What To Do When You Get Negative Attendee Feedback

If attendees critique a conference that you spent months carefully planning, it can be hard not to take it personally. The best way to handle it likely involves digging deeper into the negative feedback and then making room for improvement.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been watching a lot of Top Chef. My observations from the cooking competition: Some chefs really like to use dashi, and making panna cotta usually doesn’t turn out well for contestants.

But for me, the show is also a good reminder about listening and responding to feedback.

The contestants are not only cooking under pressure in front of world-renowned chefs like Thomas Keller and Eric Ripert, but they also get immediate, face-to-face feedback—which can sometimes be brutal—from a panel of judges.

To me, how they react to that feedback is interesting. Some let the judges finish their critique before explaining why they disagree, while others interrupt mid-judging. Then there are those who thank the judges for feedback—good and bad—and appear to be really listening and taking it in, while other chefs seem not to hear any of the criticism or say something along the lines of, “I disagree. It was a good dish, and I stand behind it 100 percent.”

It’s easy for me to judge who takes feedback most effectively as I sit at home on the couch, but I’ll also admit that receiving feedback is probably one of the most difficult things for most people to do, myself included. And your emotional response to feedback is likely heightened when you’ve put a lot of effort into the thing that’s being critiqued, whether that’s a dish you’ve served or a meeting you’ve planned.

But the reality is that if you’re involved in planning and executing your association’s conferences, you’re also likely to get feedback from attendees, whether face to face, over social media, or via a postconference survey. So, what’s the best way to handle it? Here are three suggestions:

Acknowledge that you heard the attendee’s criticism. Say an attendee comes up to you at your conference and says, “That keynoter was terrible. He said nothing I didn’t already know.” While your first reaction may be to defend your choice, instead be sure to hear the attendee out—without making any judgment. Then, repeat back to them what you heard and thank them for sharing feedback with you.

Follow up and dig more deeply. Don’t act on negative feedback until you understand it more fully. You may need to ask the person giving it some additional questions or reach out to other attendees to see if they had the same perception. If so, it’s probably time for a change.

Make room for improvement. Once you’ve determined where you can improve, it’s time to take advantage of knowing what your audience wants and make changes. As you promote next year’s event, be upfront about the fact that you’ve made improvements based on feedback from previous attendees. People will appreciate that their voices were heard and feel confident that issues they experienced have been resolved.

At the end of the day, remember this: The conferences you host aren’t about you or your association; they’re about your attendees. So, if they have negative feedback to share, be grateful that they’re willing to do so and consider what you need to do to improve their experience.

What tips do you have for listening and responding to negative feedback about your meetings and events? Let us know in the comments.

(aydinynr/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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