Minimize the likelihood of public complaints in the first place. If your friend saw you had your fly undone, would he tweet about it? No, he’d quietly tell you.
In this same spirit, why should unhappy customers complain indirectly via Twitter or their blogs when they can use email, the phone, or a feedback form on your website and know that it will be answered — immediately and with empathy? With their round-the-clock access to the social airwaves, make sure that the first impulse of customers is to reach you directly, day or night, by offering “chime in” forms everywhere; direct chat links for when your FAQ’s fail to assist; and an easy way to reply directly to every corporate email you send out.
You can't win a digital argument. We all know you can’t win an argument with a customer. If you lose, you lose directly; if you win, you still lose — by losing the customer. But online, the rule is multiplied because of all the additional customers you’ll lose if they catch sight of the argument.
So, breathe, slow down, and, above all else, avoid reacting in anger. Try to remember that the people slamming your face in the social medialand toilet — the folks I call ‘‘click puppies’’ — are doing it off the cuff. On the fly. They are not acting like professionals when they express their outrage. Most times, after they’ve trashed you publicly, they've moved on. Keep this in mind as you take the next step in addressing the complaint.
That next step: Turning “twankers” into thankers. Let’s say you’ve spotted an outrageous tweet about your firm:
"Company X double-bills all customers—Must Think We R Suckrs—FAIL"
How should you respond? If this twanker follows you on Twitter, that makes you able to send him a direct message. So do it. Include a direct email address and direct phone number. If, however, said twanker isn’t one of your followers, you’ll need to figure out another way to reach him. How about replying publicly, on Twitter, listing your email address and expressing your chagrin and concern.
By responding this way, you have a good chance to move the discussion out of a public venue and into a one-on-one situation, where you can work directly with your antagonist without thousands of eyes dissecting every move or, worse, catching bits and pieces as things progress, without ever grasping the whole story. This dispute resolution approach is like an in-store situation where you take an irate customer aside, perhaps into your office, to privately discuss the matter, giving you both a chance to work together to arrive at a resolution.
And, after a successful resolution, politely ask the complainer to amend or even withdraw those original ugly comments.
Avoid the Fiasco Formula. This is the formula for a PR disaster:
Small Error +Slow Response Time = Fiasco
That is, the magnitude of a social media uproar increases disproportionately with the length of your response time. Be aware that a negative event in the online world can gather social steam with such speed that your delay itself can become more of a problem than the initial incident. A day’s lag in responding can be too much.
Micah Solomon, a customer service and marketing strategist, is author of the forthcoming book, High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service.