How to Avoid an Online Meltdown

Felicia Sullivan

A teenager walks into a shop in South Carolina in search of a new wallet. As soon as she walks into the shop, she claims a saleswoman allegedly said “shoplifter” to a fellow employee. The teenager’s mother, a popular and well-regarded blogger, posts about the incident on her Facebook page and the post goes viral. The shop, Carolina Girls, then conducts an investigation saying the teenager must have been mistaken, claiming that none of their employees would malign or racially profile shoppers.

The blame-and-shame posts garnered the kind of criticism one would expect — angry comments that were promptly deleted by the Facebook page admin — and alleged activities that one wouldn’t anticipate during the crisis: fake glowing Yelp reviews. The shop temporarily deleted their Facebook profile and the owner went on the local news to plead her case, which doused a bucket of kerosene onto the five-alarm fire.

The damage had been done. From denials and customer blaming to deleting negative comments and lack of accountability, this incident is a prime example of what not to do in a social media crisis. If Carolina Girls had had a plan in place to manage the firestorm, they could have come out on the other side of the situation virtually unscathed, rather than later closing their Kiawah Island location (their Facebook page shows them operating in Charleston).

You’ve poured your heart, money, and hard work into your small business. Then, imagine if that were all wiped out in an instant over a situation you could’ve managed with a crisis plan.

Consider this staggering stat: Businesses risk a 22% hit to the bottom line — in terms of the number of customers lost — when a potential customer finds a single negative review in the first two pages of online search results. If three negative reviews are found, the percentage of lost customers increases to 59.2%.

The bottom line? Perception is everything, and your reputation is just as important as — perhaps even more than — the products and services you offer.

The good news is that you can put a simple three-step plan in place to help prevent an online meltdown.

Step 1: Monitor conversations and create a communication process plan

Knowledge is power, and understanding what customers are saying about your business is critical in proactively managing a crisis. Create Google alerts for your business, and monitor activity on your social media channels and Yelp reviews.

If you catch negative reviews or customer complaints early on, you’ll have a better chance of an amicable resolution and, if you do right by the customer, they almost always amend their reviews to reflect your goodwill.

Create a process for how content you publish is created, moderated, and managed:

  • Define up front, controversial topics you want to avoid discussing online.
  • Create a worksheet that identifies typical customer issues and your prepared responses. It’s important that you sound less like a robot and more like a human, so create a flow that is personalized, customer-friendly, and invites the conversation to continue privately or offline for resolution. Nip all issues in the bud quickly, professionally, and with compassion.
  • Establish a review process for how content is published on your social media. Don’t hand over the reins of your business’s social media to a junior employee or intern. Ensure all content gets a second pair of senior eyes before it’s published.
  • Perform a daily or twice weekly sweep of your blog, social media channels, and online reviews to monitor for any issues. Don’t think that complaints will go away. You never know when a popular influencer or media outlet will pick them up, and that one incident could snowball into a PR nightmare.

Step 2: Build a community

Have you ever visited a Facebook page or blog where detractors get smothered by brand fans? Empower your favorite customers to be your front-line evangelists when a crisis hits. Why? Because they’re incentivized (like employees) to defend the business, and third-party validation of your integrity reaches further than any press release.

Spend time cultivating relationships with your customers, online fans, local media, other business owners, and influencers, so you’ll have a megaphone and team to help you through a social media crisis. This could be the difference between your customers going to bat for a minor mistake versus your having to be a team of one shouldering an online meltdown. Value your customers because they’re an extension of your business and they are the ones who ultimately will ensure that it thrives.

Step 3: Avoid shady tactics

Don’t engage in questionable online behavior — such as buying fans or mass-deleting negative reviews. You’ll have a lesser chance of being called out for shady practices if you’re not engaging in them.

If you operate your business from a place of honesty, integrity, and humility, you’ll reduce the chances of facing a crisis. However, should one arise, those values will help ensure you have the strength to endure it. Remember, you’re in this for the long run, and short-term wins, cover-ups, and revenue hits could cost you long-term brand health and profitability.

