Social media can be a boon or a disaster depending on how you promote your business and deal with unhappy customers and complaints online.

I cut my teeth in small business driving the delivery truck for my dad’s small industrial supply company. “The customer is always right,” he would say. He was wrong — or was he?

Small businesses rely on happy customers to keep their businesses alive and thriving, so it really doesn’t matter if they’re right or not, it’s important for us to treat them like we believe they are. Particularly in a business climate where unhappy customers have the powerful forum of social media to air their grievances and complain, successful small business owners know that one unhappy customer can turn into dozens — or even hundreds — very quickly.

Not long ago, a friend on Facebook made a comment about a local restaurant that wasn’t very flattering. Apparently, an unreasonable customer made a public complaint about how they were mistreated and the restaurant argued, justified, and ultimately told that customer that maybe they should go to McDonald’s next time. The snarky and sarcastic comments over how the customer was trying to take advantage of a loyalty punch card drew the ire of my friend who weighed in and pretty much told the restaurant off.

I don’t know what was really said, but the restaurant pulled the negative Facebook comments down, did some more arguing and justifying and blocked him from making comments on their Facebook page — all this while lauding the openness of the public forum to discuss these types of issues. Positive and supportive comments are still up on the site as of this writing, but any negative comments have been deleted.

As a result, my friend took his comments to his network on Facebook, and shared his displeasure with the several hundred friends that follow him, comments the restaurant will never see and never be able to address.

Social media can be a great way to promote your brand and build a network of friends and customers. It can also be the harbinger of doom for those who don’t pay attention to or respond properly to unhappy customers. Here’s what I would have done:

  1. Remember that the customer is always right, even when they’re not: Dad may have been wrong about the “rightness” of the customer, but when every grievance has the potential to become a public PR nightmare, it’s easier to keep the customer happy — even if it costs you a few bucks. The restaurant didn’t like the idea of being bullied by an unrealistic customer and decided to take a stand. Of course that was their choice, but I think it was the wrong decision. Arguing on Facebook, or any social media for that matter, is a lot like screaming at your neighbor in the middle of the cul-de-sac — it doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong, the rest of your neighbors are witnesses to your behavior and ultimately will think less of you.
  2. Make it right and minimize the damage: When a customer complains on a public forum, it’s not the complaint that does the damage. It’s your response, or lack of response. The beauty of social media is that complaints like the one we’re talking about are public. Public complaints give you an opportunity to publicly address them. In all honesty, it sounds like this restaurant had an unreasonable customer. Fortunately, most people aren’t that way. I would have posted on Facebook, in response to the complaint, “We’re sorry you were unhappy with the service at our restaurant. Please accept our apologies and accept a complementary meal for your family.” This kind of response nips the complaint in the bud, before it has a chance to be shared across multiple social media networks. Additionally, it gives the complainer nowhere to go. It’s hard to keep fighting with someone who says, “I’m sorry. Let me make it right.”
  3. If you leap before you look and lash out, apologize for that, too: We’re all human and sometimes we say or do things that we wouldn’t do if we’d have thought about them just a little longer. If that happens to you on social media, it can make an uncomfortable situation worse. If I had been the restaurant owner and had lashed out as this one did, realized that I had just made a horrible blunder, and was worried about the effects of the negative publicity, I would've posted a friendly apology the next morning that went something like this: “Facebook friends, we had some challenges yesterday and inappropriately lashed out in frustration at one of our customers. Please accept our apologies. Visit our restaurant this week, mention Facebook, and we’ll make sure a complementary medium beverage is added to your order.”
It isn’t about being bullied by an unreasonable customer, or caving in to a jerk — it’s about customer service and smart business practices. Of course, every small business owner looks at situations like this differently, but if you can’t stand the heat in the social-media kitchen, you might be better off not cooking.

In my opinion, the benefits to participation far outweigh the pitfalls. Whether you’re there to hear and address customer complaints shared on Facebook or Twitter or not, unhappy and unreasonable customers will be negative about you and your brand via social media. It’s much better to address issues early and minimize the damage.

Years ago I had a customer complain about something in the product we were offering. I apologized and asked if they would like to provide some feedback to our product team. Surprisingly, he responded positively, helped make our product better, and ultimately became a brand promoter. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take a promoter to a detractor any day.

Is the customer always right? Probably not, but I don't think it matters.

As a Main Street business evangelist and marketing veteran with more than 25 years in the trenches, Ty Kiisel writes about leading people and small-business issues for Lendio (