How to win when customers complain online

Spectating at an online mud flinging competition is one thing, being at the centre of it is another. The former is the best fun it’s possible to have in a tea break. The latter is P45-style terrifying.

The reason for avoiding social media we sometimes hear from businesses is fear of losing control. Where traditional adverts didn’t enable back chat, consumers can now very easily cast aspersions. For some internet warriors, the only restraint to complete ‘freedom of speech’ is whatever they consider to be fair and reasonable. Those are subjective values.

So what should you do if a customer starts being negative about you online: fight back or run away from the whole thing? If you’d like ‘Five top tips for dealing with online complaints’, you’ll need to look elsewhere. Overcoming reluctance to engage with your consumers requires more than a list of tricks. You need to look into the heart of your business and if what you find is a reason to fear, you need to change how you operate on a fundamental level.

If what you produce and sell is, 99% of the time, a really good answer to your customers’ needs, then you’re off to a good start. If when something does go wrong, you’ve a procedure in place that puts things right 99% of the time, you’ve even less reason to worry.

On the other hand, if your delivery isn’t like this, you’ve got far bigger concerns than someone having a go at you online. An online complainant is the digital tip of a disgruntled iceberg. Companies that persistently let down their customers, always eventually run into real trouble.

Fix your delivery problems and the majority of expressed and silent complaints will simply never happen (like that photo in Back to the Future).

What to do with the 1% of the 1%, i.e. the customers let down by what you sold them and then let down by the process that was designed to fix it? Again, winning is not about the tricks you know, it’s about the character of your business.

If you company culture is predicated on sound ethics, good customer service and treating everyone with professionalism and respect, you already know what you need to do to turn this difficult situation into a win. You live in a better realm than that inhabited by ‘top five trick’ lists.

Some people making complaints will be angry as hell and fixated on wreaking vengeance. A rare few of these will have at some point become detached from reality: they don’t have a genuine issue but are, nonetheless, hopping mad.

Companies that habitually treat customers badly, invariably come unstuck interacting with these types at some point. They are nearly always at the centre of the funniest (for everyone else) online scandals. They’ll argue back, delete posts, demean, dismiss, issue threats and generally come across as what they really are. Everyone loves to see rotters get what’s coming to them – a key ingredient for what’s known in the business as ‘social amplification’.

Companies with an ethically-centred culture nearly always swan through the ripples of online complaints. They know from their heart how to engage with their customers. The respect of participants and observers is enhanced rather than diminished. To summarise, I’m sorry if you were hoping for a list of tricks that would provide the confidence to manage online channels. Modern businesses need to look to their values to win.