it. This property management company shouldn’t feel sorry that the tenant is upset about these problems. They should be sorry that the problems happened at all.

Lastly, they closed the response with a generic phone number and email. The contact information is nice, but dealing with a corporate office isn’t going to help this tenant because he/she specifically said in her review that there were communication problems with the staff again and again. You can bet your last dollar that if the tenant actually contacted the company using that information, he/she wouldn’t have reached anyone who knew anything about this review or her experiences.

Overall, what I read from this response is, “We see your complaints and we don’t care enough to give you an actual response. We’re just trying to make it look like we care.” And the writer called them out on it…to no response. It’s been several weeks, and the property management company hasn’t come back to say, “You know what? You’re right. Sorry for the form response, let me help you.” They’ve gone silent, and that’s a problem.

The point I’d like to make here is that the notion that no response is the worst response isn’t always true if you’re dealing with brand negativity in a new media setting. If you honestly don’t have the manpower to truly manage your social media presence, it’s better not to have one at all, in my opinion. I would rather assume that your company isn’t there than read a quickly copied and pasted form letter that makes matters worse.

Allison Boyer freelance writer and content marketing consultant. She also runs the food blog The PinterTest Kitchen with her mom and sister. You can follow her shenanigans on Twitter (@allison_boyer) or contact her at allisonmboyer@gmail.com.


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