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How to respond to unhappy customers online

(MoneyWatch) When you own a small business or manage the social media program for your company,  controlling the narrative is a constant concern. And no matter how much time you spend developing goodwill through your Twitter and Facebook presence, there will always be unhappy customers who flame, troll, and otherwise complain online. How do you reply to them? Should you respond at all? It's a tricky balancing act -- knowing how much you should engage without fanning the flames and making things worse.

Recently, PC World's Christopher Null explained how you can clean up your business's online reputation, and he gave a lot of credible advice for dealing with negative feedback in a variety of common scenarios. Here are some things Null says you should consider when dealing with a potentially damaging situation online:

Stockpile domain name variations. You can preempt some well-organized, high-profile attacks by snapping up disparaging domain names and redirecting them to your own site. only exists, for example, because Walmart didn't purchase it before a disgruntled customer did.

Don't feed trolls. It's the same advice that commenters on blogs try to follow: Don't reply to people who are only posting to stir up trouble. Replying to negative comments in public forums only extends the life of the thread and gives the troll more ammunition to keep attacking. Ignore it and it will go away.

Bury bad press. If the unflattering comments are on your home turf, such as your blog, resist the urge to simply delete the entries, lest you then also be labeled an opponent of free speech. Instead, just publish additional posts to push the offensive comments below the fold and off most people's radar.

Reply when the customer appears reasonable. Trolls will never be satisfied, but if you see feedback from a customer who appears to be reasonable, take the time to try to address his or her concerns. That's best done privately - try to email or Direct Message the customer, for example - and see if you can persuade him or her to revise their comment after (and only after) you have turned them into a satisfied client.

Photo courtesy Flickr user iwona_kellie

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