The explosion of social media and online news has provided a route for customers to air instantly their opinions, whether positive or negative.

Failing to deal adequately with negative comments online can significantly damage a business’ reputation that has taken years, or even decades, to build.

The first stage in protecting your brand online is to look, listen and observe.  Plan ahead by identifying potential issues including any common issues raised by your customers.  How can you stop these from happening? Can you change operational procedures? Will an FAQ section on the website satisfy customer needs?

Set up monitoring tools such as Google Alerts and Hootsuite to receive real-time updates on mentions of your business and its products or services.

If an issue arises online, take a step back and examine the background of the story and the user making the posts.

Put the comment into context:  what has made them post this?  Is what they are saying factually correct?  Is the user an habitual complainer? Take a look at his/her social media accounts. What else are they saying, and about who?

Once you have an understanding of the situation, it’s time to take action and respond in a measured way. Decide what type of comment you have been faced with.  Is it a straight problem, such as a broken product, constructive criticism, including a shop not being open on time, a merited attack, for example poor customer service, or trolling or spam?

How you respond to each of these will differ, but it is important to show other people that action has been taken.  Even if you deal with a merited attack away from the public eye, respond to the original post stating, for example, that you will contact them by phone to discuss further.

When crafting a response, address the user, thank them for the feedback, take ownership of the issue, educate and/or resolve, and monitor for future feedback.

In addition, getting to the point, being transparent, avoiding corporate messaging and making sure the user feels heard will also help to avoid the issue escalating.

Lastly, never take it personally.  Personal feelings and emotions can cloud your judgement, and subsequent actions to dealing with the issue or crisis, which will likely further fan the flames.