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5 Proven Ways to Deal with Consumer Complaints Online

Christine James
Christine James

Keeping up with a positive brand image and reputation is both harder and easier in this day and age of small business.

It's a shifting paradigm that started when social media took over as the main way people communicated and complain online.

Today companies like Google even have multiple departments to deal with angry customers.

Handle it right and you will reap the rewards of online exposure. Just look at great companies like Domino's that put customer service first above all else. But make a mistake and it will cost you with a hit to your reputation.

Flash back 20 years ago when branding and advertisement were just about print logos, packaging, and market positioning.

You would distribute your brand message through conventional channels like PR firms and advertising firms on TV, magazine, and billboard. If a company wanted feedback from customers, they created focus groups or sent out surveys. If a customer had a problem with the company, the concern would escalate only to the manager or customer service personnel devoted to this area. It was rare that a complaint went public.

Fast forward to today and the whole landscape of customer service is different. According to Forbes, the way we serve customers has fundamentally changed. Now, customers have a voice that permeates every level of social media on the planet. All a person has to do to complain is tweet it, make a status change, click a pic or Yelp it. Adweek even came out with an entire guide recently to getting a companies attention on social media. Because there are no filters, customers can say anything about anyone at any time.

If your company is on the receiving end of an angry review from a customer, whether justified or not, you need to take action. Just one comment can leave your company reeling. Just ask companies like Comcast who now have a reputation for negative reviews and poor customer service.

Bad feedback online can leave you with a snowball effect that could do a lot of lasting damage if left unchecked. Yes, we all want the consumer to have a voice. But how do you handle it when someone leaves a bad review online? Here are four proven ways smart business owners deal with consumer complaints online.

1. Have a Plan for Encouraging Positive Reviews

First, the easiest way to prevent bad reviews is to have a plan to prevent them. As a small business, your focus at this stage in the game is to make sure the customer is happy. Larger companies like Walmart can take bad reviews because their brand image is so strong, a few scathing reviews won't even dent their armor. Walmart has thousands of reviews registered at the Better Business Bureau alone.

But you as a small business, especially one just starting out, cannot afford the hit to your reputation. You simply can't please everyone all the time, so a bad experience is likely to crop up at some point. The key here is to appease the customer before he or she writes that negative online review. Most times, the customer will try to contact the business first before resorting to an online rant, and this is the opportunity you want to capture.

2. Stay Positive Even When Bad Things Are Said

Typically, customers resort to venting their frustrations online when they feel there has been no effort on the part of the business to resolve the situation. So, reassure the customer that his concerns are justified and will be addressed. Reach a compromise, even if it costs you something -- such as a free product, money off a service or a gift card toward future purchases.

Right or wrong, you are not going to win an argument with your customer. Just think about it: that one review can live forever online, costing you far more in business later than it would take to be proactive with this one customer.

3. Take the Conversation Offline When Possible

If the deed is already done and the customer has posted a bad review on social media, you may naturally feel emotional and defensive. And customers can act irrationally when they are upset about a recent purchase. Responding in kind will only spur a lengthy and exhaustive back-and-forth debate that you can never truly win. It can even go viral and tarnish your business reputation for life. That's because most people will side with the customer posting the review the "everyman" as it were.

Instead, take the high road and apologize quickly and succinctly online once. After you have calmed down, think about what can be done to address their complaint on your end. Take the matter offline and send the reviewer a private message to further assuage the situation.

4. Be Short and to the Point

A short, positive, private response is best, one that recognizes and validates the concern and provides a solution. If all goes well and the customer is appeased, you can politely ask that they update or amend their original complaint, or remove it from the site completely. You want the general public to see the matter has been addressed and a positive conclusion has been met.

The most important part of dealing with complaints is controlling the situation so it does not get out of control. That way, even if those tactics fail, you can always request a single complaint be removed by filing a request to Google. What is more challenging is dealing with dozens of complaints because you fanned the flames.

5. Respond Only When You Are Calm

If the customer is still upset and unsatisfied and you have done everything in your power to address the matter, take the issue back online to post a short response. The purpose of this response is, again, not to spur a debate but to calmly correct the facts without getting into too many specifics.

It's more important to appear as a professional business that's serious about addressing customer concerns than it is to be right. Lawsuits are time-consuming, expensive and very public, so the result, even if you win, won't necessarily cast you in a stellar light.

Dealing with complaints is not a battle. This is not an argument you can "win." The longer you allow the debate to go on, the more exposure and negative attention you are drawing to your business. And yes, there is such a thing as bad press.

So, deal with your customers with respect and take complaints seriously. Over time they will become your greatest supports instead of detractors.

Image Credit: fizkes / Getty Images
Christine James
Christine James Member
Christine believes that every customer has a voice. She is the Community Manager at (a customer complaints website) and loves talking to customers on social media about their challenges with Fortune 500 companies. Her work has been published on Huffington Post, Inc., SocialMediaToday, and Thought Catalog.