The days when disgruntled customers would silently wait on hold to air their grievances with support staff are almost a distant memory. Today’s consumers have been empowered by social media to take to their keyboards and publicly air their objections. As much as consumers expect to see a helpline number on a company’s website, they expect the company to have a Twitter and/or Facebook page that is monitored and responded to regularly. And although this may frighten corporations’ legal departments, businesses can no longer prevent customers airing their grievances online by not having social media profiles – there are plenty other ways customers can post their opinions about businesses online for others to see. For example, they can easily set up profiles for businesses on Google Places (Google+ Local), Yelp, Hot Frog, Urbanspoon and myriad other review sites and post their thoughts. These review sites usually rank high on Google, so chances are people searching for information about your business online could skip past your website and click on one of these links to see what others are saying about your products or services. In fact, according to recent Neilson research, when it comes to where consumers look for trusted information about brands, word of mouth and online reviews are far outstripping traditional media. When researching brands, 92% of consumers trust recommendations from friends and family and 70% trust reviews posted online by other consumers, while only 47% trust traditional advertising media such as billboard, magazine and TV ads. Marketing, PR and Customer Service departments need to work closely in order to respond to online complaints in a timely, transparent and helpful fashion, ideally with marketing / PR monitoring social media comments and drafting responses, with accurate information provided by customer service. In order to take control of your business’ reputation online, you should know exactly what is being said about your company as soon as the comments hit the web. Rather than relying wholly on alerts from social media profiles when customers post comments directly, you should employ some other forms of online listening tools. Google Alerts is a useful and free tool for picking up major online mentions, but paid listening services, such as Buzz Numbers, can also be a worthwhile investment, and can even measure mentions in other metrics such as sentiment. It’s necessary to actively monitor and respond to comments swiftly and thoughtfully on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn etc. You should also check to see if customers have posted reviews about your company on online review sites. If you want to respond to these comments be transparent – don’t pretend to be an impartial advocate standing up for your business’ reputation. Most review sites, such as Yelp, will allow you to create a business page, where you can claim a business listing, add additional company information and respond to reviews and reviewers, either publicly or privately. On the subject of public verses private reply, solving a complaint or issue publicly can turn a negative comment into a positive situation for a company – it’s an opportunity to show a high level of customer care and engagement, and seeing a complaint successfully resolved can even turn your detractors to advocates. However, it’s understandable that the nature of some business’ dealings with their customers is strictly private – healthcare providers or insurance companies for example – so if it’s not in your customers’ best interest to discuss their particular issue for all to see, then at the very least you can publicly post a reply along the lines of ‘Sorry to hear about your negative experience. We’d really like to discuss it further, please DM us with your contact details and we’ll give you a call as soon as possible’. Often after a phone call to remedy their situation the customer will post a further comment to thank you for taking their complaint seriously. Above all, make sure to respond to each comment in an authentic and respectful manner. Defensive language or template responses will only serve to aggravate a situation. It can be helpful to prepare a style guide and outline responses for the types of complaints you think may arise, but these should only be used as a guide. Tailor each response to the comment at hand, and find out as much information as possible about the situation before you reply. The popularity of social media as an avenue for customer service is ever increasing, so whatever you do, make sure you dedicate enough time and resources to keeping on top of responses.