I'm a big fan of Ask A Manager primarily because it's the one website where I rarely question the authenticity of letters.
1. Criticism in my annual review came out of the blue — and it didn't come from my boss
Every year, my manager gives me a review, mostly glowing, with a few minor points to work on. Nothing big, but issues I know about and focus on the next year. My job requires extensive customer service skills, and in the 16 years I've been working (five at my current job), I've always been marked the highest in relating to the customers.
This year, my manager gave me my review, but prefaced it by saying that her bosses took a look at it first and made her rewrite it several times, even inserting a few lines that I might find surprising. Boy was she right. The higher-ups claimed that I had a significant communication issue with customers. I'm not quite sure how they came to this conclusion, since they have never even taken the time to observe me (I work in a different building). I now have to read two books on customer service and write a report on each one. I also have to ask others to observe my interactions with customers and observe them.
I was shocked. This "issue" came totally out of the blue. I've always heard that nothing on a review should be a surprise, that it should be identified well in advance. My customer service skills have always been something I've prided myself on, and now I feel demoralized and slightly insulted, to be honest. I was so startled by the news that I didn't even make comments on the form, just signed it and walked away stunned. Other managers I've talked to were just as surprised as I was. Is there anything I can do to salvage my reputation, or should I just keep my head down?
Go back to your manager and say that you take the feedback seriously and that you want to do your best to address it, but that it's difficult to do that without knowing specifics of the concerns. Ask if she can walk you through what this feedback was based on — and if she says that she can't because she doesn't share their assessment, ask her if she can help you find out. The tone you want here isn't "this is ridiculous and I want them to prove what they're saying with evidence," but rather "if they say it's a problem, I believe it, but I can't fix it without understanding more about what they mean."
You should also ask your manager how you can find out about concerns more quickly in the future so that you're able to address problems right away, rather than only learning about them during a formal review.
I was going to call bullshit until I remembered I had a boss who didn't like it when her assistant took a lunch break because the assistant always left the office to eat. So my ex-boss would eat around 11 AM, save some food, and give the assistant the remains. No kidding.