As your online community grows in popularity, so do the opportunities for varied, and sometimes toxic or rude, comments. Knowing how to spot these comments and what to do about them, especially in large communities where several moderators may be responding to posts, is crucial for setting the right vibes in your community’s culture. This article approaches the topic of dealing with online bullies, trolls, and simply irate community members from the perspective of a moderator.

In a large online support community that answers hundreds of questions daily for over 200 products, at OpenText, technical analysts moderate our forums channel, not community managers. As the community program manager, it is a large part of my job to train channel moderators, or CMods, as we call them, to conduct themselves professionally online. Recently, the question of how to handle negative or abusive comments in the forums came up.

The question prompted me to create a protocol or process for CMods to follow. In support, which is a process-oriented organization, community program managers need to write step-by-step instructions for all aspects of moderation. Therefore, documenting that process revealed some considerations that we took into account. Here are the initial steps our technical analysts take when encountering a possible irate online customer.

1. Understand the post.

Often a toxic post is easy to spot, since it may contain foul language or angry type in ALL CAPS and several exclamation marks. However, sometimes that alone isn’t the case. Tone, too, can indicate toxicity, but it can also be mistaken for a language barrier issue, especially for some whose word choice or written communication skills are limited. In all cases, and with every post, a CMod’s first step is to understand the poster’s question. That may take a few read-throughs and follow-ups with clarifying questions. Understanding the post and addressing the reason for it can stop a toxic situation in its tracks.

Learn to spot the hallmarks of an angry or toxic comment or post.

2. Determine what action to take.

If a CMod determines that a post is toxic, it’s time to follow our process, which enables the right prompt and professional response. I warn our CMods not to rush to judgment and not to respond if they are feeling angry. Short, curt responses or defensive remarks will only fuel the fires and make a bad situation worse. Moreover, labeling community members typically serves no one well. Whenever a CMod contacts me to announce that they have spotted a troll online, I ask for information about the member’s perceived intent. Often, as it turns out, a “troll,” as it were, is a community member with misguided good intentions and a bad or misinterpreted set of communication skills.

Make sure to be in a calm mind space before you respond to a toxic situation. Grab a beverage, take some deep breaths, and let your cooler head prevail.

3. Respond in a prompt and professional manner.

Most toxic posts require a response from a moderator. Ignoring an irate customer, or taking rasher measures like deleting the post or banning the member, should never be a CMod’s action. Our in-house process requires that moderators report all toxic posts to the community manager, even those posts that can be handled professionally with a CMod’s direct response. We have a three-strike policy for toxic posts before escalating the poster to their account team for community censorship. Customers are the reason we exist as a company; there may be business-related issues that only the account team knows about, and they can help guide us to a successful customer resolution. Our standard response typically begins with an “I am sorry you are having trouble with…” type of introduction, followed by “We are here to help resolve the issue.”

4. Make an effort to resolve the issue.

Many times, I’ve found that toxic posts come from frustrated customers who feel that no one is listening. Be sure to listen closely; if you’re able to understand the issue fully, you may be able to avert angrier, more irate responses from the customer. In cases where the customer has expressed frustration with our online support forums channel, I will offer an opportunity for communication in another channel, including a phone conversation. Remember: one-channel communication, like a single clothing size, does not fit all needs. Make yourself available to customers in a channel that suits their communication needs.

5. Turn an angry customer into an advocate.

Sometimes formerly unhappy customers, who become happy once we collaboratively resolve their issue, provide a great opportunity for advocacy. In my personal experience, I have been able to recruit previously irate customers and turn them into online advocates. One, in particular, was incensed about our documentation. We set up an online review board of customers to contribute their feedback to manuals, and the opportunity allowed both the previously disgruntled customer and our company to reap the benefits of his expertise. Another angry customer argued that his responses were often better than our technical analysts were. We allowed him to show off his expertise in the community by contributing a regular customer-contributed blog post on technical issues that he found most interesting.

By following simple support engagement principles, which I call “CARE,” or Communicate, Advocate, Respond, and Encourage, you may be able to avoid toxic or rude comments. Many of these types of comments grow out of customer frustration and can be avoid through CARE. In a future blog, I’ll discuss the CARE principles for supporting your online community.


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Dave Sciuto

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