How to Respond to Customers on Social Media and Handle Negative Reviews

Most customers use at least one form of social media on a regular basis. As a result, it has become natural for customers to contact companies through these channels. Due to the fast nature of social media, when customers reach out, they expect a quick reply (think hours not days). This is one aspect of social media where a lot of businesses are still failing.

In this article, you’ll learn how to respond to unhappy or dissatisfied customers on social media as well as how to handle negative customer reviews on sites like Trustpilot, TripAdvisor and Yelp. But first, it’s important to understand the relationship between social media and support and how it has been treated by businesses and contact centers in the past.

Social media: Another siloed support channel

There are two factors that have contributed to customers becoming accustomed to poor support on social media. The first is the fact that social media support often floats around, sometimes living with the marketing department and sometimes with customer service. This invariably leaves room for customers falling through the cracks.

The second factor is that many businesses, 30% in fact, still design their customer experiences on a channel-by-channel basis. This presents an issue because customers are not thinking in terms of channels, they think in terms of context. This means that when they have an issue they need to have resolved and they communicate it in the most convenient form available at that particular moment, which one day could be social media and another day be chat, for example.

So, structuring your customer experience on a channel-by-channel basis will invariably lead to customers receiving inconsistent communication and support depending on the channel they contact you on. Designing an experience that can be achieved across all channels eliminates this risk and ensures your customers will always receive a consistent experience.

Customers have been let down by companies on social media

The early 2010’s saw an increase in the number of customers who wanted to contact companies through social media. That trend has actually been steadily declining the past couple of years until 2017. That decline isn’t because customers don’t want to communicate with companies through social media – quite the opposite in fact; it’s because businesses have been so slow to adapt to social media that many are still either hard to reach and/or slow to respond. As customers, we will move to different forms of communication if we can get a reply faster. That is of course assuming we haven’t decided to leave your businesses completely already. Time is of the essence here.

When examining contact centers’ channels mix from 2014 to 2016, social media continued to decrease, dropping 41%, until it picked back up in 2017. Let’s be clear, what you’re seeing here is the failure of businesses as a whole to take advantage of an opportunity to get closer to their cherished customers. However, it’s promising to see it back on the rise. Expect the rise to continue as more and more businesses make an effort to implement processes for handling customer issues on social media platforms.

Responding to customers on social media

When you post a reply to a customer on social media you’re not only answering that single customer but all current and future potential customers. That means you need to have two agendas when formulating your response. To get your priorities straight, your primary focus should be to send a message to the customer you are responding to and secondarily to send a message to everybody else who might read it. By tending to that customer’s needs, you are also showing other potential customers that you care about your customers and will make it right if something goes wrong.

When the response creates value for multiple customers (e.g. when providing an answer to a frequently asked question or something you expect to come up again), you can use the opportunity to show how quick you are to respond and how much you value that the customer contacted you. Also, don’t be afraid to over-inform and answer more than what the customer asked. Doing so can proactively answer other customers’ questions, which is always good.

Even if the content isn’t particularly relevant to others, continue to reply publicly. It still shows transparency between you and your customers, which can help build trust.

Additionally, take conversations with customers to private messages if any personal information will be required to resolve their question or issue. When doing so, be sure you’re the one to reach out first privately too (if possible). You don’t want to make your customers reach out again if you can avoid it!

Here’s an example of how to take a conversation from a public setting to private messages: “Thank you for contacting us, I’m sorry to hear about your experience. We just sent you a private message so we can resolve this issue with you!”

Here is an example of how the fast growing beauty brand, Glossier, proactively handles customer inquiries on Instagram by direct messaging the customer first after they have reached out in their comments section with a concern:

In short, this is one way to differentiate your business. If you provide speedy, helpful customer service on social media, you’re customers will appreciate it. Just think of how many times customers must have been let down by companies for them to turn away from social media almost completely these last few years. Now is your chance to surprise your customers, and you should take it!

The notion of not being online

On that note, businesses are no longer “not online.” Every single business, whether B2C or B2B, in tourism, real estate, manufacturing or tech, is an online business. There is no ignoring that. In fact, the longer you ignore it, the larger the risk that a competitor doesn’t. Also, the biggest growth stories of the past decade has been off the back of great customer experiences and in turn great customer service (Amazon first and foremost). Not changing with your customers is essentially disappointing them. For the sake of your bottom line, don’t do that. Saying “social media is not us” no longer applies. Whoever you are, it’s simply not true.

