Once upon a time, trolls were real. Well, at least they were in the minds of superstitious folk who told each other stories filled with strange creatures – partly as cautionary tales and partly to explain things science hadn’t gotten around to yet.

And when you believe in trolls, the world is full of them. That noise beneath the bridge? Trolls. That sheep that went missing? Hungry trolls. That thunder coming from the mountains? Fighting trolls.

Today, troll has taken on a new meaning, to describe “a person who posts inflammatory or otherwise unwanted material on an electronic forum, esp. anonymously” (Webster’s New World College Dictionary).

And, like the scared villagers of yore, it can be tempting to blame those nasty trolls whenever the brand comes under attack in social media.

I’ve certainly known managers who viewed anyone posting negative opinions about the brand in social media as a troll, or at least undeserving of attention, simply because they chose to air their grievances in a public forum.

Let’s be clear: unlike their mythical namesakes, internet trolls do exist. But that doesn’t mean every angry person who gives your brand a hard time is a troll.

For a troll, the argument, aggravation or disruption is the point. Remove the possibility of an argument (“don’t feed the trolls”) and they should hopefully slink back to 4chan or wherever their lair is before too long. At least that’s the theory.

For an angry customer, however, resolving the issue that made them angry is the point. Fail to resolve the issue – or worse, dismiss or downplay it – and the situation won’t go away but may escalate instead.

In no way do I mean to excuse bad or abusive behaviour. Normal rules of moderation should apply when it comes to unacceptable language and personal attacks. (Reminder: look after your moderators. This stuff stings.) But the assumption that anyone who posts angrily worded or highly negative comments is a troublemaker can lead to responses that are more defensive than contrite, more obstinate than cooperative, more cynical than trusting.

A social media moderator needs to use empathy to recognise and separate the customer’s frustration from the issue. Acknowledge the emotion – we’ve all been there, after all – but act on the problem.

This is where the social media team should overlap or collaborate with the customer support team. It doesn’t matter if your social media strategy is primarily a marketing or community-building effort. There will be times when it needs to adopt a customer support role.

And no, replying with the phone number to the customer support line or a link to the FAQ page isn’t enough. That’s as good as saying, “Not my problem.”

Instead, have a plan. Many complaints or issues can be predicted – either because they’ve happened before, or because no one knows the limitations of your product or service better than you.

So, predict them.

Also, make sure the social media team has direct access to the necessary information and resources to respond to issues and queries when they arise, so they can give specific and genuinely helpful answers. Or, at least ensure they can quickly get the relevant and specific information from those that can.

Yes, there are trolls out there. Occasionally you may encounter someone who refuses to be placated and seems determined to thwart all attempts to resolve the situation.

But when a brand stops seeing trolls under every bridge, they become much easier to cross.

Instead of backing away from confrontations lean into them. Every customer grievance or complaint should be treated as an opportunity to demonstrate to everyone watching just how understanding, empathetic, helpful and responsive your brand really is.

Troll slayers belong in storybooks. Why not be a bridge builder instead?