It doesn't matter if you run a multibillion-dollar airline or a small mom-and-pop gas station: Any customer can complain about you--loudly and publicly, where the world can see it--if he or she feels wronged.
Don't believe me? There are more than two million results on the term bad customer service on Google. Go have fun.
What does that mean for your company? Well, social media makes anyone a complainer. It allows anyone with a computer or smartphone to broadcast what you did wrong, and how upset he or she is with you, in pretty close to real time.
But it also gives you a way to fix the problems or find the solutions. First, however, you need to identify the types of complainers.
1. First-Time Complainer
This is someone to whom you should react immediately. This customer has never complained about your service before--in fact, you've never even heard of her--but you need to take action immediately.
Most common complaint: Something has really screwed up that she wasn't expecting, probably because she's had good service in the past.
How to react: Reach out to this person right away and focus on problem solving. Start by saying, "Sorry to hear you're having trouble. Would please you email me for help?" This does several things: It gets to the heart of the matter; it demonstrates to anyone else watching you're fixing the problem; and it takes the complaint out of your stream.
2. Serial Complainer
This customer is a pain. He likes to hear himself talk, and your lucky company happens to now be in the crosshairs. Search his history, and you'll see that virtually everything he says is a downer.
Most common complaint: Whatever happens to be the sand in his shoe today.
How to react: Chances are he won't be happy with any response, so your best bet is to just get him handled and gone. Offer something quick and easy to placate him, then get him off your radar. People do understand there are some people that just can't be satisfied; you'll get credit for giving it a good-faith effort.
3. Best-Customer Complainer
Danger, Will Robinson! When one of your best customers lodges a surprise complaint, you need to drop whatever you're working on to address the issue. Remember the old adage that 10% of customers bring in 90% of the revenue? Well, this is one of those 10%. Pay attention.
Most frequent complaint: These customers rarely complain; they usually compliment.
How to react: Chances are that something really stupid got her mad, and now you need to react. Fix it ASAP. Do whatever it takes; spend the time with her. Chances are your best customer will love you even more for taking quick action.
4. Multimedia Complainer
These customers are tough: They've documented their grievance with photos and videos and multiple camera angles, and they're uploading in real time, because that's what they are good at.
Most common complaint: Anything that makes for good video or still photos.
How to react: Respond quickly, even if you don't have a full-fledged solution right away, to get to a cease-fire. Then, of course, you have to come up with a real way to address the issue.
5. "Dear @cnnbreakingnews" Complainer
This customer believes that any wrong he's suffered deserves the attention of mass media, and he'll make sure to CC all the Twitter and Facebook accounts he can find. Fortunately, he's the first cousin of the Serial Complainer--some people just cannot be satisfied--so you can probably handle the situation quickly and then forget it.
Most common complaint: Anything that can be ended with "... and you should totally do a story on this."
How to react: Consider it from a reporter's perspective: How important is the issue? Is he alleging you've scammed thousands, or is it trivial? Have other customers had similar issues? The media looks for trends--trends make good stories--but chances are this complainer cries wolf to CNN on everything; it might be news to him, but it's probably not to CNN.
That said, be sure your terms of service and agreements are clear and easily accessible. If the issue is really that important, then you want to be sure your customer agreements are wired tight.