Critiquing Free Events

Yesterday I wrote about expectations at free events, basically saying they don’t differ a lot from paid events. The next part of that is to talk about how to deliver and accept criticism in a positive way.

At most events there is an evaluation form given to attendees and while it’s hard to write a great one, usually the questions you ask matter less than the comments you get. Most people that are reasonably satisfied answer the questions and move on. The ones that had a great or really bad experience, they write the comments. Of course event evals aren’t the only form of feedback. You get email, sidewalk chats, and occasionally posts on blogs and Twitter.

Most of the time the comments confirm things you already know – ran out of coffee, missing signs, things usually related to logistics. Some are positive, some aren’t. Every once in a while you’ll get a comment that shows you something you missed, or shows it to you in a way you had not seen before. Some of the comments you have to take with a grain of salt. For example, last year in Orlando I had an attendee complain that we had too much content and it would be better to have it spread over two days. That totally makes sense from an attendee perspective, but doesn’t cover the realities of doubling the logistic effort. Many times it goes back to expectations, fair or not.

Most of the comments are positive. Some aren’t. Can’t ask for feedback with understanding that, right? Yet, it’s human nature to be less than appreciative when someone complains, especially when you’ve volunteered 40 hours or so of your time to make an event happen.

How do we as event attendees deliver criticism in a way that’s useful? How we train event leaders to take criticism well when someone says the baby is ugly? How much should we allow for free events? What should be said publicly and what is best done in private? All good questions, now for my thoughts on the answers.

Here’s some of what I look for as an attendee:

  • Have they set expectations in advance of the event? Communicated clearly?
  • Are things organized when I arrive? Is check-in reasonably smooth, signs posted, coffee (or whatever breakfast) on hand in sufficient quantities?
  • Do they communicate late breaking changes well, things like room changes or speaker cancellations?
  • Do they stick to their published schedule?
  • Did lunch happen on time and was it the food promised? Did they run out? Did those that got out of their session late end up getting short changed? Was the lunch line managed in a way to move people through quickly so that they can enjoy the break?
  • Did ‘special’ events happen as promised? Raffles, contests, special lunch speakers, etc.

As you can see I’m looking for a smooth flow. Said differently, even though it’s free I want the to respect me and my time. Customer service matters, event at a free event.

In general I’d ask everyone who attends to try to give a balanced evaluation. Let us know you had a great time, but…there were a few things that could go better next time. Look at it in the context of helping to improve the event. Remember it’s a real person reading those at the end of the event after a hard day. They will find it a lot easier to take the negatives if they also see that people saw the good things too.

Want to blog or Twitter about it? Same thing. Try to give a balanced view, and try to end the post on a positive not, make sure that someone reading it sees that it wasn’t all negatives, and that the proportions are fair. If it’s something really harsh, why not go direct to the leader and discuss first? Understand that to someone who just worked really hard public criticism can be especially hard to take – so is your goal to punish them, or help them do better next time?

As an event leader, look at the ratings in aggregate and combine that with your own impressions from talking with attendees. Read the comments and try to see it from their perspective. Did you serve the customer well? Did you not set expectations fairly? Hopefully you see my point, that even though it’s free, you have to work just as hard at customer service.

Am I perfect at this? Absolutely not. I don’t always deliver criticism effectively, and I don’t always take criticism well. I try to do better on both. It’s hard, but it’s important.