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Of all the ways you can respond to a customer’s negative comments online, calling their voice mail and freaking out on them probably isn’t the best one. Unless, of course, the customer was completely right. Here’s what you might do instead.

It’s going to happen. One of these days, someone’s going to Tweet their dissatisfaction with you. Or Yelp it, post it on TripAdvisor or just go to your Facebook page and vent. It won’t matter if they’re right or wrong, either. That’s what makes them customers: if they spent money with you, they are now entitled to their feedback. All that matters will be how you handle the situation.

How you handle the situation publicly that is.

Regular readers know just how powerful a public reaction to a complaint can be. If you’re the Hyatt, you reacted instantly and perfectly to my tweet about the garden-level room when I specifically reserved a balcony – and moved me to the best view in the house. If you’re Delta airlines, you reacted poorly to my Facebook posting by offering me a paltry thousand miles compensation for my full-fare first-class seat that was smaller than coach (I couldn’t even open my food tray; but hey, I’m not bitter).  If you’re Hertz Rentals, you got a big, huge posting on your Facebook wall praising the staff at the Long Beach California airport for waiting three extra hours for my overly delayed flight.

Good or bad, you’re going to hear it, because customers today love their power to have their say. Because, so do you.

The question is: What are you going to do about it when it happens? You have to deal with online comments in both cases. Good reviews are admittedly easy – thanking the customer for their kind words. But it’s still vital to praise these positive comments, meaning you better be searching social spaces every day to see who’s got good stuff to say. Then ring Pavlov’s bell and thank them very publicly. Like you, customers like praise. So give it and get it.

In cases of bad comments, it’s a bit trickier. Some companies take the approach of “taking it offline” and calling or emailing the customer directly. That’s not a bad approach; it’s hard to really fix problems by going back-and-forth in the comments box on Facebook. Or 140 characters in Twitter. Plus, the potential for major misinterpretation is greater. Not to mention the “piling on” effect of other customers that might occur if you seem rude or defensive.

Taking it offline works better, unless you use it as a one-sided defense platform, such as leaving a voice mail or sending a pre-emptive email strike. Basic customer service requires a conversation, not a monologue. That means you have to reach out and shut up. Listen, listen, listen, without defense or denial. Hear the entire comment. Then think about it. Then ask. Ask, ask, ask what the customer suggests you could do about it, or at least do better next time. Not every customer wants a refund; they might actually want you to be more successful in the future, which is why they’re giving you frank feedback.

While taking it offline might be sufficient, it’s still not enough. It might address the customer’s feelings, problems or satisfactions, but it leaves the rest of the world – including your past and potential customers who saw the comment – hanging for the conclusion. So following up publicly needs to happen, too. Sometimes, the customer will post again – indicating that you spoke and resolved the situation to their satisfaction. Sometimes, they won’t, but that doesn’t mean you can’t. Post a follow up simply saying that you appreciated talking to them and you will take their feedback to heart. You don’t have to say you fixed it, or they agreed, or that everything’s better.

You need to tell the rest of the world that you called, listened, and will take it into account. Publicly.

So, don’t ignore it. Don’t delete it. Don’t insist it’s recanted. And don’t take it offline, if that means you feel freer to be more vociferous. Instead, keep it in the public eye. Keep yourself in check. Avoid the urge to defend or correct or explain. It’s a battle you can’t win: Even Apple sucked it up in AntennaGate – and that was feedback from super-loyal superfans. It’s not about who was right or wrong; it’s all about how you make it right for that customer, and those watching.

One thing’s for sure: You can’t solve it by freaking out about it after the beep.