When a scathing comment about your product or service goes viral, it’s tempting to hit back. Here’s what to do instead.
FORTUNE — Dear Annie: Please settle an argument we’re having in my office. If a customer posts a nasty review on a blog, and it then starts turning up all over the Internet, what’s the best way to minimize the impact? I run a 20-person customer service team (half here, half in India) for a division of a regional telecom company. About three weeks ago, we ran into some glitches while switching over to a new computer system, and we screwed up a few customer accounts, which we have fixed. The problem is, somebody posted a very negative comment about us online, which, while it is vicious, is unfortunately also funny (although not to us), so it got reposted on Facebook, quoted on other blogs, etc.
This is an extremely competitive business and we take our reputation seriously. Some of my team members are really upset and want to respond by confronting the writer of this comment online and demanding he retract it. I’m not so sure that’s the way to go. If we escalate the dispute, won’t it just get even more attention? How do other companies respond to this situation? — Perplexed
Dear Perplexed: Kent Campbell sympathizes with your indignant colleagues. “When someone posts a nasty review online, it feels as if they had reached through the computer screen and smacked you,” he says. Campbell is co-founder and chief strategy officer of InternetReputationManagement.com, whose bread and butter is resolving the very problem you describe.
He adds, tongue firmly in cheek: “I’ve often fantasized about developing an app that would give someone a mild electric shock when they post a mean comment. Imagine it. You’d be sitting in Starbucks and people would be getting zapped all around you.”
For now, there are kinder and gentler — and more effective — solutions. Before you do anything, find out what your company’s social media policy (assuming there is one) says about this situation. With any luck, there may be a social media manager whose job it is to monitor and polish your employer’s online image, in which case you can hand this over to him or her and forget about it.
If not, the first thing your team needs to do is calm down. “It’s natural to feel angry over a bad review, but most bad decisions are made in the flush of emotion,” Campbell says.
Your suspicion that confronting your detractor in a hostile way will only make things worse is right on target, he adds: “Getting into a verbal brawl is only going to attract more negative attention. Bad news rises quickly on search engines, because people will click on it just out of curiosity, and before you know it, thousands of potential customers have signed on with your competition.” Gulp.
Instead, he suggests, “You need to try and work it out offline. If the commenter is anonymous or there is just no way to track down a phone number where you can reach him or her, then post your own phone number wherever the comment has appeared, and ask the person to please contact you so you can fix whatever prompted the bad review. Once you’ve made a human connection through an actual conversation, you can often disarm people — and maybe even persuade them to retract what they said.”
That’s especially likely because only 39% of U.S. consumers expect companies to respond to gripes about their service that are posted on social media, according to a recent survey by global ad agency Arnold Worldwide. So a sincere and friendly attempt to placate your nemesis may strike him or her as a pleasant surprise.
If that approach is a dead end, says Campbell, “the only thing you can do is clean up the first page of your search results. Most people don’t look beyond the first page on search engines. There are usually 10 items there, and you want them all to be positive.” Campbell’s company is part of an entire mini-industry that does that but, he notes, if you’re willing to put in the effort, you can do it yourself.
“You want to fill up Page One with your web site, your Wikipedia page, tweets, articles, press releases, posts from your own blog, comments from people on Facebook who ‘like’ you, and anything else you can find to put out there that reflects well on your company,” he says. “Keep it fresh by continually adding new content. That way, if the negative comment turns up on Page Two, or Page Five, you don’t need to worry so much about it, because most people will never see it.”
Talkback: If your company’s product or service has ever been slammed online, how did you deal with it? Leave a comment below.