Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
We've asked a coterie of marketing experts to join Entrepreneur's Team Digital to provide answers to your common questions about building an online presence. Got a question? Ask it in our comment section below or on Twitter using #TeamDigital. Each week, we'll spotlight a different topic, and twice a month we'll host Google Hangouts (our next is Aug. 7) where Team Digital will chat about best strategies for managing an online reputation, marketing through social media and using mobile techniques to attract customers.
In this week's column, our Team Digital answers: What's your best advice for business owners when it comes to responding to customers' tweets and comments? How often should you reply, and do you respond to bad comments?
Respond as a "brand." It's important to respond to comments, both negative and positive. But it's also important to do so as part of who you are as a brand. With a consistent voice, and with regularity that embodies who you are. I wouldn't make it too infrequent, but certainly in keeping with your "regular" social-media activity. Be consistent!
Don't respond to each and every tweet or comment. A good guideline is to respond where the poster has asked a question, made a strong statement, pointed out a mistake you have made or has a request. Timing counts and most of the people who post a comment on your social media expect a response within 24 hours, any longer can discourage them from future interactions. Lastly, if you clearly have a bitter pill on your hands, don't feed your itch to fire off an angry response. Either let it go, or take the high road and respond calmly with the facts, your point of view and an apology if appropriate.
Respond to questions and requests for support. It's not always necessary to respond to negative comments, but depending on the situation, it can be strategic to respond to them in a way that demonstrates you (or the brand) cares and acknowledges customers' concerns. Positive comments should be retweeted or responded to whenever possible, as this encourages more positive feedback. Responding is an important part of interacting and engaging with your audience, while also humanizing your brand, improving brand loyalty and creating brand ambassadors.
Respond when it makes sense to. If someone is praising you and you'd like to retweet it, go for it! If someone needs customer support, why not? It only makes you look better. But if someone (non-customer) is ranting about your company and attacking you in public, it doesn't make sense for you to engage with them if they are only looking for a bone to pick with you. If it's a customer that is expressing frustration, respond to them and try to take it to e-mail.
Have a well-thought-out plan. Here's a great example of how a brand turned an angry customer (me) complaining on them about Twitter into an evangelist for their brand. My company uses GoToMeeting for web conferencing. One day we had a presentation and we couldn't get the online meeting to work. I made some snarky tweet about it and within 5 minutes, someone from GoToMeeting responded back on Twitter with a "hey, what's going on? how can we help?" I responded, they gave me a link to an online FAQ that addressed the problem (we had to change one of our settings), and I was able to fix my problem and have my meeting on time. The brand became a hero to me. In a 10-minute time span, they turned me into a brand advocate, but to do that took plenty of planning. Somebody was sitting there monitoring Twitter with a list of links to FAQs just waiting for a problem to solve. That took a lot of planning and a lot of resources, but it was worth it. I've told that story dozens of times. The ROI of all that planning may not have been quantifiable, but it was very real. How can you be a hero to your customers?
Always respond. Social media is a conversation, after all. Businesses should have a social-media policy in place so that everyone in the company at least has guidelines to follow. I don't think there should be a set "norm" for how often you should respond to tweets and comments, though. Responding to and spreading positive comments is often good practice, as is addressing customer service-related issues. And don't shy away from negative comments -- deal with them on a case-by-case basis.
Respond as much and as often as you can. Years ago, I heard the analogy that social media is like the new telephone. If someone calls your office, you answer the phone. My advice: Do the same when it comes to social media. Do your best to respond to everything. You never know where your next client, partner or friend may come from.
Know that a certain percentage of your audience is going to whine and bitch, because a certain percentage of people only feel good about themselves when they whine and bitch. You don't need to respond to this group much, if at all, because it's seldom productive. You solve their first problem, they come up with three more. Knowing that they're a very, very small portion of your audience is critical to understand so you can budget your time and energies well. And it's also OK to put the hammer down and say, "Okay. Enough. You've complained about this for X days and we've offered you a dozen reasonable solutions. We're moving on. Let us know if one of the previous suggestions works for you."
Respond as often as necessary, based on the feedback you receive. People will be surprised when you're listening, responding and following up in a genuine way. For a small business, I'd set aside 2-5 minutes in the morning and late afternoon to check feedback on social media but -- all and all -- there really isn't a best practice. The real rule is that your responses be timely, valuable, friendly and authentic. Lastly, constructive comments, whether they are negative or positive, should always be answered unless they are spam, outright inappropriate or offensive. Negative comments are tough for many business owners but it's important to answer them to say you're sorry, direct the customer in the right direction or take the conversation offline to discuss further. Always keep a friendly tone and remember that your response can help turn this negative opinion about your business into a positive one.
Don't feel compelled to respond to things that don't ask for a response. I see people and businesses saying "thanks" and "ditto" in public when it's unclear what they are responding to. This just adds to the clutter and is a waste of everyone's social-media time, real estate and bandwidth. If you really want to thank someone for a RT or share, do it privately so it doesn't clog up the system.
Don't forget the followup. The initial response to an immediate complaint needs to focus on "we're getting it fixed." An angry customer isn't going to care that you're "implementing procedures to make sure it never happens again." They just want their luggage found, or their flight rebooked, or their laundry cleaned. Respond that you're fixing that specific problem, and in the follow-up (which you're doing, right?) give them a discount for next time, and THEN let them know that you're taking steps to make sure it'll never happen again. But remember: Never confuse "reacting on social media" with "excellent customer service." The more excellent your customer service, the less you have to react on social media.