When Social Media Goes Sour: How Should You Handle Negative Comments?

It’s probably an unavoidable fact of life that given enough time, even the most professional, consistent and customer-focused business in the world is going to occasionally attract a less-than-flattering comment on social media.

Whether it’s a legitimate and earnest grievance from a genuine customer or a troll hoping to wind you up for their own amusement, your public response (or lack thereof) requires careful thought.

In this article, we’re going to look at a couple of different approaches you might take in response to a negative comment, weigh up some of the pros and cons, and evaluate which tactics might be the most appropriate for your business and your brand.

Should you even respond?

The first thing to consider is whether you need to do anything at all.

The question may seem like a cop-out, but you may wonder if every comment posted to your page really needs to be dignified with a response.

For legitimate complaints from real customers, it’s probably best not to leave them hanging - even if they seem rude and angry. Many times, they just want to be heard and may even cool down and apologise after hearing back from you.

Apart from anything else, responding to comments may in some cases give a small benefit to your search engine optimisation (SEO) and favour with other online algorithms. Google, for example, takes into account your star rating and your response rate to Google Reviews when placing your business on the local Map Pack.

Unless the negative comment clearly constitutes the unhinged ravings of a troubled mind - which has been known to happen on occasion - it’s often advisable to post a reply to the complaint as soon as you can. It needn’t be War and Peace; a simple “We’re sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy our service. We will take your comments into consideration and/or contact you to resolve the matter” will suffice in many cases.

However, not all negative comments justify a response. If something has been posted that makes use of hateful language, or is otherwise pointlessly unpleasant, it might be best for your company’s image to ‘rise above’ the provocation and not lower yourself to the same level.

After all, the last thing you want is for the commenter to return with another round of choleric ranting to which you must again respond - eating up more of your time, making an ugly public display of an aimless slanging match and probably also putting you in a bad mood for the rest of the day.

To some degree, this might depend on your brand tone of voice. A youthful startup company with a cheeky, rule-breaking aesthetic might be able to get away with saying things on social media that would be entirely inappropriate for an accountancy firm - and so consistency with your wider image and brand values should be considered with care.

It may also be good to consider the ratio and volume of good comments you receive compared to bad. If your company is well-known or fortunate enough to consistently attract high levels of customer engagement and interaction on social platforms, you might find that the sheer number of comments leads to prioritise answering the bad ones before the good as a matter of prudence.

However, this can be a bad look for your business. If positive comments go unnoticed and unrewarded, and you seem to only respond to trolls, it can be hard for customers to imagine that you sincerely appreciate them.

The good news is that a large enough volume of positive comments may even simply drown out the influence of one or two negatives - and this may influence your decision as to whether or not it is necessary to take action on every complaint.

What if the issue prompts further discussion?

You may find that there are factual errors or other details in the negative comment with which you don’t agree.

Perhaps they might be alleging that their order wasn’t fulfilled properly because of a misunderstanding on their part, or they misinterpreted a comment from a staff member as some kind of violation of expected manners, or they are otherwise making matters sound worse than they really are.

It might be tempting to get into the details with them in the comments, point out that they are misrepresenting the issue and that your company actually acted with all due professionalism and propriety - but this is the very definition of airing dirty laundry in public.

The best approach is almost always to first of all give a polite and limited public reply, and invite them to discuss specifics in private as soon as possible. This has a number of advantages:

  • The customer might appreciate the personal touch if you reach out to them personally to sort out the matter in private. After all, it’s a good way to show that you took their comment seriously.

  • If you end up having to placate the customer with vouchers, freebies or other favours, this will remain unknown to other members of the public - who could suddenly realise that they might be able to get free things, too, if they stir up trouble on your social media.

  • If the customer continues to get increasingly upset with you despite your best efforts to talk to them, this further souring of relations will at least happen away from the public eye.

  • Taking the conversation private limits the public perception of the incident. If your only public response to the complaint was to say “we’re very sorry there was a problem and we will contact you right away to resolve it”, it looks pretty decisively dealt-with - even if the problems continue to grow behind the scenes.

What if there’s a mob with pitchforks and torches?

Fortunately, most businesses are able to maintain a good and trustworthy reputation online - but accidental controversy can sometimes strike.

This might be related to a real-world incident, or - as is increasingly the case - a major social media faux pas, but whatever the reason, if your page is attracting a lot of negative attention it can be difficult to know what to do.

In general, if you are getting a lot of the same types of messages it’s probably not an efficient use of time to reply to them one-by-one. In these cases, it may be best to prepare a thoughtful message or even a blog post to explain the situation and post that publicly to answer all the comments at once.

Above all, it’s important that your business should always seem to be polite, cordial, and keen to offer real solutions.

It’s a cliché that ‘the customer is always right’, but it’s often true - and negative comments can sometimes be a good (if painful) way for your business to learn a vital lesson and grow.

Just remember that for both large and small incidents, it’s usually best to do three things: limit what you say publicly, speak with care and courtesy - and in the words of Shaun of the Dead's eponymous main character, wait for all this to blow over.