In corporate conference rooms, a major complaint about social media is that it forces companies to get involved with dissatisfied customers in a public forum.
The historic imperative has been to ignore complaints publicly, and deal with them privately via form letters and an occasional telephone call from a customer service representative.
The rule of thumb has been that you never engage directly with a brand critic, because it adds credibility and weight to their arguments if the company acknowledges them.
This ostrich tactic is absolutely the wrong way to handle criticism in a wired world. Ignoring the problem just makes it worse, as citizen bloggers will ramp up the outrage if their concerns aren’t addressed.
Instead of looking at social media as being forced to “handle” a “negative”, brands should view it as an opportunity to improve, grow and thrive. It’s the ultimate canary in the coal mine. If your company has legitimate problems with its operations (and most customer complaints have at least a kernel (and usually a cob) of truth), social media is the greatest opportunity of all time.
By listening, you not only learn what those problems are (with no focus group expense, by the way) but by responding to issues authentically and sympathetically (Zappos, Dell, Comcast et al), you can actually gain more customers than are lost because of the original problem.
And this isn’t just a big company scenario. If you run a restaurant and your weekday lunch-time chef is much worse than your weekend dinner-time chef, it’s entirely possible that a blogger or podcaster (like me via Hottie & The Fatso) will complain about it eventually. As a restaurant owner, wouldn’t you want to know that? You not only learn a critical piece of information about your own organization, but it gives you the chance to set your restaurant apart. A simple blog comment like this would do the trick:
“Wow. Really interesting to hear your perspective on our lunch vs. dinner quality differences. We of course strive for consistently great experiences at all times, and I’ll be auditing our lunch and dinner service immediately to get us back on track. Many thanks for your observation. We hope you’ll join us again for lunch soon and give us another chance.”
It’s about listening to your customers and humanizing your company. And once you commit to it, every piece of “bad news” you discover through social media gives you a chance to make it good.