Empowered, activist customers are getting better and better at making their displeasure known … and, as they proved this year, they are also getting better at winning battles against big companies.

Occasional problems with customers are inevitable. The question is, how do you reduce the odds of those problems turning into crises for your company? Following are three marketing takeaways for handling conflicts with today’s social-media-savvy consumers.

TAKEAWAY #1: STAY CONNECTED. The video rental service Netflix announced a bold new initiative, Qwikster, that hadn’t been adequately field-tested with consumers. Customers, still furious over a recent price increase, went ballistic. As of today, Netflix stock has lost 75% of its value in just 4 months, and the company has lost approximately one million customers. Netflix did considerable self-inflicted damage before it finally started listening to the wisdom of its customers. Whether it listened in time remains an open question.

The moral: Don’t be arrogant. Get the advice of customers before you make big decisions that impact

TAKEAWAY #2: STAY FLEXIBLE. Opposition to Bank of America’s plan to charge debit-card users a five-dollar monthly fee hit a national nerve, and the planned fee became a lightning-rod issue for consumers who were already cranky with the entire banking sector.
Over 300,000 on-line signatures demanded that Bank of America drop its plans for a monthly fee. It did. Then, quietly, the bank more than made up the difference with a range of account pricing changes more closely pegged to individual consumer behavior … and less likely to fuel a national debate about banks.

The moral: Be flexible and agile enough to change course when customers are legitimately upset. That’s better than becoming a lightning rod for dissatisfaction against an entire industry.

TAKEAWAY #3: STAY HUMBLE. This year, The Gap announced a new logo that was widely lampooned by consumers and media. Instead of digging in its heels and insisting that it knew how to choose its own marketing images, the company restored the familiar Gap logo consumers knew and trusted … and acknowledged, tactfully, that consumers had been right to demand its return.

The moral: Remember that we are living in volatile times. Be humble. Listen when consumers take the time to share their opinions with you … especially when they’re saying something you didn’t necessarily want to hear!

Next year, we will see more evidence of increasingly assertive consumers who know they can can push back and win. Empowered by new communications technologies, and ever more willing to gather forces when circumstances require, these consumers will only make life difficult for those marketers who ignore them or take them for granted. Implement these three takeaways … and you will be better positioned to succeed with 2012’s more demanding consumers.

Read more: How to Deal with Customers Pushing Back on Price