No small business owner wants to deal with an online crisis. It not only takes you away from your business, but it also has the ability to cause irrevocable damage. Your reputation is probably the most important part of your business, so take the steps required to invest in and nurture it: Be thoughtful about what you put out into the world. Create a passionate community around your business. Finally, operate from a place of honesty and integrity — and that will win out over the long haul.

Tell Us: Has this type of online meltdown ever happened to you? If so, what did you do about it? How would you handle this differently in the future—if at all?

13 Responses to "How to Avoid an Online Meltdown"

    • Jerry | May 14, 2019 at 6:32 pm

      I have had a love-hate relationship with the Internet for quite some time I have seen the Internet be used as a tool to bully a business into either having to give something away or repair something at a loss because they were bullied by somebody threatening negative reviews and/or putting negative reviews on about their business… And finally I have seen competition use negative reviews as a tool to create havoc online and boosting their own Online presence all of the above you cannot defend against and very frankly can cause a spiral down and the defeat of your business.. all the planning in the world cannot defend or rebound back from that kind of Internet assault this type of activity becomes more and more prevalent particularly with the generation that is not acquainted with face-to-face service and having Lightning fast knee-jerk reactions… I don’t know what the answer would be and as a business you have no choice you are stuck on the Internet whether you want to be there or not

    • Matt | May 14, 2019 at 10:31 pm

      Then there’s the customer that screams and yells to get their way, even when they are explicitly wrong and simply want to bully the business into giving them what they want. For example, trying to back out of an agreement or contract for services that they signed to and later want out simply because they have not bothered to use the services.

    • Rachel | May 15, 2019 at 8:01 am

      Yes, sometimes it feels like you’re being bullied online. I had a customer complaint via private message of her experience at my business. I apologized and mentioned I would talk to my staff and make it up to her. According to my staff, the customer was hostile and not cooperating when they wanted to solve the issue on site.
      Then the customer again complained of not hearing back from us. I explained that after discussing with the staff, there had been a misunderstanding and that we were truly sorry, but was not getting her money back.
      She replied very angry threatening she would post it in all public sites and pages she belongs, and that she would contact the media as well. I did not respond any longer.
      A few minutes later I get the alert from Google on her post. I replied publicly online saying sorry she had that experience, nothing else.
      I haven’t heard from the media to comment on my version of her tragedy.

    • Richard Grossman | May 15, 2019 at 8:36 am

      You gave us a very specific problem example. Then you gave us a general response as to handle these types of scenarios. I would appreciate seeing a very specific action plan for the example problem listed. What exactly should the owner have done in this case – step by step?

      • Elizabeth Larkin | May 15, 2019 at 9:11 am

        Thank you for your feedback, Richard. – Elizabeth

    • Jerry | May 15, 2019 at 8:55 am

      I first would like to start off by saying I’m OK with freedom of speech and believe firmly that it is protected … And I think it’s very important and I believe that adult conversation with responsible overtones are ways to deal with complex situations or customers that feel that their Expectations were not met. But I really do believe the Internet and small business puts the smaller brick and mortar stores at a severe disadvantage it is not a plus to have an Internet presents it is a burden… How many businesses spend extra money just to try to manage and maintain a basic imprint on the Internet ….. spending a lot of time money and effort to manage something that quite frankly is completely out of your control… That years of good management of your Internet image soon gets flushed down the toilet with an individual who decides to do a vendetta post and then gets their friends involved… Or lies about the events to stir up drama and because the majority of comments and exposure is anonymous you’re not even sure if they were a customer of yours… But the overriding shadow of the Internet is ever present no matter how you delete or try to explain away …as the article indicates the damage is done …. small business in America is a very hard proposition… And frankly the Internet makes it even harder… No wonder why the number of small businesses in the US brick and mortar have low survival rate ….. I think the best thing that could ever happen is the hold the Internet sites that allow people to make comments be held accountable for what they allowed to be posted… I have no doubt that there are some legitimate posts and problems that need to be aired but just willy-nilly allowing anything to be posted with no retribution or accountability to the poster or the platform that allows it to happen is unacceptable ….And a detriment to small businesses all over the United States

    • Michael | May 15, 2019 at 9:07 am

      Matt, certainly it sounds as though they’ve made their case to you in an inappropriate way (but this is a very one-sided medium). Maybe an amicable solution in that case is something like an early termination clause.

