12 Principles for Responding to Negative Online Comments

From Social Media Today:

Due to convenience, the opportunity to receive a direct response and the potential to kick up a fuss when not treated as they expect, customers are turning to social media for customer service and other product and service-related support rather than dealing with call centres.

Despite this, a recent study shows that the top Singaporean telecoms operators together receive an average 1,700 negative customer comments a day via social media. Such volume requires dedicated teams to pick through the debris and assess which complaints should be answered and how.

Singtel’s Facebook page, for instance, is testament to customers’ frustrations with what they see as the company’s poor 3G coverage, high costs and inferior customer service, to the extent that even the most anodyne promotion is belted with a slew of unrelated moans.

Yet very few of these complaints are responded to. Singtel and others cannot bury their heads in the digital sand and hope the problem will somehow disappear. After, customer satisfaction is critical to all companies’ reputations and a positive experience can pay significant dividends in terms of more loyal customers, positive word of mouth and fewer calls to call centres.

But with customers increasingly taking to Twitter to escalate their unanswered issues – 40% of Air Asia’s unanswered customer queries are reputedly placed on micro-blogs – it is imperative that organisations tackle complaints effectively.

Here are six basic principles for handling difficult questions and statements on the social web. These apply to communications, marketing and customer service issues as much as they do HR and other activities.

Move fast. The longer you take to respond, the more you risk appearing unresponsive, uncaring or, worse, secretive. According to NM Incite (pdf), users of Facebook pages expect to be responded to within 24 hours and Twitter users within 2 hours. In social media, it often pays more to be quick than 100% accurate.

Be accurate. Despite the pressure on speed, try to be as factual as possible – angry customers and bloggers love to highlight, question and poke holes in wooly or cagey responses. Make sure to double-check the facts with your sources and it you’re not confident about the answer, at the very least acknowledge the question or statement, express concern and say you are looking into it. This can help buy you more time to find the appropriate solution.

Be flexible. Don’t assume that either the complaint is 100% genuine (consider carefully its motivation) or that you are 100% correct in your response. If you don’t have the full facts, say so publicly and communicate updates thereafter regularly. Appear anxious to help, as opposed to desperate to please. Backing yourself into a rhetorical corner can prove awkward when you have to extricate yourself publicly.

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