Many customers are taking to social media as a means of complaining about a company. From huge companies such as the air and rail operators to independent shops, if customers feel they have not received the best service, many will take to social media to let both the company and the wider world know about it. Twitter is the main outlet for customers to vent their spleen. Voicing a grievance on a company’s public feed has become one of the main ways to get a complaint heard – immediately. And of course, the immediate nature of Twitter, means that customers also expect answers to come in quickly as well. The dangers are obvious. Making a swift response without giving the issue some thought and consideration can lead to problems that range from giving a promise that cannot hope to be met, through to enormous blunders. One such monumental gaffe was experienced by US Airways who responded to an unhappy customer by accidentally including a pornographic image in the reply. The flip side is that used well, a well thought out response can defuse a situation, mollify an enraged customer and earn the company ‘brownie points’. What is worth remembering is that one in three people questioned in a recent survey indicated that they would move to another company if they received poor service via social media. It is important! For independent retailers with a small staff pool, social media interactions with customers are fraught with problems. There is no way that a member of staff can be deployed purely to manage social media throughout the working day. In a 24/7 society, the demands grow even greater. Unless one person takes overall control of a company’s social media, there is a risk that messages and replies become inconsistent and confusing – which is probably worse in the customer’s eyes than no reply at all. This all makes social media interactions with customers sound like a scary minefield but there are ways to handle the issues and ways to turn a social media conversation to your company’s advantage. The first thing to do is to put in place a social media policy and make sure all staff who are likely to interact on social media with customers are in the loop. Through social media, the company can demonstrate its behaviours and personality. A company can show customers what they are doing and make the customer feel like the company really has his or her best interests at heart. For example, if a customer’s order goes astray, the ensuing social media dialogue should show what the company has done to resolve the problem. The best outcome is for the customer’s final response in that conversation to be a “thank you for dealing with my problem so effectively.” This takes time and resources but if it keeps your customers coming back and, equally importantly, spreading a positive message about your company in the process, then it could be worth it. So, as you consider a social media complaints strategy, here are a few pointers to ensuring you don’t lose customers because of your responses. 1. Monitor social media. Make sure someone within the company is responsible for checking all social media channels a few times a day. You can set up tools to alert you to mentions so you can react quickly. 2. Respond quickly. 72 per cent of consumers expect a response within an hour. This may not be possible, but do your best to respond quickly. 3. Respond to a complaint publicly but don’t go into detail. Ask the person to email or direct message you. Once the issue is resolved, go back to the public message and ask if the problem has been resolved. 4. Don’t lose your cool. It’s not about being right but about helping the customer and maintaining a good public image. While managers might now be groaning and clutching their heads as they consider yet more pressure on hard-worked staff, there is an upside. If a customer emails or writes to an organisation, the company gets very little additional information. By interacting over social media, a snap-shot of that person is immediately available. By allaying the information you gather from the social channels with the informaiotn you have from spending histories and you can target marketing material very precisely. You can also identify influencers. The more you are aware of the reach and influence of your customers, the quicker you can nip potential PR disasters in the bud. If the person interacting with you has a huge number of followers, a well-aimed conversation over social media could be a real PR coup.