BBB Advice on How to Respond to Online Customer Complaints
September 01, 2009

It was once said that a satisfied customer will tell three people and an unsatisfied customer will tell ten. However, with the advent of blogs, Twitter, and YouTube, disgruntled customers can now share their rant about a company for the whole world to hear. When customers go online to voice their unhappiness your Better Business Bureau says it is necessary to respond to complaints if a company wants to keep a reputation for great customer service.

In early July, a musician who felt United Airlines damaged his guitar on a flight was so fed up with trying to get reimbursed that he wrote a song, made a video and posted it to YouTube. Titled “United Breaks Guitars,” the video was viewed more than 2.5 million times in less than a week and prompted national media attention. As a result of the video’s popularity, United contacted the musician and offered to reimburse him for his guitar, but the damage was already done.

“Customers have an ever increasing voice on the Internet, which can pose some challenges for businesses when dealing with a disgruntled customer,” said Lynda Pasacreta, BBB President and CEO. “Instead of being scared, companies should view the Internet as another way to reach out to their unhappy customers to make things right.”

In the same way that an online rant can damage a company’s reputation, successfully handling complaints online can showcase a company’s dedication to customer service, setting it apart from the competition. Companies like Comcast and Zappos.com, for example, have received a lot of praise for maintaining Twitter accounts to respond to tweets from unhappy customers.

Customer complaints can be found on customer review sites like Yelp.com and CitySearch.com, blogs, Twitter, YouTube and in comment sections of newspapers online. Regardless of where the complaint is found online, BBB offers the following advice to small business owners on responding to customer rants:

Continually Monitor the Online Conversation. In addition to searching the aforementioned review Web sites, there are many tools you can use to monitor who is talking about your company online. Backtype.com and Google Alerts will send you e-mail messages when people post comments online or if your company is mentioned in the news, respectively. One of the easiest ways to monitor the conversation, however, is to simply do an Internet search of your company’s name every couple days, keeping an eye out for new results.

Pick your battles. Depending on the size of your business, it can be extremely time consuming to address every blog post, comment or tweet. When choosing rants to respond to, look for ones that are less than a few days old, on prominent sites and are about problems that you can solve.

Offer full disclosure. When defending your company online, don’t pretend to be an unbiased consumer. Tech savvy individuals can easily deduce who is behind comments so it’s best to be honest and admit up-front that you represent the company.

Take the conversation offline. Some companies have made the mistake of hashing out disputes online for everyone to see. Instead, keep online responses polite and direct and ask the customer if you can contact them directly by e-mail or phone to discuss the specific details of their complaint.

Don’t say anything privately that you wouldn’t want public. Just because you’ve taken the conversation offline, it doesn’t mean that your e-mails and phone conversations won’t end up on the Internet, so always remain polite and professional.

Follow through. Don’t drop the conversation when resolving a dispute and always follow through on promises. Consider providing a little extra perk, such as coupons, after the issue has been resolved.

Know when to walk away. There’s no satisfying some angry customers and at times a small business owner can only offer a sincere apology and walk away from the conversation.

For more BBB advice on providing great customer service both on and off-line visit www.mbc.bbb.org.