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It doesn’t matter what kind of business you’re in — at least some of your customers are going to be active social media users. This means that if they’re happy — or unhappy — with your business, there’s a good chance they’ll take their feelings online, in the form of a review, location check-in, or a post on Facebook or Twitter.

If they’re happy with your business, that’s great — but if they’re unhappy, a social complaint can turn into bad PR buzz before you know it. “Online reviews are the new comment card,” explains Chris Campbell, founder of Review Trackers, which helps businesses manage their online reputations. “People are publicly talking about your business and reviews impact the bottom line.”

The solution? Make sure your PR and customer service channels are socially-savvy, work on defusing problems, and sort through feedback to make improvements to your business offerings. “Social is a great opportunity to engage with your customers — and turn around experiences for customers that aren’t happy,” says Campbell. “According to Harvard Business School, a one-star rating drop going from a 4-star to a 3-star rating, for example, will cause a 9% loss in revenue on average.”

Using Social for Honest Feedback

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By being socially active can turn social networks into a marketing channel that works for your business. “Reviews are an excellent channel for unfiltered feedback, with real insights that can help you improve your business and can help you increase revenue,” says Campbell.

Getting that feedback can be as easy as having an active social network presence and keeping an eye on your mentions and comments. Kyle James, founder of Rather Be Shopping, has taken it a step further by offering gift card rewards for customers who leave feedback.

“I like to turn customer comments and complaints on social media into an opportunity for us to get better at what we do,” says James. When users leave comments about what they like or dislike about Rather Be Shopping, they get an entry into a giveaway for a $25 Starbucks gift card. “The incentive has to be high enough in order to get anything out of it,” James explains — but with a little incentive, users are happy to leave comments, which are are then used to improve the site’s offerings.

Build a Social Community Around Your Business

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At Influenster, Communications Manager Laura Murphy has a unique customer service challenge in the form of a vocal community that’s over 500,000 users strong. The service sends out free products and samples to users to review, but with only a few hundred to a few thousand products to send out every month, lots of users get left out — and can be unhappy about it.

“Our solution for preventing total mutiny? We emphasize that Influenster is a community,” says Murphy. “We’re transparent when it comes to technical issues on the site and mistakes that we’ve made. We encourage our members to express their honest opinions, but vitriolic or excessively negative behavior is not acceptable.”

The end result is what Murphy calls a self-sustaining customer service community, where members help one another out by answering questions and even chastising users who are out of line. But keeping up with the brand’s very social customer base — which is active on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and more — is still a work in progress. “Because we’re a new, small (20 person) company, some of this has been a case of trial and error. For now though, we do it the old-fashioned way. We respond to everyone and keep a log of issues that should be brought to the attention of the tech team.”

Respond to Unhappy Customers to Turn Them Into Happy Customers

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When your community’s unhappy, it can be a real problem. “Online mentions are like word-of-mouth on steroids,” says Campbell. “Businesses need to allocate the resources to set up monitoring mentions of their company.” So what should you do when your business gets a bad review or negative mention? “The biggest things are to stay calm, address the issue, be professional, and try to solve the customer’s problem,” says Campbell, who’s written up tips for how online businesses can deal with negative reviews.

In the fairly anonymous world of online comments, sometimes feedback can get very negative. “The most important thing is to never take negative feedback personally,” says James. “Because when you do, it will really stand in the way of you looking honestly at what needs improvement. If we’re getting enough negative feedback about the same site feature, we need to take immediate action to rectify the problem.”

For Murphy, the answer to dealing with customer complaints is empathy. “Customer service reps often get the short-end of the stick, meaning many complaints seem to be written without thought to the human being on the receiving end,” says Murphy. But often unhappy customers are just looking for a solution to their problems — social just happens to be the channel they’re using. “Empathy sets the tone for any responses we need to make publicly. More often than not, it turns out people just want to be heard.”

As for positive comments, you should still be sure to keep track of what customers think you’re doing right — as well as thanking them and sharing the comments with others, when appropriate. In the end: your users, shoppers, and clients are on social networks, which means you need to be there to hear what they have to say and respond appropriately.

[Image credits: Jason Paris, Hash Milhan, Maryland Gov Pics, Sascha Pohflepp]