It's the thing a lot of social media naysayers fear most: "What do we do when someone says something negative about us?" It's what keeps most businesspeople off social media in the first place, failing to realize that people are already saying negative things about them right now. Believing people aren't talking about you when you're not on social media is like believing people aren't gossiping about you when you're not around.
And if they can get past their initial hesitation, what usually hangs them up is what they should do if it ever happens. Do they put out a press release? Do they delete the comment? Do they send a cease-and-desist letter to the complainer?
You don't need a policy, you need a commitment. Whether it's a complaint about the product quality, the pricing, or a corporate practice, you need to commit to responding to any and all complaints that people have. It doesn't have to be a full-blown response, complete with strategy meetings and position statements. It just needs to be one response from one person in the company and a promise either to make things right or to investigate and make sure it doesn't happen again.
Because dealing with detractors, even those who have every right to be talking negatively about your company, is intimidating and stressful, you can handle them with grace, humor and honesty. Here are six steps for how your company should handle incidents when people talk bad about your organization online:
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1. Acknowledge their right to complain.
Free speech may not be a founding principle of every country, but it certainly presides in communications online. If a customer has a run-in with your brand at any point and isn't satisfied, he or she can, and often should, tell someone with the company, or even just a friend.
2. Apologize for their situation or your mistake, if warranted.
The two most powerful words in diffusing a tense situation are, "I'm sorry." But you don't have to claim responsibility for the situation by doing so, especially if you don't have all the information to make that determination. Apologize for the detractors' trouble, the situation, or their experience and ask for more information on how you can help them or make the situation better.
3. Assert clarity in your policy or reasons.
Sometimes people are upset about a return policy or some rule you follow that can't be changed. It's perfectly fine to assert yourself to someone who is being negative about your brand, but do it politely, with compassion and by supplying the reasons your policy exists. Don't make the reasons about the detractors -- make it about the betterment of every customer's experience.
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4. Assess what will help them feel better.
Comcast's Frank Eliason answered upset customers on Twitter in 2007 by asking the question, "How can I help?" What those four simple words do is turn the power of the conversation over to the customer and let him or her, if just for a moment, dictate the terms of what would help.
When customers feel listened to and empowered, the company often earns credibility in their mind.
5. Act accordingly.
If you can, within your company's policies and within reason, do what the customer says will make him or her happy, do it. We understand there will be instances when a customer request is either beyond your individual power to enact or is just unreasonable. But putting out the flames of a detractor's fire quickly and sufficiently is the best way to turn that detractor into a fan. Or at least someone who isn't flaming you anymore.
If you've exhausted all reasonable means of addressing the customer's issue and he or she still insists on unreasonable responses or refuses to quiet his or her claims, it's OK to step away. By politely offering the solution again and informing the customer that this is truly all you can do and you are happy to do so, but you have to move on to other customer issues.
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The great news is that if you and your team decide you've been fair, honest, and reasonable with the customer, but he or she is being unreasonable, the rest of the audience watching the conversation will think that person is being unreasonable, too.
This article is an edited excerpt from No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing (Que Publishing, 2011) by Jason Falls and Erik Deckers.
Jason Falls is principal of Louisville, Ky.-based Social Media Explorer, a social media marketing, digital marketing and public relations consulting service. Erik Deckers is owner and vice president of creative services at Indianapolis-based Professional Blog Service, a ghost blogging and social media agency.