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How to deal with angry customers online

Running the social media sector of a business can be a nasty experience. Increasingly, customers are taking to a brand or business’ page or profile to let off some serious steam – but it’s not the legitimate complaints about service or quality that are particularly striking.

No, it is the absolute spite, vitriol, crass language and ad hominem attacks that the social media customer delivers that are most interesting. Customers take advantage of the mediated anonymity that social media platforms provide to really let loose on the poor soul on the other side of the screen. It’s easy to imagine that these rabid buyers would never explode quite so catastrophically before an actual, physical human being within slapping-distance.

Brands in the line of fire
One doesn’t need to look very far to find a spate of examples. Last year, ticket retailer Computicket found itself in the line of fire online. Now, a lot of the panic was Computicket’s fault — whatever the cause was, overloaded servers or general lack of infrastructure, it just couldn’t handle the amount of feverish Monsters and Beliebers trying to buy tickets for Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga concerts. People are also wont to get very emotional in these circumstances — music is, after all, an emotional experience.

People get angry when they can’t get a ticket close enough to catch one of Justin’s sweat-drops, and they get downright hysterical when they can’t get a ticket at all.

Computicket’s strategy (and that word is used very loosely here) was to just ignore the negative comments. This is, in social media management terms, the equivalent of putting your hands over your ears and yelling “NANANANANA WE CAN’T HEAR YOU”. While ignoring a mid-tantrum child might work, it apparently doesn’t with someone intent on singing along to Poker Face. The more Computicket ignored the fury, the stronger it became. Especially since they were replying to positive comments and neutral queries. Facebook fans knew Computicket was there, and knew that they were being ignored.

A number of companies also drew ire for the way they handled their social presences in the lead up to Hurricane Sandy. As regular Memeburn writer Vanessa Clark recently noted, US retailer Urban Outfitters was slammed for capitalising on the storm with a tweet offering free shipping for a limited period and using the hashtag #allsoggy.

Another example is that of retailer Woolworth shutting down the wall on its Facebook page in the midst of an epic fuss over its employment equity policies. To use another equivalent example, this strategy was Woolworths saying, “if you can’t play nice, you can’t play at all”. This produced only more foam around mouths, as complaints streamed into all other comment-enabled spaces. People were commenting furiously about race relations on pictures of roast chicken and ravioli. The anger was diverted, not quelled.

Perhaps the worst example is that Nestle. The food giant’s Facebook page moderator responded to fairly neutral comments with barely veiled sarcasm and spite, proving that not only customers get angry on social media — this rage affects moderators too.

Quelling the fury
What can you do then, really? People will continue to berate you on your page if you ignore them, and they will continue if you are strict. Being sassy sure won’t help. Do you simply acknowledge the problem, post a few comments to let people know that you are recognising their tantrum, or just apologise profusely? If things get bad enough, do you take it on the chin and offer refunds or a free muffin?

What really needs to happen, is that you need to have a plan, and stick to it. Before you even set up a social media page or profile, you need to have a solid contingency plan in place for dealing with negative comments, and ensure that everyone with access to the page is well-informed on the strategy. Uninformed individuals are likely to make emotional comments, which generally produce the most tragic reactions and land brands in trouble.

Your strategy should keep responses to negativity short, professional and gracious — don’t grovel, unless you have royally cooked your goose. Where you can, put out fires with kindness, and when things get unmanageably hot, screenshot the conversations for future reference, and personally contact the client to keep the fuss out of other customers’ sight.

There is a lot to learn about social media management. Start by checking out examples of people who have done it right. Nedbank and FNB provided a good example of social media hate managed with poise and professionalism after passengers were left stranded when budget airline 1Time shut down. Another great example of proactively dealing with angry Facebook fans comes from Oreo, which responded gracefully to fans who were angry with a Gay Pride ad it placed on the page.

With the potential to absolutely ruin your brand, social media is a field that is worth extensive research and consideration. A clever, well-advised strategy can even turn a hater into a fan. It’s all about your approach.

Author | Terri-Lee Adendorff

Terri-Lee Adendorff
Terri-Lee Adendorff believes that people who use the internet should be more intelligent - she wants to contribute to this initiative in any way that she can. More
  • Excellent article, very good read!
    Can’t agree more, golden rules are to not ignore anymore, have a rocking ORM team and make sure you have some decent crisis management processes in place.

  • Actions speak louder than words. It behoves the company concerned to actually DO something about the problem and PLEASE don’t use the catch-all phrase “please DM us so we can investigate the problem”. Consumers use SM because they want it OUT THERE and also because call centres are damn incompetent and an abomination.

  • Terri-Lee Adendorff

    I think that’s what makes Social Media complaints so very effective – the public accountability. When you moan about the poor quality of your meal on Facebook, its akin to standing up in the middle of the restaurant and yelling: THIS FOOD IS BAD AND YOU SHOULD FEEL BAD (all in caps, too).

    So the “please private message us” response is really not a viable solution to catering to customer complaints on social media – as it negates the whole value of the platform as a sounding board for angry customers. – Terri

  • Terri-Lee Adendorff

    Thanks :)

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  • sathish

    very nice and looks very simple work keep going…

    all the best..
    surprise solutions consumer complaints

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