Social media is a great way to connect with people. Facebook alone has 1.11 billion monthly active users. That means that one out of every seven people in the world has a Facebook page that they visit at least once a month. Sites like Twitter and Pinterest aren’t far behind. In fact, social media has become the # 1 online activity in the world. With numbers such as these, any company would have to be insane to ignore social media as a potential marketing tool. However, with all of the advantages of introducing your product or service to the world through tweets, posts, likes, and videos, come some possibly negative aspects that companies are having to accept.

See, the main function of social media is to carry information to as many people as possible. That works out wonderfully if you’re a business who has satisfied customers; word of mouth takes over and in no time users are promoting your business at no extra cost to you. Advertisements and promotions may even go “viral,” spreading across the internet at unprecedented speeds. But what can be used to further your cause can also be used against it. Once upon a time, a single unhappy customer could easily be dealt with or brushed off, but not so any more. Those same social media channels that businesses are depending on to promote their products work just as effectively at spreading information that you might not want your customer base to have. Negative reviews, abusive posts, and comments from unhappy (and sometimes unreasonable) customers can do serious damage to a company’s reputation. The companies who have managed to survive and even thrive in the new world of social media are the ones who know how to take negative feedback and turn it into something positive. As an example, let’s look at a hypothetical situation:

Your company has a Facebook page. One day, a customer who has had a bad experience posts a message to your wall. Although critical of your company, the post details a real problem and even suggests a possible way for that problem to be corrected.

This is referred to as constructive criticism, and it’s actually a very useful thing. Even if it publicly draws attentions to your company’s flaws, it also provides you with useful feedback and an opportunity to fix the issue. Quickly resolved problems will actually prove to customers that you are able and willing to make things right, and in the long run, that will make more of an impression than any negative comment.

Such was the case with Carnival Cruise Lines after it suffered major problems with its cruise liner Triumph during a cruise earlier this year. As the tide of upset and angry social media reactions began to roll in from the offended customers, Carnival’s CEO accepted responsibility for the disaster and apologized to the unhappy guest. The company then went out of its way to make up for the mistakes, by not only paying for the cost of the cruise out of its own pockets, but also by helping secure transportation and hotel rooms free of charge, and giving out credit towards future cruises as well as a few hundred dollars extra in cash to everyone who was inconvenienced on the cruise. For other forward thinking companies such as Vivint, reviews are a resource that can be used to improve relationships with customers and eliminate potential flaws.

Still, for some reason very few companies are bothering to make any response to social media complaints at all. Recent research suggest that less than a third of all complaints directed towards brands on Twitter resulted in any sort of company feedback at all.

However, that same study found that 83% of the complainants who did receive a response were satisfied, and even happy with the company that they had previously been denouncing.

Of course, not all negative posts are going to be constructive. Some critics have no valid reason to be upset with your company, and they are using their posts to try and draw you into an online battle that will only make your reputation suffer. But surprisingly, these are the minority. Most negative posts come from real customers with real problems, and they’ll appreciate whatever you can do to help them.

Social media has leveled the playing field between producer and consumer. No longer does information flow in only one direction; the modern business relationship is an ever-continuing conversation in which both parties have equal voice in the matter. This can be a great opportunity for businesses to prove to their clientele that they care, but it requires constant vigilance, a willingness to take responsibility, and a drive make things right.