Responding to negative customer reviews

Another very public thing that all companies have to deal with is getting reviews. A bad customer review is virtually impossible to avoid, so chances are you will get one from time to time. When you do, it is important that you do the following:

  1. Respond quickly – this is a customer who’s probably disappointed, distressed or both.
  2. Take responsibility – even if it’s not your fault.
  3. Be sorry (for the customer having had a bad experience).
  4. Work out a solution with the customer.

Respond quickly

If a bad customer review is left for long without a response, people can lose confidence in your company. A company that doesn’t respond (quickly) to a bad experience is not very trustworthy in the eyes of many customers. Try to respond to all reviews as quickly as possible. Even a very short response where you simply recognize the customer’s position is better than no reply.

Take responsibility

It’s easy to blame somebody else like a fulfillment center or a distributor for a bad experience. Don’t be tempted to go down that route. Your customer didn’t choose your fulfillment center or your distributor, nor do they care. They chose you. That means you are responsible for any mistakes even if the fulfillment center or the distributor is in fact at fault. You have to own up to it and take responsibility. The only finger-pointing done should be pointing at you. You can always take it up with the entity at fault later, but leave the customer out of that process.

Say sorry

Sorry really goes a long way. Even when a problem is not your fault, you still need to take responsibility and apologize to your customer. At the very least you can always be sorry that the customer has had a bad experience. No one wants that for their customers.

Work out a solution with the customer

You should always strive to find a satisfactory solution with your customers. Giving them more than one option and allowing them to choose how they would like to resolve the issue helps increase customer satisfaction in the end. This could be a reduction in price, a gift card as compensation, replacement of item, instructions on how to rectify the situation, etc. Ideally, you want to be able to reach out to the customer directly after the review has been posted as personal information will most likely be required, but if that’s not possible, when responding, address their comments and encourage them to contact your customer service to find a solution that works for both parties.

For the customers that you have already been in contact with privately, (whether they reached out on other channels or your team was able to contact them directly) it’s still important to publicly address their review for two reasons. The first reason is it’s important to show other customers that you have acknowledged the review and are taking action, otherwise it can look like you ignored it. The second reason is that the review may raise questions or concerns that others also want to have addressed. Therefore, thoroughly responding to the review can proactively help clear up any outstanding unknowns for other customers.

Here’s how the luggage brand Away handles customer reviews when they have already been in direct contact with the customer.

As you can see, Away addresses the customer’s questions and frustrations as well as clarifies that they’ve already been in contact with the customer privately, providing future customers with relevant product information and comfort in Away’s customer service team.

The customer always has the right to be understood

No matter how unreasonable a customer might seem, you have to respect the fact that it’s their experience and you can do yourself a disservice if you don’t take it seriously. Acknowledge that you understand their point of view and that you sympathize with their position. This is not the same as being in agreement. It’s absolutely possible to disagree with a customer without creating a conflict.

Just like you, your customers read the bad reviews first

If you have ever been to a review site it’s likely that you skipped the five-starred reviews and went straight to the one or two-starred reviews to see if the company had replied and what that reply was. This will heavily influence your willingness or unwillingness to purchase from or deal with a company.

Cherish negative customer reviews

It’s actually a gift when you get a bad customer review, because it makes it possible for you to show the world that you take responsibility and try to work out a solution with the customer. Your ability to show how you handle issues with customers publicly can give new potential customers more confidence in your company too since they can see you care about your customers. You are also more likely to turn that customer’s negative experience into a positive one and work towards restoring that customer’s confidence in your company. Remember, it is much more cost efficient to keep current customers than acquire new ones! In fact, a 5% increase in customer retention can boost profits by 25 to 85%.

If you want to read more of that vein, check out Jay Baer’s book “Hug Your Haters.”

To summarize: Three rules of thumb

  • Respond quickly and publicly to everyone.
  • Say you’re sorry for their bad experience and own up to it (this will not hurt your company, quite the contrary).
  • If the customer has an issue that others might have, it’ll create value for you and your customers to post the solution publicly.


Tue Søttrup

Tue Søttrup

Tue Søttrup has been delivering excellent customer service for more than 20 years and is currently Chief CX Evangelist at Dixa where he’s carefully nurturing a small bonsai tree called GenZen.

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