We’re delighted to have Beth Longware Duff as our guest today.  Beth Longware Duff is a professional editor and award-winning writer whose work on a wide variety of topics has been published in print and electronic media. She currently writes on a wide range of topics dealing with electronic payment processing for Merchant Express.

Many small business owners have adopted social media channels as part of their marketing plan, and websites like Facebook and Twitter can work great under the right circumstances. But what happens if your business comes under attack, receiving reputation-damaging negative comments or criticisms from people at large?

It’s important to have a plan for dealing with such negativity in these open forums. The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) offers the following ideas:

  • Start by listening to what’s being said about your business. Monitor the social media sites where you have a presence. That means checking your Facebook page regularly, monitoring your Twitter mentions and setting up Google Alerts to track references to your business online. Other sites worth checking out include Yelp, Google+ Local, Trip Advisor and other listings for customer comments as well as industry, product or local community forums.
  • Choose a response. Your first inclination may be to respond immediately to any negative comments. However, decide first if it merits a response, says SBA. “Negative reviews aren’t always worth a response,” it advises. “Some posters may be negative just to get attention, or their comments are just so over the top and rude that responding to them will only draw attention to an issue that clearly is a one-off or that no one else is aware of. Sometimes it’s just best to ignore these posts.”
  • Don’t allow legitimate negative comments to linger. Social media has accustomed its users to expect a timely response from the brands that they follow. If you jump in early, you demonstrate that you value their opinion and feedback, and you may nip the negative comments in the bud. At the very least you’re letting the person who posted the comment know that you’ve heard them, acknowledged their complaint and will investigate further if you can’t offer an immediate resolution. The words “I’m sorry” can go a long way toward regaining their support, and it shows others that you’re a class act in a world with far too few of them.
  • Always acknowledge, never deny. Or, in other words, the customer is always right. Promise to get to the root cause of their frustration, and then deliver. As a small business owner, you should want to know where you went wrong and how you can rectify the situation. Don’t allow what may be a simple misunderstanding to fester into something worse. Playing deaf, dumb and blind is counterproductive when you rely on customer satisfaction for your livelihood.
  • Apologize sincerely if you determine that your business has let its customers down or is in the wrong. “Acknowledge that you’ve investigated the complaint,” says SBA. “State clearly that you regret the poor service that the customer has received, cite it as a lesson learned and let everyone know you will take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.” Keep in simple and straightforward, and sign your name at the end so the complainant (and all who read your apology) knows you’re sincere. Offer to make things right through a reimbursement or future discount. Your goal is to keep the lines of communication open.
  • Move the conversation offline, if necessary. Ask the complainant to contact you directly via email or phone, but only after you’ve publicly acknowledged or apologized for any issues and restated your commitment to customer service. “The goal here isn’t putting out the fire out by taking it offline but offering an open invite to continue the dialogue further and address the complainants’ specific concerns. It’s a strategy that works,” notes SBA.

Keep the bottom line in mind. Like it or not, on social media your business reputation is on the line every day and in a very public way. Demonstrate your commitment to customer satisfaction and back it up with action. As SBA notes, one disgruntled customer converted back to a loyal fan of your business can be far more influential in the word-of-mouth driven world of social media than one happy customer can ever be!