Ask an Expert: Beware the Online War of Words with Customers

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Q: More and more, I see big companies using social media to deal with customers, customer service, customer announcements, and customer complaints. That makes me wonder if we should start doing that too in my business. Thoughts? — Mary

A: The short answer is yes, and the long answer is yes. Indeed, with the constant influx of new online communities, tools, review sites, comments, tweets and other options, the Internet has fundamentally transformed the customer experience.

Down the street from me is a diner. It’s not a great place, but it’s fine. No big deal. A decade ago or so a place like that could probably skate by on its middling food, adequate service, and decent prices. Today the place, still owned by the same guy, has a new name and brand new décor.


Because customers aren’t so quiet anymore.

People started complaining online about the place’s cleanliness, food, what have you. The owner ignored their complaints. And then he got into a message board squabble with a couple of customers. A trickle of complaints became a flood. People piled on. Eventually, the tsunami overtook the place and the owner had to close down, redo the place, rename it, and start all over — all to avoid the online problems he himself created.

So yes, being proactive with your web presence is now a necessity, and it is also true that it is a task that can sometimes be daunting.

So how can you best manage customer interactions in this new era? Here are a few ideas that should help:

Know where the customers are: Of course, it would be nice if every customer complaint was brought directly to you for review, but that’s not the way it works. You need to therefore make sure that you and your employees are aware of the various social media platforms, websites, and message boards where you, your business, and your products are likely to be discussed, and monitor those places constantly.

A Google Alert can really help in this regard.

Communicate everywhere: Not only should you monitor sites for feedback and issues, but equally, you can use those same places to tell customers what you are doing. Are you now carrying new products? Have you updated your website? Did you hire new staff to better serve your customers? Don’t be afraid to share the good news.

Never get pulled into fights: As the diner’s tale above exemplifies, when it comes to getting into arguments online, the general rule is that companies don’t win. This is especially true for small businesses who have a lot more to lose than some anonymous angry customer. Getting into a fight online with a customer is always a losing proposition.

The only correct option is to consistently treat all users with kindness and professionalism.

Consider hiring a social media manager: Responding to customer inquiries and complaints wasn’t always a full time job, but now that those customers are spread out over dozens of websites, apps, and niche online communities, the sheer volume of work needed can consume more time than you probably have to spare.

As such, if you are finding it hard to keep up, consider hiring someone to spend their days keeping tabs on your company’s online presence. Millennials can be a good choice in this regard, but whomever you choose, it is important to make sure that they understand your brand, are fully on board with your company’s vision, and are able to channel that vision when dealing with customers online.