One of the worst fears business owners face is receiving a complaint or bad customer review on a prominent review website such as Yelp or Ripoffreport, or even on social media. Online reviews exert significant influence over purchasing decisions. While many of these customer review sites offer the option to post both positive and negative comments about a business, the unfortunate reality is that many “satisfied” customers don’t bother to write positive reviews, while the ones that have a complaint may be more determined to seek out a channel to voice their concerns.  In spite of the fact that many businesses strive to provide an excellent product and/or service, it’s virtually impossible to prevent a customer from an experience that they deem unacceptable, even if it was completely unintentional. At one point or another, you’re going to receive a negative review or see a complaint posted online. How you address it could be the difference between creating an opportunity to demonstrate your customer service values and attract new customers as a result, or further alienating the reviewer and any potential customers who come across it.

It’s tempting to engage the complainer, especially when it comes to defending your business, employees, and even yourself. However, keep in mind that your response to an online complaint is in full public view and lasts forever. (Even if you take the conversation offline, always assume that your response may get posted publicly.) This illustrates to anyone considering doing business with you what type of response they might receive if they were to ever have an issue. And who wants to deal with a company that doesn’t handle complaints well?

Stay Calm

Sticking with a calm, collected approach will help appease even the toughest critic and look far better to those potential customers who are researching your company before doing business with you. Often customers feel the need to vent frustrationwith a product or service and wantto be heard. Even if the complainer is making incorrect or offensive accusations, don’t respond in a way that escalates the argument.

Acknowledge and Apologize

When responding, express empathy for their situation, even if you feel you aren’t completely responsible. Whether they are actually right or wrong, how they feel is what caused them to raise the issue in the first place. The customer wants to know someone is taking ownership of the issue and not getting blown-off, and that you understand and respect their concern. Personally and sincerely apologize for the situation and assure them that you will help rectify it.

Explain, Solve, and Appreciate

If possible, explain how and why the customer experienced the issue, but without placing blame on the customer. Accept responsibility if indeed there was an error on your part, or responsibility for the simple fact that they are your customer and had an unpleasant experience. Articulate  the specific steps you are going to take to rectify the issue, so that there is no outstanding ambiguity. Ideally, exceed their expectations with your proposed solution to really delight the customer. Finally, wrap things up by thanking the customer for bringing the issue to your attention, and letting the customer know that you will use their situation to make improvements in the future. If there was an issue with an confusing product description, perhaps a web page will be reviewed for accuracy. If there was a shipping mistake, perhaps a department head will be notified of the issue to address with their team. This will really cement the fact that their voice was heard and fosters the relationship with your brand.

Often the most vocal critics become the most enthusiastic brand proponents when you solve their problem. So look at online complaints as an opportunity to discover ways to improve your business and showcase your customer service skills. You’ll soon find yourself with an army of loyal, devoted fans that help you fend off anyone else who may raise doubts about your business in the future.

About the Author

Michael Epstein contact Michael by visiting his website, www.getonlinewithme.com or via Twitter @getonlinewithme

Starting with just a few hundred dollars and no marketing budget, Michael Epstein founded a manufacturer, distributor and retailer of consumer electronics that achieved a million dollars in sales in its first year and continued to expand, generating tens of millions in revenue. He also acquired several distressed online businesses and reinvigorated these brands with new products, marketing, and distribution. These refocused businesses once again began to grow and flourish. 14 years later, having cultivated a successful enterprise with global reach, the company was acquired in 2013 by private capital buyers. Michael now passionately serves as a online strategy consultant for a diverse range of businesses. You can find him at www.getonlinewithme.com.