Business keynote speakers tend to run into the same questions over and over from nervous audiences facing new on and offline realities. For me, this recurring query goes something like this:
“Micah, isn’t it dangerous out there for my brand, my company, myself, in the social media universe? How can I be sure we’ll even survive, now that any 14-year-old with a grudge can damage our reputation?”
I sympathize with the fear behind this question. It is dangerous out there. Even the most customer-centric companies eventually encounter angry online critics on Yelp, TripAdvisor, Facebook and other channels. These detractors can harm your public image and more importantly your bottom line. So yes, to be frank—there’s a lot at stake.
Fortunately, learning to respond effectively to such feedback can turn this negative into a positive for your company’s image. In fact, such critics are actually handing you an opportunity to show the broader public your best features—like the strength of your commitment and grace under pressure.
But to make use of these opportunities, you have to be ready. Here are five principles to arm your company against potential social fire.
1. Approach Social Response from a Support Point-of-View
Social media responsiveness is a type of customer service. So give it the superb planning and staffing that customer service deserves. Sure, it’s more breakneck speed than typical interactions, and responders face unique hazards and quirks. But it’s still customer service.
As such, your team should engage and assist customers on social as energetically and effectively as they do through traditional channels.
To get this effort off on the right foot, companies should staff social teams with your support people. This is crucial. Companies often make the mistake of leaving response up to technical experts.
While technical wizardry is an important resource, don’t let that technical tail wag the customer service dog. Customer service representatives know how to listen and answer empathetically. This is almost more important in the social space because there’s a written record that can be disseminated in an instant.
So let your people experts lead the way. If not, it’s bound to hurt your brand rather than help it.
2. Beware of the Streisand Effect
When someone uses social media to attack your business, your natural urge might be to sic lawyers on the critic, or otherwise intimidate the attacker into removing the complaint. Think carefully before taking that course of action.
The rule online is that a defensive reaction tends to bring additional publicity—very negative publicity. This rule even has a name: the Streisand Effect, named after Barbra Streisand, who sued a photographer in a failed attempt to remove a photo of the singer’s precariously sited mansion from the California Coastal Records Project.
Streisand’s aggressive reaction to free expression offended some netizens and titillated others. The result was far wider distribution of the photograph than she wanted to suppress. The image showed up on everything from T-shirts and coffee mugs to dedicated Wikipedia pages. Worst of all, the event left a permanent blemish on her public image.
Over and over, I see brands and businesses discover the inviolability of the Streisand Effect the hard way. Threatening your online customers almost never solves the harm they cause you, and it often backfires dramatically.
Consider the following ”retraction” on Yelp by a restaurant guest, after the company called their lawyers. (Only the identifying details have been changed.) Did coercing such a customer serve the business well?
“I earlier posted a review on this website and was threatened with a lawsuit by an attorney representing ‘Serenity Cafe.’ In response, I’m hereby posting my retraction: In retrospect I really should have said,
‘To me, the line-caught rainbow trout tasted like farmed fish because it was almost flavorless, and it looked like farmed fish because it was the wrong color and crumbly. Perhaps it was indeed wild trout that just spent too long in the freezer…’ and I should also have said pertaining to the chicken that… ‘this chicken seemed to me like frozen tenders because it was the size, shape and texture of large pieces of solid plastic.”
Of course, this tongue-in-cheek retraction was forwarded to more people than ever would have seen the original complaint—and now you’re reading about it!
Any public, digital argument with a customer is an exponentially greater risk for your company than the old-fashioned kind of argument that didn’t involve social media.
Make sure everybody who represents your company online has taken the time to learn how to slow down, breathe, and bite their tongue—consistently. Train them to think of the big picture. The future of your company could depend on it.
3. Turn Twankers into Thankers
So what do you do when you find yourself facing a negative post on Twitter, Facebook or another social media channel?
Reach out to them directly. Suppose that you’ve spotted the following outrageous tweet about your firm:
“Company X double-bills customers—Must Think We R Suckrs—#FAIL!”
Whew! This is insulting, and hard to handle. Not only will your staff need to suppress the urge to respond angrily, they also will need to prepare a response that is thoughtful and positive. This often surprises the online critic so much they actually convert into an advocate. At the very least, it can stanch your losses.
You have a few options for responding directly. This should depend on your professional relationship with the critic. If the person behind this message follows you on Twitter, or if they are in your database, send a direct “backchannel” message. Include a real, monitored email address and phone number.
If the person is not a connection, reply publicly in the same forum they used. List offline ways to reach you including a specific, closely-monitored email address and/or phone number. And of course express sincere regret and concern.
Contacting a social media critic to request an offline conversation is the digital equivalent of ushering a loud and angry customer into your office for a discreet discussion.
You move the discussion out of a public venue and into a one-on-one situation, where you can work directly with your antagonist without thousands of eyes dissecting your every move while failing to understand the whole story. After a successful resolution, politely ask the complainer to amend or even withdraw the original ugly comment.
4. Avoid the Social Media Fiasco Formula
The formula for fiasco in social media is simple:
Small Error + Slow Response Time = Colossal PR Disaster
Put differently, the magnitude of a company’s social media embarrassment is proportional to how much they delay an online response. An event in the online world gathers social steam with such speed that your delay can become more of a problem than the initial incident. Even an afternoon’s lag in responding can be catastrophic.
To avoid this fiasco, be sure to set standards for customer service social responders. Create processes for incidences where the correct reply isn’t immediately apparent. Come up with a placeholder response to respond to the message, while a more strategic response is devised.
5. Prevent Social Complaints in The First Place
Unhappy customers are unlikely to complain through public methods if they know they can efficiently use email, phone, or a feedback form to reach you directly—and if they feel sure that their problem will be addressed immediately.
You can do a lot to ensure that the first impulse of such customers is to reach out to you directly, day or night. Offer “chime-in” forms everywhere. Provide direct chat links for when your FAQs fail to assist.
Put your customer service information front and center on your website. Provide an easy way to respond directly at the bottom of every corporate email you send out, instead of ending with that obnoxious “please do not reply to this email” footer.
Overall, become widely known for your rapid and satisfying responsiveness, and such customers will come to you, offer to help you improve, and will keep their complaints and misgivings “in the family.”