How many people do you tell if you’ve had poor customer service? It used to be around 20, but that was before the internet.

Now instead of simply telling their friends, disgruntled customers can turn to consumer forums and social media to leave feedback about anything from a substandard meal to poor delivery service from a High Street retailer. These days you can add several 000s to that figure of 20 and your complaint can go global.

  1.  Where are customers complaining in social media?

In recent months several people I know have turned to social media to vent their frustration about poor customer service. One person used Twitter to complain about her treatment at the hands of theatre management and two other people turned to Facebook to complain publically about non-delivery of online grocery orders from two different supermarket chains.

I’ve joined in too, leaving a comment on Foursquare about an inedible meal at a London restaurant that had been praised by several food critics.

Suddenly we all have the wherewithal to be reviewers with opinions that count – at least to other consumers. Businesses that are spending tens of thousands of pounds on marketing and public relations may suddenly find they are getting the wrong kind of customer response.

So what do you do? You might be like Duncan Bannatyne and decide to sue. The Dragon’s Den panellist is threatening to sue TripAdvisor over a negative review about his upmarket hotel. But is this the right approach – and if not, what should you do?

Look upon consumer forums and social media as opportunities to get customer feedback that could help you improve your business. Yes, of course there will be some professional complainers but don’t dismiss all criticism as simply ranting. Maybe chef was having a bad day, perhaps your receptionist does need some additional training and maybe your service could have been more efficient.

  1.  Monitor online conversations

There are a number of ways to monitor who is saying what about your business – these are both free

  • Set up Tweetdeck with your business name and key words or phrases
  • Google Alerts will send emails when they spot your business on web pages and newspapers
  1.  Listen to online complaints

If someone uses social media to complain about your business then listen to them and respond. Engage with them openly online. If you try to take the conversation offline – for example direct messaging on Twitter or Facebook – you risk making the matter worse. Ask for more details, offer to put it right and apologise.

  1.  Online complaints need speedy handling

You have sensibly appointed an employee to monitor online mentions of your business but what happens if they spot a customer criticism? If they dither over what to do for just a couple of hours one comment could have turned into a discussion. Make sure that you ‘empower’ your employee, giving them the necessary training and authority to respond quickly and appropriately to any critical Tweets or Facebook posts.