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Every business, no matter how attentive to quality and consumer experience, finds itself faced with an unhappy customer sooner or later. While in days gone by, this might have resulted in a strongly worded letter or email to the company and negative word-of-mouth from the customer to his or her social circle, today’s customer with a gripe can kill two birds with one potentially viral stone via social media.

Sharing complaints about a company via social media, whether on the company’s social media fan page or by naming the company on one’s own social media accounts, is the method of choice for customers who have a bone to pick with a business in the twenty-first century. Forward-thinking companies such as Apple know this all to well, as evidenced by the company’s newly launched Twitter account devoted solely to customer service.

Unfortunately, this means that while businesses use to be able to handle concerns, disputes, and outright rants privately, directly, and candidly with the individual consumer, today the entire interaction may take place in front of a virtual audience of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of potential customers.

As a result, the response that a business delivers has the potential to turn every member of that audience into a lifelong customer—or set off a boycott or media firestorm.

With that in mind, how should these very public complaints be addressed?

With great care.

1. Prioritize attending to your company’s online presence.

Avoid the temptation to regard monitoring social media or other online avenues as less important than other aspects of the business. Having an effective social media strategy is imperative to success for any business today, in an age when the internet is the first place many consumers turn to with questions and comments.

If social media accounts are not checked at least once every day, customers may feel ignored. Just as important is creating alerts to notify the person in charge of social media if the business is mentioned on another website, such as Yelp. This will ensure that no complaint or negative review goes unanswered to for more than one day, minimizing the number of other consumers who may see it.

2. Respond to complaints quickly.

Monitoring the company’s online presence and reputation daily will enable your social media manager to respond to any complaints or criticisms quickly, before too much damage to the business’s reputation has been done. This will show the person making the complaint as well as anyone else viewing the exchange that you care enough about your business and customers to make addressing concerns a priority.

The first, and sometimes only, goal of a person making a complaint online is to have his or her voice heard. By immediately acknowledging that the complaint has been heard and that the company is working to do all that it can to find a solution the unhappy customer will be less likely to escalate the situation.

3. Keep a positive attitude.

In one’s personal life, it may be acceptable to respond to negativity to negativity, however unhelpful that may be. When engaging with an angry customer it is imperative to remain calm, even in the face of rude aggressive language. If necessary, take a few minutes away from the exchange in order to cool off before returning to the conversation.

4. Take the conversation somewhere private.

When a complaint is noticed ask the person making it to send a direct message to the appropriate person in the company. This will help avoid the company’s dirty laundry from being aired in front of an audience.

5. Tell the customer what action is being taken.

If a customer complains about a legitimate problem with a service or product that you offer, thank him or her for sharing the concern and let him or her know how the problem will be corrected or made amends for. This may include processing a refund, comping a future service, or coming to some other agreement.

6. Avoid a repeat of the problem.

While criticism is never pleasant taking the time to thoughtfully consider the cause of the problem and how it could have been avoided provides an opportunity to make improvements in the business. Make the changes necessary as soon as possible in order to avoid hearing a similar complain from another customer in the future.

7. Stop social media complaints before they start.

A common feature in complaints made via social media is customers noting that they have been unable to reach anyone in the company via a tradition method of communication or that they are unhappy with how the complaint was handled. Many complaints, then, are avoidable simply by providing reliable avenues by which customers can communicate questions or concerns.

Make sure that an email address, telephone number, and mailing address are easily accessible on the front page of your business’s website, as well as prominently displayed on any email or mail correspondence and print advertisements. Then check and respond to all communications received through these avenues to deter unhappy customers from resorting to voicing complaints via social media in the first place.