      To be honest though, that customer sounds like a poor fit for your business. If they aren’t using the services, are you so desperate for income that you’re willing to throw away goodwill by keeping them in contract that’s not providing any value to them?

      As a small business with (very) few clients, I understand the impulse to want to keep them locked in and ensure that income–not to mention that with a contract, that’s perfectly enforceable from a legal standpoint. However, my personal sense of fairness–which may not be the same as yours–doesn’t want to take something for nothing regardless of the legality.

    • Victor | May 15, 2019 at 1:35 pm

      Best way to avoid an online meltdown is to simply not engage in social media. NO facebook page, IGNORE Yelp and just let it do its thing. In reality, the only ones that care about a few bad reviews on Yelp are dorky customers anyway ((habitual complainers about everything). If your business has decent customer relations there will always be more positive than negative reviews and most peope are wise to the fact that Yelp is disingenuous the way they try to extort money from businesses in order for them to bury bad reviews. I do not believe the statistics mentioned in the article based on my own experience. They are way off.

    • Rose | May 16, 2019 at 11:00 am

      This is definitely a tough topic for small business owners. I’m wondering if it’s also helpful on some of the platforms to turn off comments, limit social media presence (to what is doable and have others that are just basic info sites) and for those that allow comments, have some handy excellent customer service responses. We had a disgruntled client blast media sites over an incident that she heard through someone else. One of the sites allowed me to respond and another didn’t. Of the one that did, I later had a client specifically come to our business because they were impressed with my response. I have shared with the other site my concerns about not allowing folks to comment back but to no avail. I could have taken the client to court for defamation, however, the client used her name/media presences and anyone checking out her profile would see that she leaves a slew of negative comments to almost all business’ that she goes to. We can still reserve the right to encourage these clients/customers to go somewhere else 🙂

      • Hannah Sullivan | May 17, 2019 at 12:08 pm

        Thank you for sharing your own experience, Rose.

    • Chris Emrick | May 16, 2019 at 12:47 pm

      The issue with this that I have is that the example here is a B2C situation with a brick and mortar presence. How does this work for businesses and freelancers with online presences and only mailing addresses? I know that services like plumbing where I discount negative reviews if the complaint is about no solution, too expensive, etc. because many irate customers seem to want things for little or no cost, or don’t like hearing they have bigger problems than they wanted (i.e. replace, not repair). Combine that with a spread of sites and systems on the internet that hold reviews and ratings, and I don’t see how this general approach works. When is it a cranky customer vs. a customer who can damage the brand? Where should you care vs no one sees those complaints? Facebook is great for B2C businesses, but B2B don’t really use that site for online presence…Yelp is good for consumer servivces, but not for business services (i.e. coffee service companies barely use it). And sites like Angie’s List are good for home services, but not for things like web design or marketing firms. Most of the time, the market seems to lean back into personal references and experiences…

    • N Rogers | May 16, 2019 at 8:41 pm

      I agree with Richard Grossman that a rundown of what the example company should have done would be more helpful. Why did their responses make things worse, and is there anything that can be done in the first moments to help prevent the situation in the first place (some key words or actions that are useful to diffuse a tense situation, or some things to absolutely avoid at all costs)? For the most part, I haven’t had any issues with unwarranted negative reviews, but I stress about the potential a lot. The one time I have had to deal with it was a highly unusual situation where an employee death lead to a minor billing issue. A closed account had a 2-month delay in charging out the final month of service (customer’s service card was in employee’s paperwork pile and it took us time to sort through it). The customer went ballistic and claimed in their review that we made up the death of our employee/friend so that we could “make up” extra charges on a closed account. Nope, just the last month of service billed out a little late. The top post on our FB page was our employee/friend’s obituary. The review and his FB page were both removed by FB not long after.

    • Dr. Madelyn Curll | May 21, 2019 at 6:31 pm

      Early on in my business, I received a scandalous post on facebook. I contacted facebook and stated that the scandal written about was by a person who had never frequented , stepped in or lived in the same town as my business. They agreed to take it down. Years later, it is again back up. I have had similar negative posts all second hand by people who were never in the building and were ranting for relatives.
      When I posted responses, which were unemotional and truthful, they were never posted.

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