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Handling Complaints in the Age of Social Media

Even though some online reviews can be unfounded and unsubstantiated, members of the hospitality industry must remember that the internet never forgets. The only thing guaranteed to deliver more interest than a scathing review is the response being handled badly.  What are referred to as ‘Social Media Meltdowns’ have now become a spectator sport and can be incredibly detrimental to any business. Social media creates a megaphone for your business and inevitably who you are will be revealed. I had a discussion recently with a friend of mine who is a very dedicated manager and so can take attacks on the business he manages almost as they were  personal slights against himself, but this simply isn’t the case. I advised him in regards to complaints to vent as much as he liked just not when responding to any detractors.
For balance sake, rarely but just sometimes it pays to be outspoken as per Glynn Purnell when he hit out at a trip advisor critic much to everyone’s applause (see here) .

Unfortunately, for the most part the business who engages in an online war will seldom come out victorious. The prime example of this was Arizona based company Amy’s Bakery who featured on Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.

Following gaining recognition as the only restaurant 49 year old Chef Ramsay has ever walked out on, the owners of Amy’s Bakery, Amy and Samy Bouzaglo went on to self-destruct in front of the whole world, after that it wasn’t long until their nightmare was over and the business closed in 2015.

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Negative comments about the restaurateurs appeared on Reddit, Yelp and Facebook and the husband and wife team allegedly began posting torrents of abuse directed back at the “Haters”.

One message, presumably from husband Samy, read: ‘To all of the Yelpers and Reddits: Bring it on. you are just p******. come to arizona. you are weaker than my wife, and weaker than me. come to my business. say it to my face. man to man. my wife is a jewel in the desert. you are just trash, reddits and yelpers just working together to bring us down. pathetic.’

The whole sorry debacle can be seen here (Warning contains NSFW language)

Though addressing complaints appropriately isn’t the only sticky issue it’s also about speed. About 74 percent of people who complain about a restaurant or food product expect a response, and 38.5 percent of those want a response within 24 hours, according to Jay Baer the author of “Hug Your Haters”

“For many brands, customer service has become a new form of marketing” Baer said.

“So much of customer service — complaints or praise, for that matter — are played out in public. It’s in social media, it’s in reviews, and local discussion boards and forums,” he said.

“Historically, most of our interactions with customers were face to face, or telephone, or email,” Baer said. “They played out in private. Now they are public, which changes not only the overall impact — because now customer service is a spectator sport. People are making decisions on whether or not to come to your restaurant based on how you conduct your business online.”

Baer added, is that “no response is a response. It’s a response that says, ‘We don’t care about you at all.’ And that’s a dangerous game to play with the loyalty of your patrons.”

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According to Xabier Ormazabal at there are 6 main steps to dealing with negative comments on social media:

  1. You can’t react if you don’t know

While it’s altogether possible that you’ll get negative comments on your own site or one that you manage (eg your Facebook page), this is not always the case. People can blast you on Twitter, a third party forum, their own blogs or a hundred other places online. To do something about it, you have to be vigilant for all mentions of your company, people, products and brands. You can begin to do this with a service such as Google Alerts. However, to get more serious, you will need something like Radian6 which can monitor conversations that mention your brand in real-time and even give you a heads-up on the sentiment behind the words.

  1. Be quick to acknowledge

The reason many people post negative comments online is because they don’t think they’re being listened to (in store, on the phone or by email). So they lash out. Some do this just to warn their friends off using what they believe to be a bad product. Others – the more social media savvy ones – will do it to hurt you and force you to pay attention. Speed is of the essence. Acknowledge the customer’s issue as quickly as possible before it snowballs and picks up other customers and prospects on the way. You do not necessarily need to have an immediate solution – an open, non-judgemental enquiry about exactly what happened will be enough to start the process of constructive engagement. (Of course, you’ll also need to follow this up with concrete actions.)

  1. See it from their point of view

For the most part, customers don’t know or care about the issues that have caused them problems. It’s irrelevant to them that your supplier let you down or a delivery was sent to the wrong office. All they know is the inconvenience it’s caused them and, potentially, their customers. Too many companies begin the process of engaging with an irate customer by listing all the excuses for why it happened. These may be entirely true and legitimate. But the customer won’t care. All it looks like to them is that the company is trying to shift the blame away from itself. In social media, this can be a red rag to a bull. It is far better to begin every interaction from the viewpoint of the customer –what happened to them, what it meant and, ultimately, what can be done to make it right.

  1. Take it out of the spotlight

Social forums may not be the best place to actually resolve complex issues. And being in a public forum may make it hard for an angry customer to soften their stance. Offer to continue the conversation in an appropriate forum – whether that’s phone, email or an existing support forum online. This shouldn’t be an attempt to silence the critic, simply to help them where it makes sense (so you’re not trying to give complex tech support in a tweet).

  1. Say sorry when it’s your fault

For some companies on social media, “sorry” is indeed the hardest word. Often it’s because they don’t want to take the blame. Or they don’t agree with the customer’s point of view. But, if we look at it from the customer’s viewpoint (see above) then it is hard to argue with their experience. Of course, if it is clear that your product failed, then a sincere apology followed by a quick replacement (or refund) should nip the issue in the bud. If it was a service failure, then an apology to the effect of “We’re sorry that you did not get the service you expect from us on this occasion” is a good start. Following this up with something tangible (eg a money-off voucher for their next purchase) will also help.

  1. Don’t feed the troll

Sadly, of course, some people just want to cause trouble. They troll across social media enjoying the notoriety this brings. And any interaction only encourages them to carry on their behaviour. So what do you do? If you’re sure that their claims are entirely without merit, the best long-term strategy may be to ignore them. However, as social media is a highly visible, public forum, commenting once to the effect that what they are saying is inaccurate and unfair (and providing the facts to support this) will at least give other viewers the true picture.

For most companies, most of the time, social media offers a way to engage positively with your customers. But as in the offline world, you should always be prepared to deal with negativity and unhappy customers. Answer your customers, connect with them, and show your entire audience on social media that you really care about what they have to say, turn a bad experience into a good one, but pay careful attention to the tone of your response. According to the author of Pay Attention!: How to Listen, Respond and Profit from Customer Feedback, Ann Thomas “If you find that the little hairs on the back of your neck are standing up, or you’re clenching your jaw as you write the email,” it’s probably worth your while to have a colleague edit the document before sending it.

Remember that when constructing a response, whether it’s on a formal letterhead or in a simple tweet, you are representing your company. Don’t write anything that you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying in person. Grasp these key points and you’re on the right path to combating those online complaints effectively but always bear in mind, you simply cannot and will not ever please everyone!


Stephanie Hall

Stephanie Hall

“What I say is that, if a man really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow.” AA Milne

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