Warren Buffett once said, "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it."

This is especially true for consumer-facing brands in an age when customers rely on reviews and social media to determine which products to buy. When you're building your brand, your reputation is everything. You could have an awesome product, but if you upset your customers and ignore them when they complain, you can expect big trouble.

A poor customer service experience, raising the price of your product, or releasing a product that doesn't fulfill customers' expectations are all common causes for complaint. Of course, not every customer complaint will be justified--and not every situation will call for an apology--but it's important to acknowledge that customers are unhappy and formulate a plan of attack to protect your brand.

1. Don't overpromise. Companies spend a lot of time building anticipation around the launch of their products. But if you overhype your product, only to have it underperform when it gets to your customers, they won't be happy. Make sure your marketing reflects the benefits your products can realistically provide without overpromising.

2. Listen and respond to customer complaints. Customers tend to share negative experiences much more than positive ones. This can kill your chances of success in the age of social media. If you don't already have someone monitoring your reputation online, hire someone to do that today.

When someone does make a complaint, you should respond with the aim of solving the problem and making the customer happy the way UPS does when fielding angry customer tweets. If you do it right, you could earn a testimonial from the customer about the positive experience she had with your brand.

3. Have a plan for when misunderstandings happen. No matter how well-meaning your advertising is, sometimes your communications won't resonate with people. Recently, Kellogg received some criticism for joining the ranks of brands producing pro-LGBT advertising with its sponsorship of Atlanta's Gay Pride March. Despite complaints from certain consumer groups, Kellogg has stuck by its values.

When producing your brand's messaging, you need to be prepared for all the ways your messages could be interpreted and then come up with ways to proactively manage backlash when it occurs. You can take the same approach to customer service: Think strategically about all the negative situations a customer could possibly experience, and then develop solutions to turn those situations into positive interactions.

4. Don't worry about pleasing the jerks. Finally, it's important to remember that not all customers are suited for your product or brand. They may not align with your core values or beliefs, and having them as customers could actually be bad for your brand. There are others who just like to complain for the sake of it.

Don't worry too much about what these people think. In many cases, it's better to let them go. When Coca-Cola released its "America the Beautiful" campaign, some people went so far as to say they would never buy a Coke again. In that case, saying goodbye to those customers was a good thing.

Customer backlash is unavoidable as a B2C brand, but it's crucial to be proactive in monitoring conversations and aggressively engaging unhappy customers to acknowledge their problems. Just remember that you can't please everybody, so focus on appeasing the people who matter the most. If you can get ahead of negative feedback, you'll be one step closer to building a successful company with a stellar reputation.

Published on: Nov 24, 2014
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.