How Should SMBs Respond to Complaints on Social Media?

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Wooden suggestion boxes that were once commonplace on local business countertops have largely been replaced with public forums like Yelp and Facebook, where customers can air their grievances in a very public way. According to a recent survey by Sprout Social, social media is now the first place consumers turn when they have issues with products or services. And while 90% of people say they’ve used social media to communicate with businesses —surpassing phone and email — just 11% of those messages are met with a response.

It could be that businesses don’t have time to respond to every negative complaint, or it could be that they don’t realize those complaints have even been posted online. But it’s also very common for businesses to hesitate in responding to negative reviews on Yelp, Facebook, and Twitter because they aren’t sure how best to address the issues without creating a bigger stir. The way a merchant responds to complaints on social media will influence not only the perception of the offended customer, but also the perception of any potential customers who view the interaction online.

Here are eight strategies that business owners can use when deciding how best to respond to customer complaints on social media.

1. Respond both publicly and personally “If it is your domain, such as a Twitter or a Facebook page, promptly respond to your customer both publicly and personally. Acknowledge their issues and apologize first, ask questions later. You will need to get the full picture before you can do anything on the business side. So listen. Use the platform to ask thoughtful and empathetic questions. After you resolve the customer’s issue, update the comment thread to reflect closure. Thank the customer and end with statements like ‘We are grateful for having customers like you and are grateful we were able to resolve your issue.’” (Hulya Aksu, ListenPort)

2. Be succinct “Generally, a good rule of thumb for responding to reviews is to keep it simple. If a reviewer leaves a long review, trying to match it will take up a lot of time, and they’re less likely to read it. Try and keep your response to three or four sentences to convey your message and increase its chances of being read all the way through.” (Caroline Barker, Main Street Hub)

3. Assume every comment is real “The assumption is that the negative comment is from a real customer, not a rogue employee or a competitor. There may be exaggerations or inaccuracies, but in the heat of a bad customer experience, those can happen. If something is a complete lie it should be dealt with by addressing the lie, reporting it to the hosting site, and in extreme cases, taking legal action.” (Adi Bittan, OwnerListens)

4. Act quickly “Ideally, you respond in real-time while the consumer is in-store or nearby. It shows the highest level of commitment. Otherwise, we think that responding in the first 24 hours is best practice. It’s fresh in the mind of the reviewer and shows customer responsiveness, which helps start the resolution process on the right foot. It’s never too late to respond to a reviewer, if just to show online to others that you do in fact respond to each and every complaint.” (Trevor Sumner, LocalVox)

5. Don’t make up excuses “Customers can see right through you. Tell the truth about what went wrong. Sometimes, nothing is wrong and it’s just a bad fit of your product or policy. Simply state that. You want to be transparent because you want potential customers to understand what they’re getting and have the right expectations. For example: ‘I’m sorry you found our 10 unit minimum to be too much for you. Our product is intended for those who need large packages. That’s how we keep the price per unit low. May I suggest you try Mary’s Widgets—they don’t have a minimum.’ Not only does the business sound honest, they also come off as genuinely caring about the customers and gracious to their competitors.” (Adi Bittan, OwnerListens)

6. Move the conversation offline. “Responding is your best bet in nearly all instances. Your goal is to move the conversation offline so you can resolve the issue directly with that person, avoiding a protracted back-and-forth online. The best outcome? The person goes back and updates that negative review with the excellent customer service you subsequently delivered.” (Leslie Hobbs,

7. Respond with empathy. “Even if you don’t agree with their comments, you can still say that you’re disappointed that they had a negative experience at your business. Let them know that you’re looking into it and apologize if necessary. You can also offer to follow up further offline, and invite them back if appropriate.” (Caroline Barker, Main Street Hub)

8. Don’t use the same excuse twice “If you use the same excuse again and again, you start to sound incompetent. It’s ok to say to one customer ‘we didn’t make it on time to your house to fix your drain because of an accident on the freeway,’ but it’s not ok to say that five times. Use traffic apps, take buffers, reschedule—there are ways to deal and your customers will think of them.” (Adi Bittan, OwnerListens)

Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.



Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.