Social media gives companies direct, unmediated access to prospects and customers. It encourages dialogue and allows businesses to demonstrate how responsive they can be. But it’s not perfect. Things go wrong – a substandard product, a service disruption, a mishandled customer. Then social media can open up businesses to a world of criticism. And sometimes, the criticism isn’t even based on facts – just a consumer with a grudge (and, now, a voice). So what do you do about negative comments in social forums?

Of course, every case is different, but here are eight principles to guide the way you deal with negative social feedback:

1. You can’t react if you don’t know

While it’s altogether possible that you’ll get negative comments on your own site or one that you manage (e.g. your Facebook page), this is not always the case. People can blast you on Twitter, a third party forum, their own blogs or a hundred other places online.

To do something about it, you have to be vigilant for all mentions of your company, people, products and brands. You can begin to do this with a service such as Google Alerts. However, to get more serious, you will need something like Salesforce Marketing Cloud’s Social Studio which can monitor conversations that mention your brand in real-time and even give you a heads-up on the sentiment behind the words.

2. Be quick to acknowledge

The reason many people post negative comments online is because they don’t think they’re being listened to (in store, on the phone or by email). So they lash out. Some do this just to warn their friends off using what they believe to be a bad product. Others – the more social media savvy ones – will do it to hurt you and force you to pay attention.

Speed is of the essence. Acknowledge the customer’s issue as quickly as possible before it snowballs and picks up other customers and prospects on the way. You do not necessarily need to have an immediate solution – an open, non-judgemental enquiry about exactly what happened will be enough to start the process of constructive engagement and open up an opportunity to turn a negative experience into a positive one. 

Of course, you’ll also need to follow this up with concrete actions— more on this later.

3. See it from their point of view

For the most part, customers don’t know or care about the issues that have caused them problems. It’s irrelevant to them that your supplier let you down or a delivery was sent to the wrong office. All they know is the inconvenience it’s caused them and, potentially, their customers.

Too many companies begin the process of engaging with an irate customer by listing all the excuses for why it happened. These may be entirely true and legitimate. But the customer won’t care. All it looks like to them is that the company is trying to shift the blame away from itself. In social media, this can be a red rag to a bull.

It is far better to begin every interaction from the viewpoint of the customer – what happened to them, what it meant and, ultimately, what can be done to make it right.

4. Take it out of the spotlight

Social forums may not be the best place to actually resolve complex issues. And being in a public forum may make it hard for an angry customer to soften their stance. Offer to continue the conversation in an appropriate forum – whether that’s phone, email or an existing support forum online. This shouldn’t be an attempt to silence the critic, simply to help them where it makes sense (so you’re not trying to give complex tech support in a tweet).

Also, “take it out of the spotlight” doesn’t mean “delete”. Better for people to see your constructive response to the negative comment than get buried in messages accusing you of curating out all the negative social media comments. 

5. Say sorry when it’s your fault

For some companies on social media, “sorry” is indeed the hardest word. Often it’s because they don’t want to take the blame. Or they don’t agree with the customer’s point of view. But, if we look at it from the customer’s viewpoint (see above) then it is hard to argue with their experience.

Of course, if it is clear that your product failed, then a sincere apology followed by a quick replacement (or refund) should nip the issue in the bud. If it was a service failure, then an apology to the effect of “We’re sorry that you did not get the service you expect from us on this occasion” is a good start. Following this up with something tangible (eg a money-off voucher for their next purchase) will also help.

It’s important to not sound like a robot when you do this. If this is a universal issue many people are experiencing at the same time, it’s easy to copy and paste responses. At least they’ll know you’ve seen it, right? Not quite. If you can, make the effort to personalize your response so they know they’re not talking to a customer service bot. 

6. Keep track

The issue might have been resolved, but that doesn’t mean the commenter has gone away. Whether they leave you with a good or bad taste in their mouth, it’s likely that they’ll interact with your brand in some capacity again. 

A Social Customer Service tool can help you keep track of past touch-points with customers so that if they do interact with your brand again, you know and understand their history. Customers who have a negative experience who lash out on social media can also become just as outspoken advocates on social if you treat them well.

7. Don’t feed the social media trolls

Sadly, of course, some people just want to cause trouble. They troll across social media and enjoy the notoriety this brings. And any interaction only encourages them to carry on their behaviour. So what do you do?

If you’re sure that their claims are entirely without merit, the best long-term strategy may be to ignore them. However, as social media is a highly visible, public forum, commenting once to the effect that what they are saying is inaccurate and unfair (and providing the facts to support this) will at least give other viewers the true picture.

8. Talk the talk and walk the walk

It’s all well and good to acknowledge a problem, but if you don’t follow up with concrete actions you’re going to end up back where you started and potentially upset your customer even more. Once you’ve got a conversation going with the customer out of the spotlight, make sure you understand the problem and outline what the next steps will be to fix it. If necessary, pass this information on to the customer service representative.

For most companies, most of the time, social media offers a way to engage positively with customers and prospects. But, as in the offline world, you should be prepared to deal with unhappy customers on a regular basis. The good news is that by treating them right and following through on your promises, it is entirely possible to convert them into good, long-term advocates for your brand - so their amplified social voice will work in your favour again.