While complaints in public are a primary fear of businesses on social media, complaints on Twitter can be even more valuable for small businesses than they seem.

Have you ever hear the saying “Positive feedback is great, but negative feedback is even better”? As business owners, we all hope that our own efforts on Twitter will create a wealth of positive conversations about how awesome our business is. But often customers who feel they are not being listened to or addressed will use social media to complain, knowing it will trigger a response from the business. It is extremely important that no matter what tone they use, you welcome their communication with an open mind and desire to understand. When customers complain, they’re doing so because they’re upset that they cannot give you their time or money, for a satisfactory exchange of goods/services. Since you both want the same thing, you should be upset, too!

Every time you hear a customer complaint, instead of becoming defensive, hurt or angry, look at it as a chance for your business to become a HERO!

Complaints give you the chance to access a wealth of honest, straight-to-the-point information about what you NEED to be doing better or differently for individuals & groups of your customers to continue spending time or money with your business. Even more, complaints identify the areas for improvement where you could possibly increase how much your customers are spending with you.

Unfortunately, many community managers don’t realize that negative sentiment Tweets are valuable, and by responding emotionally they lose the chance to save the customer, learn about what to do better, or turn the customer into a brand advocate.

SMBs on Twitter create brand awareness (brand equity) with every Tweet, positive or negative, so community managers should be thanking people for any tweet that is sent using your @name, or mentioning your brand. The best way to interpret the structure of a customer’s tweet is to apply a level of urgency & importance to how they mention you:

  • Sub-tweet: They want their friends to know that they are upset by your treatment, but don’t want you participating in the conversation yet.
  • Name your brand / business: They are upset and want to warn friends to stay aware of your questionable activities.
  • @BusinessName: They are upset by your treatment of them as a customer and want you and their whole audience to know it! There is an expectation both from the customer and everyone in their community who sees the tweet, that you will work to resolve the situation.

Resolving the situation (and keeping your job)
A strong community manager recognizes first & foremost that ALL feedback is valuable to the ongoing success of the business.

  1. Address the person > Thank them for bringing the issue to your attention, whatever channel they chose (you gave it to them to use), and ask clarifying questions to keep the conversation open.

Remember that you want them to keep talking! If you lose them, you’ve likely lost a customer & they’re likely to keep on complaining about your brand to their friends.

  1. Identify the problem > An upset, emotionally-charged customer will usually start with a broad complaint about your business product or service, or they will focus on a recent event that “sours their whole experience” with your business.

To figure out exactly the area to fix, first identify your points of leverage with the customer; the reasons why they tried your business in the first place or why they remained a customer so long. Reassure them that you’re there in the conversation for them, that you want to find a solution acceptable to them and that you will work to address any complaints they have.

Then, ask to clarify the exact area of their complaint.

  • Can you tell me more about it?
  • Can you provide X or Y details?
  • Has this happened before?
  • What happened as a result of our product/service malfunction?
  • Is there anything else that I can try to address at the same time?

For each complaint they have, be sure to thank them for sharing with you and confirm with them that you have understood the severity of the impact of your sub-par product, service or customer service experience.

Confirm what they told you, that they’ve expressed all complaints and areas of dissatisfaction, and then reassure them you are committed to finding a solution, to making them a happy customer again.

  1. Once they’ve shared with you everything that is upsetting them, you can move on to finding a solution. If you’ve taken a detailed account of their complaints and you are truly working to satisfy your customers, it should be pretty easy to turn them around:
    • Document their complaint, as well as your offers to resolve in a letter thanking them for taking the time to share their ideas on how your business can improve.
    • Arrange to compensate the customer for the total amount of their perceived loss, plus an additional amount that recognizes their extra patience with your business. If you take it even a step further, and really shock them with your apology (compensations), they’’ll be equally vocal about their new appreciation for you.
    • Do it FAST! If you can’t arrange and confirm compensation with the customer right away, you risk them continuing to feel unappreciated and you will likely lose them forever.
    • Keep them engaged in conversation > When they tweet out or update Facebook to say they’ve resolved the situation with you, you can politely and publicly thank them again for being so patient with your business. This is your chance to get in front of their community (in conversation with them), to demonstrate your commitment to customer satisfaction every single chance you have. Being a hero should be fun!
    • Invite them to engage in conversations, contests and events early > remember, they are VIPs to your business because they have feedback that is more valuable & straight to the point than most of your average, satisfied customers!

As a small business, you have the ability and responsibility to choose how fast you respond to a customer in need. Large brands manage communities as a group of professionals, team or agency and often require 4-48hours to gain team approval to respond. Its your competitive advantage as a small business to be able to turnaround and delight customers quickly and frequently.

A meek, dissatisfied customer who never complains quickly stops spending money with you and likely tells their friends to do the same.

A vocal customer who complains is telling you exactly what to do to get them spending more immediately, and is giving you the chance to confirm to everyone who is in your audience and theirs, how committed you are to an awesome customer experience. If you’re playing in the social space, that’s really the only way to approach it.

This post was inspired after I Tweeted at a local Toronto business my thoughts on their actions that felt much more using of the community than engaging in fair give and take (they were contesting prizes for publicity and awarding them to friends and partner businesses). Instead of openly addressing my issues, their community manager took my email address from a list and only between the two of us defended their position while complaining about me, and on Twitter acted as though they were trying to repair the situation! This damaged the trust needed for me to continue to support their business and they have never made the necessary efforts to repair it.

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Note: This post was originally published to MyCMGR.com April 24, 2012.